How to Motivate Yourself to Workout [Science-Backed Advice]

How do you stay motivated? You're asking too much of yourself. Real motivation shifts just like you do. Learn how you can develop your motivation so you can reach your goals.

Woman packing her gym bag standing in front of a row of lockers

Summary:

  • Get clear on your reason for starting. Reflect on what you’ve done before.
  • Reward yourself while you work to internalize your habits.
  • Realize that you need to be flexible to reach your goals.
  • Revisit your goals at Realistic timelines, have they changed? That’s okay.
  • Relax, there’s no one way to reach a goal.
    • There will be challenges, you may have just found one way that doesn’t work for you in this current context. (That can change too) - Ex. Kids go to school, you got a new job, divorce, getting married, etc.)

Let’s be realistic about all this. Being lazy can help keep you from going crazy. Use choice architecture to smooth your path.

Here's what you're going to learn about by reading this article:

  • How motivation works, according to one of the leading theories (it's not fitspiration btw).
  • Finding motivation to workout (or your "why").
  • When do you feel the most motivated? (after a fresh start).
  • How to stay motivated to workout (think in milestones)
  • Using choice architecture to smooth the path towards reaching your goals.
  • A step-by-step process for cue-based, s.m.a.r.t. goals so you can start practicing this now.

Short on time? Don't want to read about motivational theory? Skip "how motivation works" and "how to build motivation using self-determination theory".

This is a thick one so grab your coffee and don't be afraid to bookmark it!

How Motivation Works

The principles of Self-Determination Theory teach us what motivates us.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is considered one of the leading theories of human motivation.

Popularized by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, self-determination theory states:

“…motivation [is] an internal state that energizes and drives action or behavior and determines it direction and persistence” (p. ix, 2007).


Motivation isn’t just determined by external rewards like money, being able to eat more Oreos, improving your social status, and other pleasures.

Motivation is also determined by internal aspects.

In SDT we all share 3 key needs:

  1. Autonomy - having ownership, say, wholeheartedly believing in what you’re doing.
  2. Competence - experiencing success - being good at things that are important to you. A sense of wellness.
  3. Relatedness - A sense of belonging, connecting, and feeling cared for by others.

You're not going to feel "motivated" continually. That's not fair to you. No one can do it all. Some days, making it to the gym sounds harder than others.

Motivation is a spectrum that ranges from amotivation (not wanting to do something), to extrinsic (doing something to gain a reward) to intrinsic (the activity is a reward in itself).

Motivation ranges from:

  • Amotivation - lacking the intention to act or going through the motions.
  • External Regulation - complying for a reward or avoidance of punishment.
  • Introjected Regulation - performing an activity for pride or to avoid guilt or anxiety, partial sense of internal control.
  • Identified Regulation - doing something because you know it is good for you, there doesn't have to be an immediate reward.
  • Integrated Regulation - when doing something is just a part of your identity, it's who you are now, still done for the reward of doing the thing.
  • Intrinsic Motivation - performing an activity because you enjoy it and the inherent satisfaction.

If you're just starting, reward yourself and work to internalize your motivation. External rewards work on kids for a reason, they're effective for a short time.

It can be difficult to imagine but some people just like going to the gym. They may enjoy the feeling of being (occasionally) sore when they perform new exercises or increase their volume.

Recognize that we're all human and no one "stays motivated".

Some days you may do something because you enjoy it. Other days you may hit the gym because you know you always feel better afterward.

How to Build Motivation Using Self-Determination Theory

You can develop autonomy by helping to carve out your path in your fitness journey. (With or without a personal trainer).

In a sound program, there are exercises that you need to do and there is also room for things that you enjoy.

Figure out something you want to be able to accomplish:

  • Performing your first pull-up
  • Lifting a heavy suitcase
  • Going on a long bike ride with friends
  • Feeling confident tackling a DIY gardening project.

Take a more active role in designing your training program. Ask to incorporate exercises you like in your routine (if you're working with a trainer).

Balance what you need with what you want.

You can practice competency by breaking skills down into segments and showing yourself (or other learners) progress:

  • Use progressive overload to improve different aspects of your training.
  • Write down your workout progress.
  • Film your heavy sets of exercises. Practice, critique, ask why you improve or don't.

