Why motivation is overrated - do this instead to see big changes.
Talk to almost anyone about health and lifestyle change and they will say that motivation is a key to finding success.
Motivation is seen as this force that can propel you past your current situation, improve your life, and continue to inspire you to make positive changes.
In the dictionary motivation is defined as : the reason or reasons that a person has for acting or behaving in a particular way.
Often you’ll be asked by trainers, coaches, and friends “what is your motivation to change?”
I’ve said it myself and often get responses like “I want to look better, I want to feel better, I want to lose 10 lbs, I want to tone up…” etc.
But what if I told you that these sentiments can only get you so far? That motivation is just a jumping off point which does not have the necessary long-term holding power that other modes of thought / action have.
What I want to talk about today is the power of setting up your environment for success. I’ll go over some specific strategies that you can use to improve your life by implementing seemingly simple changes.
What can motivation do for us?
You’ve probably said it before, said it to your kids or to your family and friends. “What motivates you to do ….”?
This common practice of finding reasons for acting in a certain way is not only a sure way to open up discussion about feelings towards change but also the go-to question for any coach.
And it makes sense in some way - why do you want to do the things you do? What is the driving force behind your actions each day?
What motivates you to get up for work each morning?
Is it the thought of providing for your family?
Is it the satisfaction you get from performing a job well done?
Is it the money that you can make and spend on things you enjoy?
In this way motivation can be helpful because it triggers you to do something in the service of your own self and for those around you.
If we think about how life would be without “any motivation” we might be able to get a clue as to how impactful having a reason for being is.
We might scoff at those with less than us, those more out of shape than us, or those who sit around all day and leave it all to lack of motivation.
In some ways, this can be true. If there is no strong reason for doing a particular behavior or task - it’s less likely to happen.
Motivation is often the first step into making a change - you develop this sense of what you want and how you want to live your life and decide from then on to do the necessary actions to achieve that.
Many would say that you are “motivated” to change.
I think about my personal training clients - they are “motivated” to improve their health and therefore make it a routine to schedule their sessions, get to the gym on time and work the workout plan designated to them.
So then, motivation gets your first step into the door.
However what happens when that motivation starts to wane?
What happens to those people who lose touch with the reasons why they are doing what they are doing. For example the avid exerciser who has been training for 5 months and feels like they are hitting a plateau, getting bored of the initial reason for change, or feels as though the reasons for working out aren't as important anymore.
Motivation drops, action comes to a halt, and you are left looking like an “unmotivated fool!”
“But wait a minute - you said motivation was overrated…”
Why your environment is far more important than motivation
We’ve talked about the importance of habits many times on these blogs, however not much has been said about how you can set up your environment for true ultimate success.
Take a moment and think about what things in your daily environment push you to do a certain activity.
Let the mind wander - what are those day to day tasks that get done simply because they are set in a place to do so.
….can’t think of anything yet?
Okay let me give you some ideas:
When you start your work day - what is your environment like? Do you have your laptop/computer open to a particular page?
When you go to the gym - are there any reminders for you to get dressed and get moving?
When you choose what to snack on after work - what foods are at eye level in the pantry?
When you go on your phone - do you immediately scroll social media?
Now this might not seem obvious but what if all those actions were the result of particular cues in your environment.
You get home from work, you are tired from a long day and maybe a little bit hungry because you ate your lunch 4 hours ago. You might have your loved one starting dinner as the sweet smells of dinner flow through the house.
On your way to the bedroom to change into more comfortable clothes, you pass by the pantry. Even though you know dinner will be soon - you are hungry and need a little something before you start getting agitated.
You open the pantry door and right in front of you is the colorful pack of cookies that your kids love. You aren’t a huge fan of these cookies, but at this moment you reach and eat 2, 3, ...4 cookies and then feel like that’s enough and continue on your way to getting ready for dinner.
