The Secret Ingredient You’re Missing for Stronger Motivation

by | Sep 20, 2016

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I hear it all the time.

Whether it’s a friend who is struggling to lose weight or someone I overhear talking in line for coffee, there’s always a hint of desperation in their voice:

“I know WHAT to do to lose weight, I just need to DO it. I need to get more motivated.”

There is a grain of truth to this statement. If you can find the right source of motivation, you’d shock yourself with the things you could accomplish.

But if you’re even thinking this way in the first place, you probably already know how important it is to eat well and stay active. You ARE motivated.

In fact, you might even be motivated enough to sign up with a personal trainer, or pay a nutritionist to overhaul your diet.

So why is it still so hard to follow through on these commitments?

Often the problem is not your level of motivation, but a counterproductive mindset that undermines it.

When you think of building motivation, you probably think about rewards and punishments. Carrots and sticks. And when it comes to health, you might think that too many carrots (or carrot cake?) is exactly your problem.

The logical conclusion then, is that you need more discipline. This is why you’re inclined to pay someone to torture you in bootcamp. If you can’t force your own butt to go out in the cold and run stadiums at 6am, maybe Meathead Mike can make you.

Ironically though, no one is as hard on you for your shortcomings as you are on yourself. When you hit snooze one too many times and miss your training appointment or come home late from work and heat up a frozen burrito for dinner, you’re the harshest judge. Mike will still get paid, after all.

As motivated as you are, events like these can be crushing. You blame yourself for the slip up. You question your motivation. You wonder if you have what it takes to be a healthy person, or if you’re doomed to kill yourself with your own bad habits. Maybe it’s in your genes to be lazy and being healthy is impossible for you. Ugh.

What could be more demotivating?

A common misconception is that people who are able to create healthy habits have a tremendous amount of discipline. That they are able to wake up early and go to the gym no matter how dark and cold it is outside. As if they are capable of torturing themselves indefinitely and that trait somehow makes them better people.

This is a myth.

Psychology research has shown that people who are able to create healthy habits don’t have more discipline, they have more self-compassion.

Instead of beating themselves up for not being perfect every time, they instead ask how things could have gone differently. This takes them out of “I’m a lazy loser” mode and into problem solving mode.

Instead of thinking, “I should have just dragged my tired butt out of bed and forced myself to go to the gym,” they think “I was really tired today and it caused me to oversleep. I should try to get to bed earlier next time. Is that realistic?”

They don’t see the situation as a problem with themselves, they see it as a puzzle to be figured out. I call this a Problem Solving Mindset.

The Problem Solving Mindset is powerful because it takes emotions out of the equation and forces you to address the reality of the situation. Rather than judging yourself for being “lazy”––a very judgmental assessment––Problem Solving acknowledges that you were tired and asks, “Why?”

Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep or have too many demands on you at work. What can you do so that you can feel well-rested when you wake up in the morning?

You have self-compassion by acknowledging that oversleeping is a consequence of being tired, and that being tired is normal when you don’t get enough restful sleep. Oversleeping doesn’t make you lazy, it means you need to figure out how to give yourself the fuel and rest you need to function your best.

Instead of being harsh on yourself and performing worse under the pressure, you must take care of yourself so that you can perform better.

There’s no value in beating yourself up. If your best friend or child were struggling with a similar situation, would you just assume they’re hopeless and give up on them? Of course not. You would be kind, listen to their concerns, do your best to point out the positives and steer them toward the answer.

You must treat yourself with the same dignity. Not only do you deserve it, it’s actually the only way to solve your problem.

The healthiest people practice self-compassion when something they wanted to accomplish doesn’t go the way they hope. This gives them the mental clarity and emotional distance to adopt the Problem Solving Mindset and have the best shot at getting it right the next time.

Are you harsh on yourself when you skip a workout or eat something you regret? How could you use self-compassion to move toward the Problem Solving Mindset?

Originally published July 14, 2015.


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33 Responses to “The Secret Ingredient You’re Missing for Stronger Motivation”

  1. Amy Ro. says:

    Just finished the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Love love love this book for making me look at habits very analytically not emotionally. Such a game changing book for me. Thanks for recommending this book via Foodist.

    (Seriously great read everyone.)

  2. Emily says:

    This is interesting to me because people always say to be compassionate with yourself and you’ll get better results, but in my case the opposite is very clearly true.

    I’m not motivated by praise or rewards. They just confuse me. I’m VERY motivated by punishments and threats. My self-talk is a constant stream of abuse, and it works. I started exercising about 4 years ago (for health, not weight loss) and for 4 years I’ve motivated myself with the metaphorical stick. And sometimes the literal stick: if I miss a lift, I’ll punch myself in the face or smack the back of my head on the bar. I’ve left bruises before and will again. If I didn’t have that punishment for failing, I would have much less motivation to push through and succeed.

