What happened to my motivation?
Well, taking a side jaunt here away from shoulders in order to address something I've seen and heard on repeat for the last quarantined weeks/months/time-means-nothing.
I'm not motivated to work out these days. I have all this time and no motivation. What's wrong with me?
Just as a first of all... In the large picture, it's fine. Ya know, pandemic. No matter what your personal situation is right now, it's not fair to expect that you'll be living at the professional and personal standard you were before, and that includes fitness standards.
But second of all, I get it. It's a shit feeling, and worse, we all feel like shit for feeling like shit. Worrying about fitness right now has been met with a strangely negative vibe. The vibe says that having time to be upset about exercise is a privilege and that it's small potatoes to not have our training rooms and training partners. That we are literally fighting a threat to society and there is no time to be sad about deadlifting. And that, anyway, it is insidious diet culture making us fear getting weaker or backsliding on the skills we have pushed so hard to get. We should just let it go.
All of these are true and relevant and valuable conversations. And yet, for those of us who feel an identity—not an obligation, not a compulsion, an identity—with exercise, this has been an emotional loss. And it's not stupid, selfish, or shallow to feel that loss, even while recognizing that it is far from the whole picture of this global disaster.
The basis of being a fitness professional is the conviction that exercise supports, sustains, and heals the body, spirit, and mind. So how are we supposed to agree that fitness is unimportant right now, when every human is craving support, sustenance, and healing? If we know that exercise makes us feel good, isn't this something we should be desperately pursuing instead of abandoning? I would argue that training, in whatever quantity is manageable, is a vital coping technique, not an optional one. So the question remains: Knowing how important it is, how do we get motivated to work out right now?
For heaven's sake, it's not your lack of willpower.
This is why I've wanted to hug my real and virtual friends when they mourn their current workout malaise. I know exercise is something they want and need and are feeling confused as to why they can't access it. Time and again they call themselves lazy, sluggish, lacking in willpower, not feeling the drive.
Is it really just laziness?
The answer is a very easy no. They're not lazy.
You're not lazy.
Motivation, as anything else in the body, is complex. It knows we have goals in mind, but that's also the problem. It's never only one goal. We have goals from morning 'til night, from today until next year and beyond, and every goal demands its own action and motivation. It's more common that the actions needed for any given goal will clash, rather than align. This is why we have to plan and choose our days. But you can learn how to manipulate their alignment. It's like the colors navy blue and black. They don't go together until you see Bradley Cooper wearing them.
Then it's like, Oh! All we had to do to make navy blue and black match was to throw it on Bradley? Well shit, let's do that all the time then.
There is a psychological Bradley Cooper inside of you just waiting to wear your navy blue and black emotional flux. I promise. We just have to find a neural tailor for the fitting.
So if it's not willpower, what is it? Because whatever it is, it sucks.
Glad you asked.
Motivation is a complex combination of conscious wants, emotional state, physiological state, neurotransmitter activity, past experiences, self-esteem, hormone levels, perceived current needs, potential risks, and more. It's so complicated that the foremost experts on motivation do not agree on a comprehensive list of What Leads To Motivated Behavior. Willpower is one reason for behavior, but it operates among dozens of others.
It's not to say that we don't consciously decide how to act, because we do. We make tens of thousands of decisions a day. Choosing and navigating these mental pathways is tiring. It's why it's harder to convince yourself to do things after work and at night, after you've been making decisions all day. (More if you have young children who require that you make their decisions too.) It's called decision fatigue, and it's a well-documented phenomenon.
The most unbelievable example of this that I've found was judge fatigue. It turns out that prisoners up for parole always try to schedule their hearings for first thing in the morning or immediately after lunch. Why? Because their chances of a ruling in their favor are about 65%. As the judges get more tired of ruling, they rule less and less in favor of the prisoners, down to approximately 0% positive rulings. Until the judges take a break and can refresh. After break? Yes, back to 65%. End of the day? 0%. That's decision fatigue.
Willpower is one reason for behavior,
but it's one of dozens of reasons for behavior.
Think of when your friends couldn't decide what bar or restaurant to go to. And finally someone snaps and is like, "OMG I'm so tired of talking about this, we're going to Gypsy Bar," and everyone is like WHEW THANK YOU. You all had decision fatigue.
