Saturday, July 30, 2011

Motivation vs. Willpower

My husband and I were returning from the local gym after a workout recently.  We finally decided to invest in a membership and have just begun to establish new exercise routines. "I know this isn't a very positive way to put this," I said to Bill, "but I didn't hate that as much as I thought I would." I've been pleasantly surprised that in spite of some added physical challenges--not to mention age--since I last worked out on a regular basis, I'm finding my new routine to be quite doable.

Around the same time, I was excited to receive my first blog request: a friend suggested that I might write about "mind over matter" when it comes to choices and portion control. So I've been thinking about that topic while learning to use the cardio equipment at the fitness center.

When I hear the phrase "mind over matter" I think of willpower, and certainly there are times on a health journey when willpower is required. You can read, journal, and think about what to do all you want; but at some point you still have to do it.

I suspect one reason so many diets fail, though, is that they rely too heavily on willpower--on forcing ourselves to do things we dislike. For most of us, there's a limit to how long we are willing to feel deprived, and we spend most diets looking forward to the day we can finally stop and do whatever we please again. Hello, Yo-Yo Syndrome.

It seems to me that when it comes to portion control and other healthy choices, the less willpower required, the better. Instead, we should establish as enjoyable and sustainable a healthy lifestyle as possible. In short: We need to focus on positive motivation rather than sheer willpower.

This is where knowing yourself is essential, because not all of us are motivated by the same things. Point systems, meetings, trainers, internet programs, recipe books, journals, online support groups...  there are a million tools available, but you have to choose the ones which you personally find to be most encouraging, inspiring, or--at the very least--helpful.

The tricky part is that sometimes we don't know as much about ourselves as we think we do. So, I find that the combination of remaining open to different approaches (when I can manage to do that) and a little trial-and-error can be surprisingly effective. I was sure I would hate working out at the gym, but it turns out I don't. I didn't like my first workout, but within 2 weeks working out on those machines went from something I dreaded to something I don't usually mind. I can even imagine looking forward to it. In fact, I'm already looking forward to getting stronger. I was reading a book yesterday which quoted stats indicating that this kind of positive shift is common among exercisers who start slowly and gradually. They begin to look forward to exercise as they get better at it and experience its many benefits.

If after 2 or 3 weeks, however, I found that I was dreading the gym more and more instead of the other way around, it would be time to make some changes, based on honest inquiry: What is it about workouts that I so dislike, and what could I change to make them more pleasant? An "outdoor person" may never be satisfied working out in a gym except as a back-up plan. A morning person may feel too tired to exercise after work. A social and/or competitive person may prefer team sports to a gym workout, while an introvert may do better with exercise videos at home.

The same approach applies to food. If you eat mostly "diet food" that you find bland and uninspiring, it's well worth doing enough homework to discover more of the abundant options available. With a little research, you can find healthy food choices which you truly enjoy and that also meet your particular requirements, from easy preparation to working around allergies or other conditions. It's so much easier to stick with healthy eating if the nutritious foods you eat are also foods you love and look forward to.

When it comes to portion control, again, for me, the key is to set things up in such a way that I don't have to feel deprived or hungry much of the time. No one wants to sign up for long-term misery. It's essential to do some internal investigation to determine if the hunger I am trying to satisfy is primarily physical or not. If so, I might increase foods with a high water content so that I can eat larger quantities. Or maybe in my impatience to see quick results I've gone overboard with restricting fats and need to sprinkle a few nuts or a little low-fat cheese into my meals in order to feel more satisfied with a single portion.

Of course, if what I really want from food is comfort, companionship, security, or relief from pain and stress, I need to find better ways to more directly address those issues. I might benefit from additional time spent with friends, individual or group therapy, a 12-step program, Weight Watchers meetings, or a class on managing my finances. Or perhaps something even simpler would help address those needs without food, like a bubble bath, listening to music, taking a walk, calling a friend, or conversing on Twitter. Unfortunately, a side-effect of dieting can be obsessing over food, so remembering to consciously place your attention on things beyond food part of the time is essential.