    4 years is a long time to be continuously motivated by something that “doesn’t work.”

    The “would you talk that way to your friend” thing doesn’t make sense to me either. I don’t respond to praise or positive motivation from other people any more than I do from myself. Tell me I’m doing a great job and I don’t know how to respond; tell me I’m the weakest, slowest excuse for a lazy slob alive and I’ll work twice as hard. I WISH my friends would talk to me the way I talk to myself.

    Anyway, I’m just tired of hearing everyone say that “compassion is more effective” as a blanket statement when for some of us it actually isn’t the case at all.

    • MrsB says:

      Oooh honey. I recommend you read what you wrote and ask yourself if any of the things you do for “motivation” makes sense. I assume you are trying to be physically healthy but does any of what you say speak well of your emotional health?

      • Lauraalyse says:

        MrsB, I really like your response. It is supportive and not judgemental. No matter what another thinks or does, I have never seen them feel supported by labeling or demeaning how they do things.

      • Welsn says:

        I think there is a simple truth here. I too am motivated by “trying to prove someone wrong.”
        However, the truth is I think this reader has been “beating herself up” for so long she actually does not understand the meaning of the word “compassion.” The article is not talking about positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement or intermittent reinforcement. It is simply referring to a healthy state of mind which is a self-compassionate one.
        Here’s my solution for a reader like this: substitute the word compassion with Forgiveness. Do you forgive yourself for letting yourself down, and thus regain a healthy and clear conscience or do you not forgive yourself and continue an abusive cycle with yourself? A deeper question may be; has anyone else ever abused you in your past (even verbally), and have you not yet forgiven yourself for whatever part of that you claim as your own.

    • Dee says:

      Since you don’t relate to compassion, I’ll say this, your crazy. You really should think about talking to someone. Wether you work out or not, your doing more damage than you think. Your response to this article is kinda scary to be honest.

    • Pam says:

      Imagine a world where everyone punched themselves in the face or smacked the back of their head as motivation to do better next time. Sorry, Emily, but that’s quite sad and scary.

    • Hiba says:

      Hi Emily,

      I actually identify with some of what you said – feeling confused by praise and rewards, as well as people telling me I’m doing a good job. The thing is, what’s spoken of here is not actually about offering yourself praise and rewards. It IS about moving into problem-solving mode. Darya even capitalized it: Problem Solving Mindset.

  3. Jeff says:

    This post was perfect for me, because it’s the exact thing I struggle with. I know exactly how to lose weight as I have done it before, but constantly sabotage myself. Thanks for your insight.

    • Leslie L says:

      I do the same thing Jeff !!! I lost 50 lbs. 3 years ago and for the past year I have been “abusing” myself by making wrong food choices and overeating and have gained 25 lbs. I feel ugly,tired,and have lost my self-confidence. I don’t understand myself at all !!!

  4. Tracy K. says:

    I’ve made some great gains in how much I exercise and the quality, but yet I often focus on what I didn’t accomplish. Feeling bad about myself or guilty does nothing. This post is a great reminder to objectively examine why something didn’t happen as planned and to move forward.

  5. Ashley W says:

    This exactly what I needed to see! I have been struggling for weeks to get back into the health habits to lose my last remaining 25-30 lbs (I’ve lost 75-80 in total). I have no idea what happened to the motivation I had and I wind up beating myself up for not doing what i had intended. I am definitely going to think differently for now on. Thank You 🙂

  6. Jason says:

    So I’m definitely the kind of person who knows what to do but feels like I don’t have the motivation to do it. You bring up some good points, that I really am motivated. It’s the follow-through that’s the problem.

    I do judge myself harshly for failing to meet my personal commitments. I’ve started working on that through mindfulness training, so I can take those thoughts captive when I realize they’re there, and throw them out the window to think about it from a more practical angle.

    I practice saying things to myself that I believe but have a hard time actually living by. For example, “Doughnuts are not a valuable part of my plan for good health.” People who say “everything in moderation” have no idea what it’s like not to be able to be moderate with things like doughnuts. 🙂 I figure eventually if I say it enough, one day it’ll actually be the reason I can stay away from them.

    It’s just *so hard* to break these terrible habits. And the other thing that I struggle with is these almost obsessive thoughts. Like I’ll see pizza on TV and for the next several days all I’m thinking about is when I’ll have pizza again. I even confessed to my wife the other day that when she sends me to the store, I immediately start to think about how I can buy something I don’t need, eat it on the way home, and cover up the fact that I ate it somehow. I told her about it because I don’t want to do it anymore, and fortunately (maybe because of my mindfulness practice, I’m not sure) I’m usually able these days to take those captive as well and remind myself that it’s not loving to her or me to do that to myself.

