Lady doing yoga giving motivation

You’ve survived Christmas. The pies are all eaten, and you’re not eating chocolate again (well, until Easter anyway). January…..a fresh start.  So here we are, over midway through the month – who’s still riding the New Year Motivation Wave?

I dislike the word ‘motivation’. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. Not very dependable really.  A lot of ‘inspirational’ quotes about motivation (in relation to food and exercise) are set on a back-drop photo of a very slender, toned and beautiful woman or in-your-dreams only ripped man. Now I don’t know if this fires you up. For me, these images will, at best, have no effect – I don’t relate to them – or, at worst, they will make me want to eat chocolate. Off to a very bad start.

It also bothers me that the word is loaded. All is good if you have it. But if you lack motivation, this can appear like a moral judgement or character weakness. Like something noble is missing. A motivation deficiency.

Having worked to help people manage their weight for many years, I have often been told “I just need motivation”. They want me to treat their motivation deficiency. They want me to do this by checking their weight regularly and hold them to account regarding their food choices. I don’t like holding sticks to people’s back. But more to the point, is this motivation?

Motivation has been defined as the drive to achieve or do ‘something’. That ‘something’ has to be both important to you, and you need to believe you can do it.

Lack of motivation becomes the great abyss between what we think we should do (eg diet), and what we actually do (eg. overeat). You think you should diet, but the very thought makes you want to overeat, and you berate yourself for having no motivation.

But what is the real problem here?  Your lack of motivation, or what you think you should be doing? (eg. dieting).

If your weight history tells a story of weight loss followed by weight regain, then it’s hardly surprising that you have little overall confidence that the outcome will be any different this time around. You will of course forget this in the early stages of your next diet. You will start off supremely motivated and confident. But as time passes, motivation can diminish, and eventually collapse. Back to square one. Your motivation deficiency causing problems again.
But if motivation is so key to achieving our health goals, we’re going to have to start making it work for us, not against us.

The long game

You want to lose weight before a holiday. You panic about how you’re going to look in your swimwear…..so you diet, lose weight, and go on holiday. What’s your real motivation here? It’s looking good on the beach. Job done, diet over. Short term goal, short term outcome, short term motivation.

But health and lifestyle are a long game. We cannot expect the same short, sharp bursts of effort to be maintained. The challenge becomes less about motivation, and more about focusing your efforts in the right direction.

Do I need motivation for all things?

Do you need motivation to:

  • Watch the TV
  • Read a book on your favourite subject
  • Sit down and put your feet up
  • Eat food you enjoy
  • Have a lie-in?

These tasks are enjoyable on the whole, and your motivation, or drive to do these things is simply that – enjoyment. And the pleasure is almost immediate. Do it, get something nice. Positive motivation.

But what about more difficult things, like going to the gym, like weight loss, like dieting? For the most part, these are more difficult tasks, and the pleasure is…….often absent. Hardly a wonder your drive can nose-dive.

On top of that, for these more difficult tasks, motivation often stems from a negative place. This is especially true for weight loss.

For example:

  • I need to lose weight to reduce my risk of getting diabetes
  • I must ‘stick’ to my diet so I’m not embarrassed at the weekly weigh-in

Do it, avoid something bad. Negative motivation.

Weight loss is loaded with negative motivation. And this may ensure you ‘stick to your diet’ for a while, but….you know how this ends.

So worry less about how much or how little motivation you have right now. Spend more time considering what it is you really want and motivation will be easier to harness.

Keeping your eye on the prize

If you are unhappy with your weight, you may think that achieving your dream weight is a fabulous prize, all you could ever want. But the prize is often less important than the price – how low does your weight need to be to justify diet mentalities like food pre-occupation, feelings of deprivation or denial, or guilt if you eat something you think you shouldn’t have? For some, the price of dieting just gets too high.

First decide what it is you really want (the prize):

  • Weight loss, whatever the (short-term) sacrifice, or
  • Food liberation and peace with food (long-term)

These are two very different prizes, so your motivation to achieve them is likely to differ dependent on which path you choose.

Weight loss – whatever the sacrifice

If you are motivated by an outcome – such as, I will diet until I’m size X or Y stone – this is detached and removed from you as a person. You learn only that dieting makes you lose weight (for a while). You may remain motivated while you see the weight coming off, but inevitably, once your weight outcome has been achieved (or possibly before), motivation grinds to a halt. In this instance, motivation is like a coat – something you put on and take off as you feel you need it.

Food liberation and peace with food

True weight management focuses less on weight and more on food problems. This is a process. You will learn a lot about what influences your eating, and you will use this to your advantage.

If you can start to be motivated by the process and what you are learning about yourself as you progress, you’ll always have some degree of motivation. This is because you are attached to the process and that can’t be shaken off, disregarded or ignored. In this case, motivation is more like your skin – you’re always in it. It may not always be perfect, but it’s always there.

Treating a motivation deficiency

You may sometimes overeat because you don’t care about your weight in that moment. You can decide to care tomorrow, on Monday….or some other arbitrary time. If you rely only on weight focused motivation to achieve your weight loss goals, fluctuating motivation levels may drag your weight up and down.

Since you eat several times a day, it’s much harder to ignore how your food decisions make you feel (either physically or psychologically). So use food focused motivation as your guide.

You may have backed the wrong motivation horse in the past (that is, been motivated by weight versus motivated by improving your use of food) but you don’t have a motivation deficiency.

Harness what you’ve got by:

  • Paying more attention to your food than to your weight
  • Making decisions about what and how to eat for you and only you (no more bowing to pressure because someone is checking your weight)
  • Dump negative motivation (less of “I don’t want to be overweight”; more of “I want to feel better about how I eat”)
  • Remember the long game – and remind yourself how useful (useless) yoyo dieting has been in the past
  • Be realistic – some days you’ll feel more fired up than others. This is completely normal. All you can ever do is the best you can on a given day.

You’re not deficient. You have all the resources you need to start improving your health. Look at pictures of tightly honed abs if that’s your thing. I’ll pass – it makes me want to eat chocolate.

If you wish to further explore the topics covered in Diet Dilemmas blog, see Diet Dilemmas book.

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