When it comes to sport or behavior change, motivation is usually defined as the drive to engage in an activity (Walker, Foster, Daubert, & Nathan, 2005). It is what prompts us to action, therefore, motivation is not only the behavior itself but it also represents the underlying reasons for one’s behavior, desires, and needs. All of these factors can make staying motivated more complex than it seems. Often the “just do it” philosophy does not help here. So what does help?
Mindfulness. (Before your roll your eyes and think this is a hippy-dippy trend, hear me out.)
Yes, mindfulness has become awfully trendy as of late, but for good reason. Mindfulness is at the center of how to stay motivated, feel happier, and reduce stress. The power of mindfulness is undeniable. Mindfulness has been studied and proven to change your brain in just 8 weeks- shrinking the part of the brain that responds to stress, and thickening the prefrontal cortex (i.e. the executive functioning part of the brain), and essentially re-wiring your brain for improved concentration and stress reduction (Taren, Creswell, & Gianaros, 2013). Furthermore, mindfulness-based interventions are clinically efficacious, meaning that mindfulness-based tools have been scientifically proven to be helpful in treating mental health concerns like stress, depression, anxiety, and even chronic pain to name a few (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
So what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Mindfulness has roots in Buddhist philosophy and meditation and has been adapted by western psychologists and incorporated into several theories and approaches to therapy, such as in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Basically, mindfulness is the skill of “tuning in” to the inner world of our thoughts, sensations, feelings, and behaviors, especially when the world around us makes it very easy, even habitual, to tune out. Sounds simple enough, right? Well…yes and no.
To successfully use mindfulness to stay motivated towards achieving your health goals, you must do two things simultaneously- practice mindfulness AND engage in your goal behavior. Although mindfulness is considered a “conscious discipline”, it doesn’t have to be difficult or time consuming. In fact, you already have the major mindfulness tool at your disposal, your breath. All you have to do is pay attention to it. Once you have practiced paying attention to your breath more regularly, you can use it as an anchor and reminder to “tune in” to your thoughts and feelings. This information is vital to understanding why we might “fall off the workout wagon” or not feel motivated even if the goal is seemingly important to us. (By the way, falling off the wagon is normal and common. Motivation is not something that can be sustained indefinitely. To think that you will keep the same high level of motivation throughout this program is setting yourself up for failure. Motivation is something to continue to cultivate and re-ignite over and over again.)
If you are struggling to engage in your goal behavior regularly, stop trying to force the behavior to happen. My guess is that you are only feeling worse about “not feeling motivated” or “eating that bag of Cheetos” the more you think about it. Using pressure, or worse shame, to motivate ourselves into doing something is not a long-term solution to finding and maintaining motivation.*
My advice is to start practicing mindfulness as a way to get back on track. Here are 3 tips to using mindfulness for motivation:
The first exercise to get back on track is to practice mindful breathing (and meditation if possible). When you turn your attention to your breath, you practice detachment from whatever stimulus is distracting you or causing stress and engage your body’s relaxation response. Start by noticing the breath as you inhale and exhale, observing the sensations of the breath as you breathe. Breathe into your belly and try to take gentle, deep inhales to avoid shallow, anxious breathing. Next, notice any thoughts, feelings, or sensations that might distract you from paying attention to your breath and let them go. (Try using the image of watching the thoughts float away on a cloud or down a stream. This is called thought defusion.) Finally, as you continue to pay attention to your breath, focus on extending the outbreath to deepen the sense of relaxation. Taking just a few minutes per day to practice mindful breathing can help you to cope with stress and allow you to re-group if you are feeling low on motivation. (Other mindful breathing exercises can be found with a simple Google search.)
The second tool to get back on track is to practice mindfulness of thoughts. Using your breath to anchor you and tap into your internal dialogue, examine what types of thoughts you are having. One of the biggest killers of motivation is negative self-talk. Criticizing ourselves is not only de-motivating, but it can be demoralizing. Using mindfulness to listen to your self-talk is the first step in creating a plan to address and change your thoughts into more helpful and motivating thoughts. A quick guide for what to do next with negative self-talk can be found here: http://www.apsu.edu/sites/apsu.edu/files/counseling/COGNITIVE_0.pdf
The third tool is practicing mindfulness of feelings and body. Using exercise as a mindful activity is a great way to explore your relationship with your body and begin to appreciate it for all that it allows you to do. Furthermore, food and feelings are tightly related. If you are struggling to change eating habits, paying attention to your feelings is essential. Once you can identify the connections between mood and food in your life, you will open up endless opportunities to regain control, overcome common obstacles, and address the issue at the source. If you would like to learn more about mindfulness and food, I would recommend reading Eating Mindfully by Susan Albers, Psy.D.
Finally, when all else fails, cut yourself some slack and surround yourself with people you feel comfortable with and energized by. When your motivation gauge is on “E”, fuel up by letting someone else be your cheerleader or inspire you.
(*If you are struggling with chronic low motivation and energy and have concerns about your well-being, please seek medical or psychological advice as there could also be an organic or psychological cause for why you are not feeling motivated or engaged in your goals.)
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003), Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10: 144–156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016
Taren, A.A., Creswell, J.D., & Gianaros, P.J. (2013). Dispositional mindfulness co-varies with smaller amygdala and caudate volumes in community adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064574
Walker, B., Foster, S., Daubert, S., & Nathan, D. (2005). Motivation. In J. Taylor & G. Wilson (Eds.) Applying Sport Psychology (3-19). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.