    Anyway, thanks for the perspective shift. 🙂


    • Darya Rose says:

      I also find it helpful to acknowledge that occasional treats ARE beneficial to some part of your life (happiness), but health is more beneficial for happiness. This helps me think much harder about what is and isn’t worth an indulgence and make better decisions without feeling deprived.

      • Jason says:

        The biggest problem with me and treats is that I find too many special occasions on which to indulge in a treat. 🙂


      • Laura says:

        Your comment reminds me of something I read that said something to the effect that pleasure and happiness are not the same thing.

    • Alana says:

      Jason, some of us cannot be moderators. Sometimes, the slippery slope is just too darn steep. Sometimes it is easier for some of us to just say “no” to certain treats and foods no matter what. For example, about this time of year, I’ve been known to goa bit nuts on the little halloween candy bars. This year, I won’t even have one. There is no such thing as “just one” for me with that kryptonite, anyway. A good discussion of the differences beween abstainers and moderators can be found in Gretchen Rubin’s book on Habits.I highly recommend it.

      • Dee says:

        Thank you, Alana, for saying “there is no such thing as ‘just one’ for me”; sometimes it’s good to hear that someone shares my quirk. I can’t keep ANY sweets around (even a canister of sugar is dangerous. Yes, really.). I can’t and don’t bake, even though I love to, because I’ll be the only one to eat it. It’ll be my diet for three solid days. My family forgets it’s there, and doesn’t miss it if I don’t bake it–thankfully, I can practice the abstinence I require without feeling guilty that it’s hurting anyone else. Thanks for the book recommend. 🙂

  7. AJ says:

    Thank you, as always, for the post, Darya! It’s incredible to me that the kindness and compassion are so often underestimated and even overlooked in a variety of situations, including those that are more associated with ambition, drive, and aggression. The balance to improve onself and push oneself past expectations while truly loving oneself seems to be a struggle, and I wonder if there is a way to better reconcile the two.

  8. This is a really great article. I love how you deconstruct the “why” behind the behavior. Using this kind of analysis process has helped me understand that building good organizational habits and pre-planning is more than half the challenge for building healthier habits. Better ancillary habits can definitely help motivation.

    Beating myself when I end up eating cookies at 3:00 in the afternoon is not as productive as finding the true reason for the lapse. Yes, they are sort of delicious and can be hard to resist. But more often the real reason motivation fails has nothing to do with the treat.

    For example, if I forget to add eggs to the grocery delivery and don’t have a good breakfast, and then work through lunch, am I really an unmotivated sloth or simply too hungry to make the best choices?

    Backtracking through the chain of events can help you create an automated habit to prevent the unwanted sequence from happening again. In my case, now I immediately update my delivery list as soon as the reminder email from the creamery arrives on Monday mornings. Receiving the email triggers the new habit.

    Oddly, this simple behavior two days ahead significantly reduces the probability of a Wednesday afternoon cookie crisis because the new carton of eggs is always delivered before breakfast time on Wednesdays. Yes, it’s weird, but way more effective than self-flagellation.

    BTW – Best of luck in your new place. Hope you will have lots of fun living in New York!

  9. Mary C. says:

    I think there is a lot of truth to this article. (And it is very well-written). For instance, I really like the suggestion of thinking non-emotionally and logically assessing the situation. That’s good advice.

    But is it really enough to achieve your goals?

    As Jason mentioned, follow-through is critical. You can forgive yourself over and over and endlessly analyze what happened and why, but those mental exercises are pointless without follow-through the next time. So, to me, there is another element to success, call it discipline or motivation.

    I agree there may be legitimate reasons for one’s missteps, but there is also the potential of making excuses. What if you did get a full night’s sleep and you really were being a little lazy or undisciplined by not going to the gym?

    It is obviously important to follow-up self-compassion and problem-solving analysis with corrective action. But what are some ways to achieve this? Is this where discipline and self-motivation play a part?

    • Darya Rose says:

      In my experience these mental blocks are the primary cause of inaction in people. That said, you’re right that an effective source of motivation is also necessary, which I hinted at here but was beyond the scope of this post. Briefly, it involves whether you’re internally motivated (e.g. “I want to do this”) versus externally motivated (e.g. “I should do this”).

      That said, I still feel strongly that discipline isn’t the right word. It has a tendency to kill the internal motivation and put all the focus on external motivation, which is counterproductive in the long-term.

