I started so well… what happened?
If you’ve never asked this of yourself you’re definitely the exception and not the rule.
Most of us have at some point struggled with this question or a variation of it. Other common versions include, ‘Why can’t I stick with it?’ ‘Why does this happen every time?’ ‘What’s it going to take?’ And for those of you who have really had enough… ‘What the f#%k!’
So why are so many of us cursed with an inability to hang in there when it comes to changes like diets and exercise programs? Why do many people not even last a week before they quit? And why do so many of us fall into a cycle of quitting after 6-12 weeks? When we start so well and actually feel better for it, it makes no sense that we would quit right?
Well the bad news is that there is no one reason why we do this. There are some common themes that pop up regularly though. I see the following three all the time…
Don't think of willpower in the same way as you think of a muscle? Maybe you should. Self control is often what makes the difference between success and failure. Prominent psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University is co-author of 'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength'.
Calorie counting, exercise advice and motivational tips... from a robot? Autom gives dieters advice about calorie counts, exercise goals and motivation. It builds up knowledge over time and can tailor questions and advice for individual needs. It's about to go on the market in the US.
“You are the embodiment of the information you choose to accept and act upon. To change your circumstances you need to change your thinking and subsequent actions.” - Adlin Sinclair
The predominant message that arises from discussing motivational theories and perspectives is that THERE IS NO ONE ANSWER ABOUT HOW AND WHY WE BECOME MOTIVATED. What these theories do provide us with however is a range of points to consider. As we now know motivation can manifest itself in a variety of ways depending on the individual. Because of this it is important that you take out of this series WHAT IS RELEVANT TO YOU.
Do you for example feel as if physiological needs dictate your thinking and behaviour? If so instinct theory, drive theory and the beginning levels of Maslow’s hierarchy will be most relevant to you. Maybe you believe that incentives and goal-setting are more relevant, in which case you will take more from these theories. Maybe you feel that exploring a conflict in thinking regarding a specific issue will kick-start you into action, in which case cognitive dissonance theory may be more relevant.
Cognitive dissonance theory (which refers to a conflict in thinking) is one of the most influential theories in social psychology and has many applications within the field of motivation.
The term cognitive dissonance may refer to a feeling of discomfort caused by having conflicting ideas simultaneously. Alternately, discomfort may occur when our beliefs are in conflict with the way we behave. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the psychological squirm’, in reference to the uncomfortable feelings we often experience when contemplating two incompatible viewpoints.
The theory proposes that when people experience discomfort, they have a motivational drive to reduce the conflict causing it. In the context of health and fitness, consider a person who would like to lose weight. On one hand they think or believe that they would like to look and feel better, yet, on the other hand, they continue to eat junk food and not exercise. This represents a conflict between where the person is now, versus where they would like to be. Another classic example often discussed in the context of this theory is the example of someone who smokes. A person may wish to be healthy. They believe smoking is bad for them, yet they continue to smoke.
Often when we partake in certain activities or behaviours, instead of exercising or doing other things we promised ourselves we would do, we just do it without questioning why. As a result we may experience a variety of emotions (guilt, disappointment, anger etc.) all of which will vary in intensity depending on what we did or didn't do. For example you may feel mild guilt when you miss one exercise session, or you might experience major guilt or even anger when you miss a whole week’s exercise or have several junk food binges.
At the point when we make the choice to not exercise or not stick to a diet, we usually don't think about the logic of what we are doing, instead opting to embrace the emotional rewards or benefits of the ‘black listed’ behaviour. For example, despite saying to yourself “I should be exercising”, the thought of sitting on the couch with a beer is more emotionally appealing at that point in time. Once you have the idea in your head you often don't consider the negative consequences, choosing instead to let your thinking run away with thoughts of how good the beer will taste and how relaxed you will feel.
Increasingly research is identifying that the expectations you have about specific behaviours (what you think you will get out of a behaviour) are what you should be focusing on if you want to make changes.
Often when we do things that we don’t really want to do e.g. overeating, not exercising, drinking etc., it's usually our self talk around expectations that are to blame. Take overeating for example. Expectancy prior to overeating might sound like… 'this (extra food) will make me feel good', 'I need more food', 'it will taste so good', etc. Typically what happens after overeating, assuming it was something you didn't want to do, is that the outcome will be the opposite of the initial expectations. In this case you might now be thinking, 'I feel bad/guilty/angry I ate that', 'I didn't actually need to eat that', and 'it didn't even taste that good'.
New York Times investigative reporter, Charles Duhigg. discusses his new book 'The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business'. Charles Duhigg how we can change the bad habits that hold us back in life, and how we are manipulated into consumer habits.
It's Junk Thinking not Junk Food that's the problem! I'm not trying to plug Tony Ferguson but I think this ad is fantastic. It really gets to the root of the issue for so many of us struggling with long term weight management. The root of the issue being that to achieve long term success we must address, and ultimately change the way we think. This change in thinking will then alter how you act on the various decision points encountered everyday, which if done consistently will lead to a new you.
The difference really is in the long term vs short term approach. In the short term many of us can beat junk food. We are disciplined, we follow diets we don't enjoy, we exercise regularly all the while thinking it shouldn't be this hard. In the long term as many of us know, this doesn't always work. Why? Because this approach doesn't necessarily fit with who we are and how we think. We are going through the motions of a healthy lifestyle but it is in contrast with how we are still thinking. To achieve long term success we have to change the thing that will always be with us... Our thoughts and our thinking. Only then will we be able to incorporate a healthy lifestyle into day to day living.
Sometimes all it takes to make a change is a single thought. Although many things must happen between this hypothetical thought and an actual change being made it is this initial thought that often triggers the process.
Needless to say depending on the thought the change could be positive or negative. For example a thought such as “If they can do it so can I” might trigger an individual to change their lifestyle from sedentary to active. Whereas a thought such as “now that I have a family I don’t have time to exercise” might do the opposite in that it could trigger an individual to change their lifestyle from active to sedentary.
So what does this mean? Quite simply it means…
the way we think about a situation or event
affects the way we feel
and together these affect how we act