Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
Something compels you to start a new weight loss program. Maybe it’s a New Year’s resolution or an upcoming beach trip – whatever the case may be, you’re absolutely convinced that this will be the time you succeed in reaching your goal weight. You fill up your grocery cart with healthy foods and buy new gym clothes to support your newly active lifestyle – but then, a month later, you’re back to spending your weeknights parked on the couch, angry that you weren’t able to maintain the motivation necessary to reach your goals.
This loss of motivation is incredibly common – it’s the reason why gyms fill up on January 1st and immediately taper back down to their usual membership activity around February 15th. Chances are good you’ve fallen prey to these initial spurts of motivation on more than one occasion, whether your goals revolve around weight loss or around tackling some other type of self-improvement project.
But maybe we’re looking at motivation in the wrong way. When we fail to sustain motivation, we see it as a personal failing – that we’re weak whereas others who stick to their goals are strong. Realistically, though, the science behind motivation and self-control tells a very different story…
According to research conducted by Case Western Reserve University:
“Exerting self-control may consume self-control strength, reducing the amount of strength available for subsequent self-control efforts. Coping with stress, regulating negative affect, and resisting temptations require self-control, and after such self-control efforts, subsequent attempts at self-control are more likely to fail.”
What this suggests is that motivation is more like a muscle than anything else. If you strain the muscle – perhaps by attempting to take on a total lifestyle overhaul all at once in order to lose weight – you degrade its strength, making it less likely to perform well in the future. You’ve seen this effect in action if you’ve ever thrown yourself into weight loss, only to find that you have less energy available to exercise control over financial decisions or other aspects of your life.
Now, knowing that motivation isn’t some finite resource that we can tap whenever we want, how can we use this piece of scientific research to keep our weight loss efforts on track? The secret lies in working with motivation – rather than against it.
Start with tiny habit changes. Trying to eat a perfect diet and hit the gym every day is quite a stretch if you’re used to a more sedentary lifestyle – meaning that you’re likely to exhaust your supply of motivation before you make any kind of progress. Instead, start with small changes – for example, drinking only one can of soda a day instead of ten – that will help you build up your self-control muscle and give you a sense of satisfaction that can be built upon.
Embrace changes that don’t require much effort. If you hate running, but love dancing, don’t make running your primary physical activity just because some blog told you you’ll burn the most calories that way! Hit a dance class for your workout instead, as doing so will be less likely to tax your available motivation resources.
Respect the other demands on your time. If you’re going through a major life change – as in, a divorce, a job transition or an out-of-state move – understand that your self-control resources might be too drained from these activities to allow you to be successful at weight loss as well. Take a look at your calendar and monitor the other changes in your life, and then choose to time your weight loss efforts to periods during which you’re the most likely to succeed.
Obviously, these changes aren’t likely to result in the kind of fast and easy weight loss we’d all like to experience. However, by understanding your limitations and working with your body – instead of against it – you’ll be much more likely to reach your goal weight and sustain it, without all the anger and frustration that may have characterized your previous weight loss attempts!