For some people, going to the gym is a constant struggle. It’s a test of willpower: Either you force yourself to go to the gym, or you give into the temptation to sit on the couch and watch t.v. Normally, it’s pretty hard for these people to go work out. Some of them succeed in forcing themselves day after day until it becomes a habit. Others succeed for some length of time, then end up giving into the the temptations and quitting. Yet, others never make it more than a week or so.
However, then there is a whole different category of people. These people never see working out as a struggle at all and always enjoy going to the gym. They decided that they were going to change that aspect of their life, and resolved to do just that – and enjoyed it! What’s the difference here? Why can some people view working out as easy and enjoyable while others have to force themselves? What’s more, how can the people who hate working out or find it to be a struggle change their mindset so that going to the gym just flows easily without any struggle being necessary?
It really all comes down to this thing we call will power.
Will power is defined by Wikipedia as “the ability of a person to exert his/her will over the inhibitions of their body or self.” What I am going to define will power as, is the amount of energy that is needed or used up by either acting against our immediate desires (stay on the couch) by self-regulating our behavior (getting that last repetition in even though all we want to do is drop the weight).
Many people view will power as a good thing. If you have a lot of will power, then you can act in ways that will benefit yourself in the long-term rather than the short-term. However, the problem with will power is that researchers are finding that it can get used up.
Psychology Today summarizes a few studies that have been done to directly measure will power.
In on of the test, subjects who had not eaten for at least 3 hours were split into 2 groups and sent into 2 different rooms. In each room there was a bowl of hot, fresh cookies and radishes. The experimental group got to eat whatever they wanted (you can guess which they chose) while the control group was only allowed to eat the radishes, requiring self-regulation or will power. Furthermore, the researchers left the room, further enhancing the amount of self-regulation was needed to not sneak a cookie.
After this test, a different set of researchers (who the subjects thought were unrelated to the first set) came into both rooms and gave each group a complex finger tracing puzzle (that was actually impossible to solve), but the subjects could try for as many attempts as they wanted. What they found was that the experimental group attempted the puzzle 8 times on average while the control group attempted the puzzle 19 times on average!
The conclusion was will power is actually like a muscle, and it can fatigue over time.
What does this have to do with working out?
The book Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard put forth an interesting metaphor for how to view will power:
You can imagine that we have sort of 2 different minds. A rational mind and an emotional mind. The rational mind is the part of us that is saying “I need to get out of bed now” when our alarm goes off in the morning, while our rational mind is the one saying “Just 5 more minutes!”.
Our emotional mind can be viewed as an elephant and our rational mind can be viewed as the rider on top of the elephant. Normally, when the elephant and rider disagrees, the elephant usually wins (because he is a lot bigger and stronger) over the rider, and then the rider complains about it later.
Will power can be viewed as the rider taking the elephant by the leash and pulling the elephant to go a certain direction. This is when you are sitting on the couch watching t.v. and force yourself to go to the gym. Your rider pulled the elephant to go that way even though it didn’t want to.
However, the rider can get tired. He cannot pull and force the elephant to go forever. What’s more, if the rider suddenly loses any sort of motivation to keep pulling or pull as hard, then the elephant will win for sure.
How to Get Motivated to Work Out
Now we can get into the real application of all this.
Remember up above when we were talking about the two types of people? There was one group who forced themselves to go to the gym; they used willpower to get up from the couch. Some of these people succeeded, some failed, but regardless, it wasn’t that much fun for them. They knew it was benefiting themselves, but they still didn’t want to do it. They were using the rider to tug the elephant to go in the direction he wanted it to go. Some people had enough will power to continually force themselves to go, and they succeeded. However, I would think that these would be the minority. I think the majority of people would run out of will power, and that’s one of the reasons we see so many diets that fail or exercise programs that fail.
On the other hand, what if you could get your elephant to WANT to go in the direction the rider wants it to go, without having to pull on it. That would save a lot of energy and will power, wouldn’t it?
We can do this by CONVINCING our elephant that the way the rider to go is the best way. The elephant starts off thinking that it is not the best way to go. The elephant always wants instant gratification, so the best way to the elephant is the way that will give him good feelings NOW. How do we give the elephant good feelings NOW that will be in alignment with the way we want it to go?
Visualizing is a great way to get this done. By visualizing how you are going to look in the future (and the fantastic body you will have), the elephant starts to feel good emotions. Now you have to tie in there that the fantastic body can only be caused from this next workout. This next workout is the ONLY thing you can do RIGHT NOW to start to develop that body. This is when the elephants starts turning in the direction of the gym.
The tricky part is not to think in terms of the future. I know its your future body that you are visualizing, but it needs to be interpreted as being developed RIGHT NOW. The elephant does not want to hear that it will take many more workouts than the next one to achieve that body (I bet you are already feeling a loss in motivation). You want the elephant to focus only on this next workout and how it is the ONLY think you can do AT THIS MOMENT to achieve that body. FOCUS on how good it feels to have that body. You have to make all the emotions positive. Do not let the elephant try to come back with “but I don’t have that body now, and I don’t like how I look now, and now I’m sad”. Negative emotions will not get you motivated – refer to A Cure For a Loss of Motivation for more detailed information on this. The point is, you have to ACTIVELY DIRECT your thoughts to convince the elephant that your way is better, and you must do this through emotions, because that is all it responds to.
Alongside visualizing, you can change your physiology to amplify the effects. A lot of the time, it is hard to change the emotions we are feeling if we are staying in the same position. If you change are position, especially in an unusual or exciting way, then it is generally easier to change our emotions. This is important, because we need to switch over from negative emotions to positive, perfect future body emotions that can start to be achieved if we want to convince our elephant.
So jump up and down a few times, punch the air, shout and scream, twirl! Do anything that you are not doing now, and try to do something that will excite you. This will allow to shift in emotions to flow easier. It will allow the elephant to start listening to your reasoning a bit more (even though it’s not reasoning – it’s actually emotional convincing).
It is important to note that this whole process should not be a short term thing lasting only a few minutes. This will benefit you a ton more if you actually keep this mindset throughout the whole time you are exercising, or dieting, etc. The secret with the people who actually do love exercising (besides the few crazy ones who love it just ’cause it’s fun) is that they are keeping this mindset on them every time they exercise. They see themselves in the future, and have enormously positive emotions about developing the body they want. There is no struggle between the rider and the elephant; they are both pointing the same direction, and so no will power is used up. These are also the same people who tend to put 100% of their effort into the gym. Since they didn’t have to use any will power to get to the gym in the first place, they can save it all for when they are on that last rep and want to put the weight down. They can use their will power energy when they really need it. These are the people who improve over time. Only people who push themselves to the max on a consistent basis will see improvement in the long run, and it gets very hard to do that if you already had to use will power to get to the gym in the first place.
So, I challenge you to try this new method of Will Power Conservation™. Break the habit of using your will power to get yourself to do what the rational mind wants, and instead try to figure out how to make your emotional mind WANT to do it. You have to speak and think using emotions, as this is the only thing the emotional mind responds to or cares about. Also, you have to think in terms of NOW, because the emotional mind does not care about the future. It wants instant gratification, so we have to trick it by using the techniques above.
If you follow through with this, though, will will notice an increase in motivation that you have never witnessed before.