After eating dinner you are watching TV on the couch. You typically watch TV while snacking on some pretzels so you decide, okay I can munch on something so let me just grab those pretzels.
Before you know it the bag is half done and you have a stomach ache.
Now this is typical because...I have done this!!
Now I wouldn’t admit to myself that I am an unmotivated person however I made it very easy to make less than ideal choices because of how the environment is set up.
The couch is associated with TV and snacking.
The pantry has yummy treats that are right in arms length and easy to get to, so it's easy to auto-pilot into choosing this instead of something a bit more “healthy”.
This is when motivation can’t “push” you enough to always make the right decision. Sometimes it’s out of our control BECAUSE of how we set ourselves up.
The water experiment
To get a clear picture on how the environment impacts our decisions and therefore our outcomes - let’s take a look at an experiment done by a hospital.
Anne Thorndike from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston wanted to see if she could improve employees and visitor health without any change in willpower or motivation. (1)
She didn’t talk to anyone yet believed that health outcomes can improve due to a change in the environment.
As it stood, the cafeteria had a refrigerator filled with soda right next to the cash register. You can probably picture this - most food stores, convenience stores or cafeterias have a fridge filled with soda.
Now what the experimenters did was simply add bottled water into the fridge, while also including baskets of water bottles scattered throughout the cafeteria (near stations of food).
After 3 months soda sales dropped 11.4% while water sales increased by 25.8%.
This was done without anyone hearing about the change, without any talking intervention, without any discussion on the health benefits of choosing water over soda.
This was all due to the fact that water was placed in the environment more freely. It was easier for people to choose water because it was in their vision. They saw it and therefore were more likely to buy it.
So without any bit of motivation, people made the choice to drink water instead of soda which inherently creates a healthier base of people within the cafeteria.
This reigns true for those who work at an office that has that inevitable cookie jar, candy jar sitting at the conference table.
If you see it - you are more likely to eat/drink it just because it's in your vicinity. If you’ve ever caught yourself eating a cookie without realizing you even wanted one at work, it probably is your environment pushing you towards that decision.
Make your decisions easy
What’s something you are trying to do better with and feel you lack motivation in doing?
By making it EASY for you to perform that task/activity you are far more likely to follow through with it.
Let’s go over some different situations:
If you want to exercise more frequently, put your clothes out the night before so that you can visually see them.
If you want to eat more vegetables, put vegetables out in a basket on your kitchen table or in easy to see/reach places in the fridge.
If you want to remember to read more , put your book by your nightstand or wherever you chose to read.
If you want to remember to stretch before bed - leave a yoga mat near/around your bed.
If you want to stop snacking on a specific type of food - put that food in a hard to reach place in your pantry.
If you want to drink more water - leave filled water bottles in different parts of the house.
The power of environment rids you of needing to be motivated every single day, at every single activity you are trying to improve.
Motivation waxes and wanes - there’s no question that it’s easy to stay motivated on the days that you feel good. On the other end - it’s easy to let things trail off when you aren’t feeling so good.
Change your environment - change your life
I hope by now you can recognize how important the environment is to making habits/goals easy to achieve.
I think one of the best things you can do for yourself is to use this strategy for something that you feel you “lack motivation” for.
Not only can you make a simple decision like putting your clothes out the night before your AM workout - but you can routinely do this over , and over, and over again.
We are visual creatures who are stimulated by our surroundings. When these surroundings are in line with who we want to be - a flow of internal guidance can propel you to greater heights with limited effort.
Gone are the days of blaming your failures on “lack of motivation”. I need you to stop feeling this way, to stop focusing on how you “just need to find the motivation” to do the right thing.
Instead you can CREATE your own “motivation” by setting up your surroundings so that they support your ultimate decision and goals.
As with everything in life - you have more control over your outcomes than you might realize.
Keep it simple, easy, and visual and there’s no doubt that changes in your behaviors will come automatically, without you needing to constantly push yourself to “be motivated”.