But here's a key point about food and distraction: focus attention away from the food you want to avoid--extra helpings or unhealthy choices--but not from all food. Pay attention to what you actually eat and the choices you make as you are eating. It may be helpful to distract yourself from the leftovers after a meal by engaging in another activity away from the remaining food. But don't distract yourself from a meal that you are in the middle of eating. If we want the food we eat to satisfy us, we need to eat it slowly and mindfully, savoring every moment. Enjoy not only the flavor, but the colors, textures, and aromas. Notice when you begin to feel satisfied and stop before you feel too full--even if there is still food on your plate or nearby. Once we have had enough to eat, then it's time to shift our focus completely to something else and physically remove ourselves from the presence of additional food. Mindlessly plowing through a bag of chips or box of cookies is far too easy to do in front of the television or computer or while curled up with a book. So, when you eat, eat; when you are doing something else, don't eat.

Finally, we need to learn to be gentle with ourselves. Self-compassion is more important than we tend to acknowledge. It's tempting to slip into a punitive mindset while struggling to set appropriate limits regarding our food, but when we punish ourselves for overindulging, rather than consciously deciding what would best support us in achieving our goals, we set ourselves up for failure, disappointment, and shame. Punishment leads to misery, retaliation, or worse. Is that really where you want to go? Instead, be kind to yourself. Withholding kindness until you finally meet all your goals only intensifies feelings of deprivation and hopelessness, and the potential for rebound eating under those conditions is tremendous. Be kind now--whether or not things are going well. In fact, be extra kind when things are not going smoothly. We respond so much better to kindness than cruelty.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for motivating us to do what we need to do, but a prudent approach always involves paying attention--in this case to our needs and to the variety of ways we can adapt to them. Mindfulness may not be a magic wand, but paying attention can initiate miracles. And miracles are worth getting motivated about.


  1. Another excellent blog post Lenora!!! Your perspective and approach certainly resonates with me strongly! I will keep returning to read every post to be sure!

  2. Thanks so much, Brenda. I appreciate you reading the blog and also you taking the time to leave an encouraging comment!

  3. I like how you call out the various roles that food plays for me and for so many. I can use it to distract me from feeling bad or to reward me. There are other ways to deal with feelings that are difficult or to reward myself for something. This post reminds me that food is not the enemy but neither it is the savior of all that troubles me.

    Thanks for the thought you put into these!

  4. Well put. For those of us who have struggled with weight, food becomes a highly charged topic with all kinds of baggage attached. Part of our task is to gently but firmly move it back into more neutral territory, where food can stick to its intended job description.

  5. Very well written, Lenora, and encouraging! I like your examples of focusing on the positives and being gentle with ourselves along the way. It really becomes this functional "mind over matter" approach at times. So much cones into play at varying times and phases of our lives, such as emotions snd attitudes. It helps to stop and "gather" our minds and question, why do I want more, and why am I feeling this way, where food and impulse actions are so tempting to sve the craving or urge instantly.

    I like to your analogies, especially with exercise. We most likely can find every excuse in the book "not to", but we should turn that around into a focused positive, "Why not, I feel good afterwards, etc.". I think if how advidly I would work out, and I thank the good Lord that I did, because I'd be in a lot worse shape now 10 years plus, Today, a bit more going on in life, a bit older, and yes, some physical challenges create the perfect solution to "ease back". My thought, too, we cannot continue to perform in the high speed capacity we use to ad younger individuals! Our bodies change with age, and yes, we need to be gentle with ourselves. Insteadold going at light speed, it's okay to ease back and take each challenge slower, and by golly, it sure becomes more enjoyable! It's up to us to "train" our minds on the matters before us.

    Lenora, keep writing! You are very talented and remind us of God's beautiful grace in difficult and challenging situations in life. Thank you, sweet friend!

  6. GREAT observations, Rita! Yes, adapting appropriately to our ever-changing situations requires us to be thoughtful rather than purely reactive. Our lives are so jam-packed these days that it's easy to rush past events without taking a moment to gather our thoughts and set a focused intention.

    My post was already so long that I didn't even try to touch on the spiritual aspects of this process, but I also have to remember to do those things which help me remain grounded yet teachable, open to guidance. When I am centered (for lack of a better word) in this way, I find that I am far less vulnerable to every passing impulse and feel less at the mercy of outside events or negative influence. It may not always prevent me from making mistakes, but I'm better able to calmly consider what is happening and take whatever steps are needed to keep a slip from becoming an avalanche.

    I'll probably write more about that at some future date. But I'm 100% with you on the idea that we don't have to do everything at lightspeed, especially when our goal is to establish a joyful and *sustainable* healthy lifestyle.

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful input and wonderful encouragement, Rita! It means so very much to me.