(Let's pour one out for Gypsy Bar in Boston, the overpriced shitshow club which also had the best dance floor in the city and jellyfish aquariums so we all put up with the long lines, shitty bouncers, gropers galore, inexplicable red light motif, getting in a lot of fights, and advertisements for Kim Kardashian and Kevin Federline appearances as if those were desirable features of any location.)
Motivation is impossibly complex, which is why attributing any decision to willpower is patchy at best. Especially now, when even the mandatory decision to go to the grocery store is difficult and deliberate. How and when do you go, is it safe, who else needs groceries, etc. It's not surprising that more optional decisions like exercise are being let go, even though we usually like those optional things.
Why it feels good to say no.
There is a primary reason why you're saying no to doing the things you like (in this case, fitness): We are tired of thinking.
Decision fatigue is a black hole. If I ask myself, "Should I work out today?" I can choose yes or no.
A Yes requires follow up decisions: what kind of workout, how long should it be, how much time do I have, should I finish answering these emails first? It keeps going and going and we are responsible for answering each and every one if we are going to get our workout. Then of course, you have to work out, which pretty much always blows at some point.
A No is an endpoint. The decisions are over. It is a relief to reach a conclusion AND not have to do cardio, which is why it feels great to say no. Just like the court judges subconsciously figured out, it is so. much. easier. to say no when you're tired. (Ironically, we are great at saying no to ourselves and absolutely shit at saying no to every other fucking person on the planet who wants something from us. Like when my boss Ted asked me if I could think of some remarks for his wife's retirement party. "No, Ted," is all I had to say. Instead I spent way too long putting together a greatest hits list that he got credit and champagne for. Let this be our rally cry forever: Yes to ourselves. No to Ted.)
This relief at saying No is part of the value deliberations of decision-making. Estimating the value of a decision is one of the primary drivers of the decision. Every decision has three values.
1) What is this decision worth to me in general?
2) What is it worth to me right now?
3) What is it worth to not do it?
When we are considering the value of an action, we are also considering the value of not doing it. And we evaluate these historically as well as currently. Those could be very different appraisals. Like when I'm feeling right now like this orange vodka drink on a patio sounds good. It could be delicious. Then I remember historically that New Year's Eve in high school where I chugged a lot of orange vodka, made out with a stripper for a while, and then threw up in a mug all over the back staircase of the apartment building.
The two potential outcomes compete with each other in my memory...and then I don't order the orange vodka drink. The value today isn't enough to overcome the hazy memory from yesterday. (This night, unsurprisingly, factored into a number of decisions I have made in my life. The atrocious hat I wore that night still prevents me from ever wanting to wear a hat again. I'm still down with making out with strippers though.)
Your brain follows this same pathway when it comes to exercise choices. When you consider all the previous times you have worked out, what was the outcome? What about the previous times you haven't worked out? What was that outcome? How many times did it feel incredible to just sit on the couch and stare at the wall? How good would that feel right now? This is what your brain does on loop. Pros and cons, all day long, every decision, no matter how tiny.
This is relevant because the decision to go work out, no matter how much you enjoy it, is never the only decision you're making. You're deciding whether it's worth aggravating your sore knee and sore back. And you're also deciding unrelated things, like whether your boss understood the effort you put into yesterday's Zoom presentation and how to handle the latest text from a toxic friend.
What comes out as "I don't have the willpower to go to the gym," may actually be a disguised version of "I feel unrecognized at work," or "I'm upset that my friend took advantage of me." If this is the case, then the perceived value of a workout is rarely going to be powerful enough to overtake the value of emotional decompression instead. In 2020, there's a whole fuckload of flaming garbage that requires decompression, so it's normal to want to relax more than ever.
I understand that you want to work out more often and that's why you've read this far, but it seems like now I'm telling you to put your feet up. What I'm saying is, if you do decide to say No, then it's worth figuring out where it's coming from. Understanding the source of your No vote can save your self-esteem and your next workout. You can decompress without hating yourself for it. And you can realize that today's work stress called for a skipped workout, but that might not be the case tomorrow.
Here's why it's worth parsing out sources of feeling lazy and malaise-y. (Lazy and Malaise-y is a country duo I'd like to listen to.) If you're just blaming yourself for being lazy, there's no source for that. It's just you being how you are: a piece of shit. If there's no source for your shittiness, there's no reason to think you'll be less shitty tomorrow. You're gonna be shitty every day because that's who you are. A shitty person.
