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Dissecting Discipline and Motivation - Forming Habits that Last

“I’m just not motivated!”

“I just need to quit talking about it and make myself do it!”

“I have to be more disciplined and GET IT DONE!”

If any of these phrases sound familiar, you are not alone. Depending on the study you reference, between 81 and 90% of New Year's Resolutions are abandoned by February. I’d also wager a guess that everybody has been part of that majority at some point; even if you’ve been effective at changing one behavior, there’s probably another that has been tough to crack.

The question then becomes: what makes changing behaviors successful or not? Does it truly just come down to willpower, motivation, and discipline? Or are there other factors at play?

It may come as a surprise, but I’d argue motivation and discipline are not as important as you may think. Getting motivated for a goal is wonderful! It shows that you are excited to make a change and care about the goal you want to achieve. Discipline is also important, as changing your behavior means you’re going to be deviating from your normal habits. The normal and comfortable thing to do will require discipline to act differently. But for making long-lasting changes, neither motivation nor discipline is enough. Consider this - do you call on motivation to brush your teeth? Do you have to use willpower and discipline to take your dog outside to pee ? I’m guessing not. These things just become part of your routine; they don’t require much thought or willpower to get done. The long-term goal is to get our healthy habits to the same place - automatic, and not requiring huge amounts of motivation or discipline.

I have helped numerous patients and clients implement positive changes in their lifestyle and behavior, and here are some of the concepts and processes that have made the difference between repeated failures and finally being successful.

  1. Start Small - these are supposed to be PERMANENT changes

One of the biggest issues I encounter with individuals trying to make some lifestyle changes are making huge sweeping modifications to their usual routine. People will start a diet that is entirely different from what they are used to or start an exercise program that takes them from doing no exercise previously to trying to workout to the max 5 days per week. While their hearts are in the right place, this sets one up for failure. What seems to be much more effective is making small, manageable changes that are SUSTAINABLE. It may sound silly, but have you ever stopped to think about the term ‘lifestyle change’? It’s in the name, but we are literally trying to change the style of your life! That is something that is very challenging and takes consistent effort over time. These changes that we are trying to make are not just a short-term fix to solve a short term problem; we’re trying to modify behavior that will become a habit you stick with for life. My advice is to pick a small change that may feel so insignificant that you couldn’t possibly fail at it. Maybe that is ensuring you eat one vegetable per day, or exercising for half an hour at least once a week. While this may not seem like much, we are trying to build momentum that we can build upon moving forward - once you have those habits built into your routine, it is much easier to add onto them. For example, extending your workout to an hour once a week.

2. Focus on the process rather than the outcome

Many people may make it a goal to lose some amount of weight, or to save a certain amount of money. The problem with this approach is that goals themselves don’t drive new habits, changing behavior does. While it is important to have goals in mind, try to make your goals focused on the PROCESS that is going to achieve your desired outcome, rather than the outcome itself. Want to save more money? Try setting a goal to contribute a small chunk of each of your paychecks to savings, and limit the number of times you eat out during each week. If you’re trying to achieve a goal weight, think less about the target you have in mind and set goals related to your healthy habits, such as how many workouts per week you can realistically complete.

3. Manage your environment

This tip may be more or less effective depending on the type of lifestyle change you are attempting to make, but it can be crucial in some cases. Have you ever been cooking a meal in the kitchen, and find yourself munching on something before your food is made? Sometimes you may even be doing it before you realize what you’re doing. This is not an isolated phenomenon; more research is showing that many behaviors are controlled in the sub-cortical levels of our brain, meaning that the impulse for certain behaviors are controlled by our subconscious. The reward centers in our brain drive these unconscious behaviors, and can lead to overconsumption of things like food and alcohol. Trying to combat these instinctual urges via motivation or discipline alone is not impossible, but requires incredible amounts of mental energy. Probably not the most sustainable solution, but manipulating our environment can have a huge impact on these behaviors. Let’s look at the overeating example I mentioned above. There are several things we can modify about our environment to decrease our likelihood of engaging with that subconscious behavior. The first (and maybe most unrealistic admittedly) is to limit the amount of snack foods we buy at the grocery store! If we have a ton of super delicious, calorie-dense foods lining the pantry, the only outcome is that they are going to be consumed, it is just a matter of time. However, nobody wants a pantry with ZERO delicious treats either; delicious treats are… well, delicious. But another option is simply changing the ease of accessibility of these snacks! Putting treats in a container that is less visible or placing them on a higher shelf that requires a step stool to reach can put just enough of a barrier that will interrupt some of these ‘automatic’ behaviors.

4. Reflect and Identify Barriers

Whenever I personally have tried to make a lifestyle change, I make a mistake. Maybe one day I forget, or push things off to the end of the day, or maybe I just decide I’m too tired and stressed that day. The most important thing I can do in these instances is to stop and reflect! Taking a moment to identify why I wasn’t successful that day can help me prevent that mistake again in the future. One very common goal is trying to exercise more, and a very common pitfall people experience is putting their workout off to the end of the day. Then the end of the day comes, and they’ve either had plans that overwrite their workout time, or they are too tired or stressed from the day to get it done. Maybe once in a while in those moments, people can ‘motivate’ themselves and kick themselves in the butt enough to force themselves to get the workout in. But does that sound sustainable? If you have to ‘force’ every workout, if you have to summon these huge amounts of motivation to complete the task, how consistent do you think you’re going to be? How successful would you expect that behavior change to be in the long run? I’m not much of a gambler, but I’d wager not very. A much more impactful approach would be to reflect on what led you to being unsuccessful. Consider this example: you weren’t able to get your workout in the morning because you didn’t have enough time to exercise and then get ready for work. Without further consideration, someone might just say you need to be more motivated/disciplined and just get it done! But if we dig a little deeper, we can identify the hurdles that made that habit difficult - your workout clothes were dirty, you snoozed your alarm clock once or twice, you went to bed late etc. So in the future, we know we need to make sure to get to bed on time, so we feel well-rested when the alarm goes off, and we have workout clothes ready to go! These small changes may seem insignificant, but when building habits, even one hurdle may mean the difference between building a routine and falling short.

Listen, changing our lifestyles is HARD. There are entire professions built around helping people stick with their plans and achieve their goals. But relying solely on motivation or discipline is a losing battle. There are too many comfy couches and exciting shows, too many delicious treats to eat and shiny toys to buy. But making small, manageable changes, focusing on the process, managing your environment, and reflecting on hurdles can help make some of these changes stick.

Thanks for reading!

Jesse Brown, PT, DPT

Along with his education as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Jesse brings an extensive background in exercise to the clinic. With experience across all different types of weight training, including Olympic-style weightlifting, CrossFit, and powerlifting, you can be sure that Jesse has the expertise to help you get where you want to go!

When he’s not helping individuals in the clinic, Jesse can be found practicing what he preaches - lifting the bar. He is an avid weightlifter, competing and refereeing locally through USA Weightlifting.

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