      • La says:

        I think if someone is struggling with motivation it might be that the thing they’ve chose to do (or the way in which they’ve chosen to do it) is not realistic or sustainable… for them! If we use the gym for example, some people are just better in the morning, others will be more motivated mid-day. If it’s a change in diet, some people will respond well to programs that have them eliminate certain foods, whereas others might do better with simply eating smaller portion sizes. The key is to figure out what works best for YOU and what you are capable of sustaining long term, not just enduring for a short period of time.

  10. Ali P. says:

    Thank you for this article! It could not have come at a better time for me. I keep looking at my setbacks as personal failings instead of viewing them as discrete events that can be examined and used to improve.

    The point about being as compassionate to yourself as you are to others (friends, family, etc.) is especially salient to me. I’m a licensed clinical social worker, and it’s easy for me to encourage my clients to take a nonjudgmental stance, examine the evidence, and avoid using “should”s; it’s so much more difficult when looking at myself.

  11. Dee says:

    The problem solving mindset is one approach to motivation, I’m still looking for that momentum…
    Btw Darya, there’s another Dee commented.. (Not me)

  12. emma says:

    Was doing pretty fantastically on building habits of good food and happy exercise, and then I moved in with my boyfriend who eats 2-3x as much as I do (because he is literally twice my size: 15 inches taller and 90 lbs heavier, and is also hypoglycemic so he needs to eat often).

    I am not worried about my weight, per se—always been slender and don’t mind a few extra pounds—but I feel more lethargic and unhealthy and unhappy with this shift. Ideas on how to stick to your food habits when your partner requires more food, and eats differently than you do?

    Thank you!

    • Darya Rose says:

      I’ve experienced a similar problem. For me mindfully eating (I used to subconsciously match my husband’s ferocious eating speed) and really paying attention to how I feel after eating specific foods has been the greatest motivators to stay on track.

      • emma says:

        Thank you! I definitely ignore how I feel sometimes after or even during meals. Will keep the dialogue with myself going even when in company. 🙂

  13. Paul says:

    Hi Darya,

    Interesting article ! What do you thing of coaching apps (like VIDA or RISE) to help you build sustainable habit changes ? Have you tried them ?
    Can they help on the road to long-term self-compassion better than a dietitian could ?

    I’m currently testing VIDA and pretty happy after 1 week but how will it be after 1 month :/ Not sure …

    • Darya Rose says:

      Everyone is different so the only way to know is to test it for yourself. I don’t know VIDA, but Rise is run by good people. I think a therapist/coach/good friend/good book are the most obvious path to self-compassion, but growth can come from anywhere if you’re looking for it.

  14. Alana says:

    I used to beat myself up all the time over everything. Trouble was, it just made me fee sorry for myself and then I would indulge. I have spent much of my life feeling like an entitled victim. Not pretty.
    Anyway, I decided to get healthier about a month ago. I am quite weak, can’t climb a flight of stairs without losing breath and obese. Do I hate myself for letting myself get this way?
    Not at all.
    Oddly enough, I find myself feeling compassion towards myself, my past and my body. I am not sure where it comes from. But I am grateful. (I started meditating about a month before I was challenged to take my health in hand. Perhaps that helped?)
    Thanks for the great article, Darya. You are a beam of sunshine in these murky diet and exercise internet waters. (Not to mix metaphors, or anything,!)

  15. Lisa says:

    I know what I have to do, I just don’t put it into action. I have everything I need to succeed. I still don’t do it. Lack of self love is what we are told. But while I’m trying to learn to love myself, time is marching on and my pants are still tight. It’s like trying to talk yourself out of an anxiety attack (and yes I say that from experience).

    Healthy lifestyle eating and exercise is a conscience decision right? So when our minds don’t take us there, how are we supposed to take action?

    I’m kind of tired of talking about it in my life. I actually asked my therapist if I should just accept who I am and STOP the madness. I am a healthy eater, just too much and lack of exercise. I’m also 51!! Just wish someone could flip the switch in my head!! Thanks for a great article!!

  16. Krupa Parekh says:

    I think self-compassion is the right word to use. I would also use the word ‘Guilt’. As a Dietitian and Nutrition Counselor in Mumbai, I tell my clients to visualise themselves as perfectly oiled machines and doing yoga, working out every other day and following a healthy diet are the weekly maintenance sessions that your body needs in order to battle the ill effects of time and environmental factors. The more you ignore the positive effects of exercise and nutrition, the more you let yourself become susceptible to faster aging and a less efficient mind and body. I personally feel guilty if I party late into the night and cannot attend my yoga class the next morning. This feeling of guilt can be used to stop one from repeating unhealthy habits and eventually train one’s mind to stick to a healthy lifestyle 🙂

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