Break a pull-up down into skills that tie together to complete the entire exercise. (Meghan Callaway has a phenomenal program that does just that, check out The Ultimate Pull-Up Program)

Cultivate relatedness by sharing a learning community with others.

Some examples include:

  • Making friends with the person you see every week at your yoga class.
  • Cooking meals with friends.
  • Sharing what you're learning about fitness and nutrition with curious friends and family.
  • Find a mentor or personal trainer [don't be afraid to fill out my contact form ;)]

A supportive, client-driven approach to coaching is a great fit for developing all three aspects of motivation, especially when there’s a fostered learning experience.

For more information on Self Determination Theory, you can visit https://selfdeterminationtheor...

Finding Motivation to Workout:

Remember, you don't have to do anything.

Strength training, stretching, cardio, they're all different forms of movement. If you're reading this, you have the motivation you need, you're just looking to channel that spark into a flame.

Rigidity involves narrowly framing what success looks like to you. You're more likely to reach your goals if you start small.

If you read the theory section, you know that motivation comes in many forms (Amotivated people aren't reading this article).

Not everyone will get to intrinsic motivation (but you still try to).

Start by finding a reason to keep you going;

  1. Get real clear on your (current) why.
  2. Reward yourself (while you work to make your motivations more internal to you).

Those of us who are more introspective might know "why" immediately:

  • You want to set a good example for your kids.
  • You used to feel strong and you want to get back to that place.
  • Taking care of your health is a large part of your identity.
  • You're hesitating to put on some of your favorite outfits.
  • You think exercising is fun or at least you think you'll like it once you're in the routine.

For those of you who don't consider yourself introspective, try an exercise created by Toyota. It's a process that involves asking why five times.

The 5 Whys Process

The creation of the 5 whys process is credited to Taiichi Ohno, Former Vice President of Toyota Motor Corporation. Toyota uses this process to solve recurrent problems in production.

In the example (formerly) provided on Toyota’s website, Taiichi talked about how to apply the five whys to a welding robot stopping in the middle of its operation:

  • "Why did the robot stop?"
    • The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
  • "Why is the circuit overloaded?"
    • There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
  • "Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?"
    • The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
  • "Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?"
    • The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
  • "Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?"
    • Because there is no filter on the pump.

By getting at the root cause of a problem, Toyota can continually overcome challenges and find the keys to a lasting solution. You can apply this same method to your life.

Ask yourself;

  1. Why are you reading this ridiculously long article?
  2. Why is that important to you? What will reaching that goal allow you to achieve in the rest of your life?
  3. Why haven't you already reached that goal? What will you feel like when you do?
  4. Why does that previous thing matter?
  5. And finally, why is that important to you?

Don't ask, "what if I have no motivation to lose weight?". Instead, figure out why you want to lose weight (or not if that's not your goal).

Only you can figure out the real reason why you want to do something. You don't need to justify your answers to anyone but yourself.

Remember, reward yourself for reaching your goals.

Do it in a way that respects your "why". Not exercising to "earn" your ice cream, think listening to your favorite podcast or a new outfit. Change is hard work.

Now that you know what you're aiming for, let's talk about when you're most likely to get started.

When Do You Feel the Most Motivated?

You feel the most motivated after a "fresh start".

Although most people fail to reach their New Year's resolutions, research suggests that the new year might be a good time to give a "fresh start" a try.

The Fresh Start Effect is the time we're the most motivated to pursue our goals.

The Fresh Start Effect, coined by Katherine Milkman is not a new idea;

"The notion that fresh starts are possible and offer individuals an opportunity to improve themselves has long been endorsed by our culture. For example, Christians can be “born again,” Catholic confessions and penance provide sinners with a fresh start, many religious groups engage in ritual purification or ablution ceremonies (e.g., Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Jews), and the metaphorical phoenix rising from the ashes is a ubiquitous symbol of rebirth." (Milkman et al, 2013)

Compared to normal, you're more likely to feel most motivated;

  • After a birthday (7%)
  • At the start of a week (33%)
  • Beginning of a month (14%)
  • At the start of the new year (11%)
  • At the start of a new semester (47%)

Whenever you think there's a chance to leave your old self behind, you should take it.

Katy's most recent book How to Change is highly recommended reading. More on that later.