This lack of source is often the genesis of "Why aren't I motivated?" We're blaming ourselves for something that was exteriorly caused, and it's the wrong source. So make some coffee, find the actual source for saying No today, and then handle it so you can say Yes tomorrow.
We are great at saying no to ourselves and absolute shit at saying no to every other fucking person on the planet who wants something from us.
There's one more important part of workout decision-making these days. This mental navigation of workout value is challenging in normal day-to-day life. Decision fatigue means it often feels great to say no to exercise. But we're not living normal day-to-day life. Almost all of our normal exercise options have been shut down. The decision to exercise has become far more challenging, no matter how many ab movements we've seen from enthusiastic Instagrammers. (Seriously, I'm one of them, but like who the fuck is gonna stop scrolling and be like oh YES I am here for laying on my unvacuumed rug getting motorboated by my cat and doing impossible abs work when doing abs even in the best of times is literally hell?)
Feeling like you aren't taking care of yourself properly is an awful feeling, but feeling like you're being barred from doing it is even worse. Most of us are only confident in the gym when it's something we understand how to do, like gymnastics or lifting. We don't have those places right now. So how can you take care of yourself in quarantine when you don't know how to do a bodyweight workout, can't see the value of yoga, and don't want to take an online dance class because you dance like Elaine Benes?
The Reframe (this sounds like John Grisham's next bestseller title):
Step one: Accept that the workouts you know and love aren't available right now. But that doesn't mean the work you did in the past is wasted, and it doesn't mean that you can't get stronger now. No one likes to be a beginner nor to practice the things they're bad at or are unfamiliar with. But quarantine is the perfect time for both.
Being a beginner means you'll get the most bang for your buck. If you've never done hip-hop, there's a literal endless universe of fun in front of you even if you're absolutely awful at it, like I am. You don't have to worry about the rest of the class laughing at you and you don't have to sweat the details. You can just whack and krump and pop and enjoy letting yourself go in the privacy of your own home to music you love.
Or if you usually skip mobility, holy shit is mobility work going to make you feel incredible. The feeling of lightness and ease of movement afterwards is like being surrounded by these puppies licking your face:
This is important: Anything you work on now is going to make you a better athlete when you can get back to your favorite activities. Hip-hop, mobility, Barre, gardening, spackling, dog walking, hill running, tub thumping. (I GET KNOCKED DOWN! BUT I GET UP AGAIN! YOU ARE NEVER GONNA KEEP ME DOWN! Chumbawumba knew we needed them, they were just twenty-three years early.)
I repainted my dining room this week which is something I've wanted to do for like six years now. Did I get super jacked while painting? No. But did it keep me up on my feet, squatting and standing, for several days instead of sitting on the couch? YUP. Is the stress of knowing it needs to be done gone? Fuck yeah it is. I can stop thinking about it every time I walk in there, which is several times a day. This kind of thing has value, even if it's abstract.
I hear you. I miss my workouts and my training families like crazy. But wishing things were different in the world can only get you so far. Here are three proactive mental reframes that you can use to gently nudge some of your decisions in the direction you want, even amidst the Coronavirus inferno.
You can get better at something you're bad at.
Dude! Now is when you can eliminate your weaknesses as an athlete! I know you know what they are. We all know what we suck at. We love to strategically avoid it because working on things you're bad at sucks. But, uh, you know, that's probably what you need to work on the most. Also once you're good at everything you can become the world-dominating, all-powerful sorcerer you always wanted to be. So there. Try and argue against that!
Allow yourself to get excited at the thought of improving on a known weakness, rather than dreading it. You might think meditation is mumbo jumbo, but in how many races have you slowed hopelessly on an endless slog of a hill? How do you think fast runners find a way to run through fucking misery? (As if running weren't miserable enough already.) Their legs are exhausted just like yours. What's different? They're meditating their way through it. Every athlete knows that mental strength is the linchpin of performance. If mental strength is your downfall, how unstoppable are you going to be when you figure it out?