Watch Milkman talk more about the Fresh Start Effect and more in this TEDx talk.

Now that you know when you might feel more motivated to tackle your goals, let's talk about how you can build towards staying motivated.

One massive caveat to "staying motivated". If you feel like you're struggling, it might be a sign that you need a new goal. You may have found a way or goal that doesn't work for you right now.

How to Stay Motivated to Workout:

You can "stay motivated" by breaking down your goals into realistic chunks. Learn to think in milestones and moments

In your mind, some moments stand out above the rest. Birthdays, prom, your first kiss, a big presentation-these are what New York Times best-selling authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to as peak moments.

In The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath explore what makes moments memorable.

A peak moment - a defining moment or short experience that is both meaningful and memorable.

We can use one or a combination of four elements to create memorable experiences;

  1. Elevation
  2. Insight
  3. Pride
  4. Connection

Elevation

The Heaths define elevation as "experiences that rise above the every day."

Moments of elevation are those times that we savor. They might be social occasions, competitions, or even presentations. They are the most difficult to create but, we cherish them.

Some examples of moments of elevation include:

  • Birthday parties
  • Weddings
  • Running a 5k
  • A first kiss
  • The walk on a sunny day that leaves you smiling

You can work to create moments of elevation by doing all or two of three things:

  1. Break the script-do something unexpected
  2. Boost sensory appeal-do something to turn up the "volume" like dressing up
  3. Raise the stakes-add in competition or a deadline

The Brothers note, if you see people take out their cameras, you're on the right track. People take photos because they're experiencing moments that they want to remember.

Insight

"Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations". (Heath Brothers)

To deliver insight, it's not enough to give people the answers to their problems. Like mentors, we need to create opportunities for others to "trip over the truth".

Craft experiences where you have the opportunity to fail at something:

  • Sign up for an intimidating yoga class you were thinking about.
  • Try out a dance class (I can't even)
  • Within reason, try to lift a little heavier than your recent personal record (PR).

Real learning is uncomfortable and hard (read school).

Pride

Moments of pride are all about showing respect for someone's accomplishments.

You can take the time to write a thank you card to someone and thank them for all they've done for you in your life. To experience pride, you'll want to hand-deliver that note.

A concept within pride is the idea of multiplying your milestones. Think, creating multiple finish lines to celebrate.

Say you want to get started with strength training. If you read, Strength Training for Beginners, you know that this is a big step.

Why not break up "getting started" into smaller milestones all worth celebrating?

You can author your fitness journey to include:

  • Performing your first successful pushup
  • Holding a plank for a minute
  • Learning how to squat properly
  • Graduating to perform a more difficult variation of an exercise

Determine what success looks like to you. Instead of one large milestone, stop and enjoy all the little victories you pile up.

Connection

"Moments of connection bond us together." (Heath Brothers)

Struggling towards a meaningful goal with those around you bonds you.

We all desire a sense of connection and relatedness:

  • Take a Pilates class with your kids.
  • Cook a challenging recipe with a spouse.
  • Going on a long hike with a friend.

Those shared experiences can all becoming meaningful depending on how you frame them.

Do you have to wait for those moments to happen to you? Thankfully not. You can script moments.

In the same way that you can script moments, you can also control your environment using choice architecture.

Use Choice Architecture to Smooth Your Path

Choice architecture is building out an environment to make good decisions more likely. You're not removing choice, you're making it more likely that you choose in a way that benefits you.

The concept comes from Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Thaler and Sunstein famously found that people save more for retirement when they have to "opt-out" as opposed to "opting in".

There are two parts to choice (removal and adding), focus on the upside:

  • What can you add to a situation to make it more likely that you'll reach your goals?
  • What are the benefits of adding fruits to the kitchen next to the cookies?
  • How will having extra workout clothes in the car make you feel when you're rushed in the morning?

Some (more) examples of choice architecture:

  • Bringing your lunch to work.
  • Picking restaurants that serve healthier options.
  • Planning out your workout before you hit the gym.
  • Creating a playlist to avoid surfing during your workouts. Turning on airplane mode.
  • Choosing to leave the Oreos at the store, you can always go get them when you want them.
  • Taking that trip across the office to talk to your boss instead of sending an email.
  • Washing dishes by hand while you podcast. (a personal favorite)

Sprinkle positive choices into your life. This sort of thinking will come to you.

An added benefit to choice architecture is that it doesn't take more mental energy to perform once it's done.

Let's bring this all together with an example using cue-based planning and the S.M.A.R.T goals framework.

Cue Based Planning and Smart Goals for Fitness

Cue-based planning involves linking your goal to a specific time to act.

Cues are people, places, actions, or a time of day.

Katy Milkman gives us sage advice in How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be:

"Often when we make plans, we don't focus on what will trigger us to act. Instead, we focus on what we intend to do...Forming an implementation intention is as simple as filling in the blanks in the sentence, 'when ____ happens, I'll do ____.'" (Milkman & Duckworth, 2021)

Now that you have this insight, the next step is to plan how you're going to get there.

S.M.A.R.T. goals are process-oriented goals that spell out the actions you need to take to achieve success.

A S.M.A.R.T goal is something that is:

  • Specific - lift (x) amount, run a mile in (y) minutes, etc.
  • Measurable - something that is valid to your goal that can be measured repeatedly.
  • Achievable - realistic or attainable.
  • Relevant - appropriate for your current circumstances.
  • Time Orientated - involving time sensitivity or a deadline.

Let's say you want to lose weight to be able to perform your first pull-up using Meghan's Ultimate Pull-Up Program.

Losing weight will make pull-ups easier and attaching your weight loss to something fun makes it more meaningful.

This S.M.A.R.T. Goal might fill out like the following:

  • Specific - lose 5% of your weight in 12 weeks while following the first two phases of Meghan's program.
  • Measurable - weigh yourself 2-3 times per week while remaining in a caloric deficit.
  • Achievable - depending on how you're built, how strong you are, and how much you weigh, this might be a quick win or take some time.
  • Relevant - it's fitness-related, we'll just assume you want that since you're on a fitness website.
  • Time-Oriented - while you can't control how fast, you can improve, set a date, and try your best to make progress.

Don't forget the most important part, what cue are you going to try to alter? Are you going to perform this program before your normal workout? With a friend? You can tackle any part of the goal. You've got this.

Here's How to Motivate Yourself to Workout:

  1. Learn how motivation works. Get clear and reward yourself for getting started.
  2. Take advantage of fresh starts when needed.
  3. Try to avoid narrow framing, change the thing you're trying to reach your goals.
  4. Shape your path to make it statistically more likely that you'll be successful.
  5. Get specific about what you're going to do and when you'll act on your goals.

Goals change, don't be afraid to abandon them after you've tried your best.

(Don't be afraid to reach out if you need some help)

Recommended Resources:

If you want to learn more about some of the things mentioned in this article, in addition to what I've already mentioned check out this stuff.

I buy and gift every single book that Chip and Dan write. Switch is research-based and can teach you some of the principles behind changing habits and what it takes.

The Heath Brothers synthesized switch in a 16-minute video that can be found here.

All it takes to access the video is an email address. I've been on the Heath Brothers list for years and they maybe send an email 3 times a year.

If you’re looking for a professional with real-world experience applying psychology to the real world:

  • Dr. Lisa Lewis is a licensed psychologist and a certified addictions counselor who strives to help clients achieve personal, professional, and athletic goals.

She's amazing, I've worked with her, she read over the entire previous edition of this article and she's created Psych Skills for Fitness Professionals.

Contact her at https://drlewisconsulting.com/

Phone: 1-573-443-1495

  • I want to see changes in my:
  • I want to start:
  • I am interested in training:

References:

  1. Dai, Hengchen and Milkman, Katherine L. and Riis, Jason, The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior (December 24, 2013). Dai, H., Milkman, K.L., & Riis, J. (2014). The Fresh Start Effect: Temporal Landmarks Motivate Aspirational Behavior. Management Science, 60(10), 2563-2582., Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2204... or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn...
  2. Heath, Dan, and Chip Heath. The Power of Moments. Random House UK, 2019.
  3. Milkman, K. L., & Duckworth, A. (2021). Forgetfulness. In How to change: The science of getting from where you are to where you want to be (pp. 97–97). essay, Vermilion.

This article was originally published as "what you need to know about goals and motivation" on 1/28/19.

Last updated: 7/31/21