In ninja warrior competitions, I envy the endurance of some of my other competitors. Why do I envy it? Because I have endurance erectile dysfunction. I get it up real hard at the start of a course and then it's only a matter of time before I flop and disappoint everyone. Normally, I do everything in my power to avoid working endurance because it's my personal nightmare. Then I get to competition and get mad that I don't have better endurance. Guess what I've been doing during quarantine? Running hill sprints. I can't work on cliffhangers and salmon ladders right now but I sure can work on my endurance boner. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. But I won't hate it when I do better in competitions next year.
You don't know what you're missing.
You can't know the value of what you haven't done, which is why if you love to lift heavy shit, it feels completely pointless to try bodyweight training. If you squat 325 pounds, a bunch of bodyweight squats is a joke of a workout. Or is it?
Bodyweight training for lifters can be awesome. You can work technique endlessly when you aren't worried about managing 1/6th of a literal ton of weight on your shoulders. You can correct the part of your squat that always likes to shimmy. You can get more depth in your squat, so you can get stronger in the very bottom range, which is where lifts inevitably fail. You can even spend time just imagining putting those heavy weights on your back, which actually helps you get better in real life.
Single leg training like pistols, airborne lunges, single leg deadlifts, cossack squats, and balance work are almost embarrassingly revealing about weaknesses that could be affecting your two-legged work. If you bench press all the time but pushups are a struggle, it's a guarantee that something is hiding in those pushups which is affecting your bench press. Get those pushups stronger, no matter how shitty and demoralizing it feels. You'll find yourself calling on them when you least expect it down the road.
Improving any aspect of athleticism
will make you a better athlete, period.
I once trained a guy with a 750 pound squat. 750 pounds!!!!! He'd been at that weight for a long time. It's a bananas amount of weight but he was frustrated with not improving any more. A quick eval showed that he couldn't do one single pistol squat to a knee-high bench. Not on either leg. We talked about how if he could turn each leg individually into a fortress, he'd likely be approaching top 1% world quality squat level. One guess how he was doing a year later. Those PRs just kept coming. It was bodyweight work that made his lifting better, not heavy work.
Or you might be injury prone and tired of working around injuries. Quarantine is the perfect moment to bulletproof your joints with bodyweight rehab, prehab, and mobility training. No, you're not deadlifting. But you're nuts if you think that pain-free hips, a more flexible spine, and stronger knees will not deadlift heavier down the line. I can't emphasize this enough: Improving any aspect of athleticism will make you a better athlete, period. So you'll lose some of your top 5% strength. Physiologically speaking, it's fine. Max strength is mostly neurological anyway, and your brain is sitting right there ready to go. Those gainz will be waiting for you if you come out of quarantine faster, stronger, flexibler, and less injureder than you went into it.
The Whole Enchilada (mmmm, enchiladas):
This is the big one. If you take nothing else from this blog, take this. When it comes to decision fatigue, value, motivation, willpower, and all the rest of it, there's one giant, crunchy, saucy, spicy mental enchilada (Menchilada? That sounds like the next generation's Thunder Down Under) just waiting for you to devour it.
Make the decision early.
Make the decision early.
Make the decision early.
Decide what you're doing tomorrow before tomorrow comes, before you've had to make other decisions tomorrow, before you've gotten tired of making decisions tomorrow.
If you don't give yourself a chance to become overwhelmed, you're more likely to be successful.
"Tomorrow I'm going to do a yoga workout on YouTube at 6pm." Pick a yoga workout without getting caught up in whether it's the "right" one. Choose one that looks appealing and do it.
"Tomorrow I'm going to walk for an hour before my first call." When your alarm goes off, don't reconsider. Shut off the questions. The more you have to keep deciding, the more you'll have to fight to finish anything. Preempt the "I don't want to" by making the decision early.
Decide it right now. What are you going to do tomorrow? Make all the necessary choices right now. Then tomorrow, do the damn thing.
After you finish, then you can do all of your normal evaluations. How'd it go? What could have been better? What wasn't as bad as you thought? Most importantly, how do you feel now that you've done it? Take the good stuff and run with it next time. Anything that sucked, figure out now how to fix it so you won't be stuck in the same loop of stuff you want to avoid.
And keep your ultimate goals as the carrot dangling in the distance: Lifting, gymnastics, ninja warrior, etc. You'll get back to them. But you can either get back to them after sitting on the couch for six months, or you can get back to them after training and bulletproofing your body for six months. Now that's one easy decision to make.
I love you. Now go make it happen.