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Are You Sure You’re Lazy? On Motivation

Are You Sure You’re Lazy? On Motivation
  • On August 22, 2014

This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.

“I really need to start exercising.”

“Man I should probably quit smoking.”

“I never clean my house, I’m such a slob.”

“I am so behind at work.”

Do any of these sound familiar? We always seem to have a long list of things we “should” do. Guilt and shame nag at us whenever we look at that unfinished remodeling project or that overfull inbox. We call ourselves lazy, we numb out on Netflix or Facebook (ugh). The unused treadmill we bought gives us judgmental looks from the corner of the room.

What if there were another way?

The secret of motivation doesn’t lie in shaming ourselves into action. In fact, shame keeps us stuck exactly where we are. The more we call ourselves names and try to push ourselves to do things that we “should” do, the more likely we are to avoid behavior changes. It’s weird, but it’s true.

If change were easy, everyone would do it. Motivation for change has to be intrinsic (i.e. motivation that comes from inside you, not a “should” imposed from external information). No amount of should-shaming will get you moving.

In fact, change comes in stages. We don’t simply wake up one day and change from one state to another. We pass through several “stages of change” before establishing a new habit.

Let’s take exercise as an example. Exercise is a behavior change most people want to make, but most people don’t make it. Think about all those failed New Year’s resolutions–there are lots of gym memberships that start in January and go defunct by March. How can we move through the stages of change to get from “I should exercise” to “hey I have a regular exercise practice?”

Start here: What’s good about not exercising?

People who want to change forget the very basic facts–as of right now, I’m happier doing what I AM doing than anything else. Trust me–human beings are not good at discomfort. When we feel uncomfortable, we try to escape that state any way we can. Something about not exercising is far more comfortable than exercising. I’ll give it a try:

  • Sweating is gross
  • I have to go somewhere to exercise (it’s too hot to walk outside)
  • It hurts
  • It takes a minimum of two hours with travel time and shower/change time
  • It’s expensive to join a gym
  • I have body shame about exercising in public
  • I have hard tile floors and it hurts to exercise at home
  • I’ve never been to X type of exercise before
  • I’m afraid to injure myself
  • I’m scared of trying new things generally (yay, anxiety disorder)
  • I don’t know what to do at the gym

That’s not a comprehensive list. The barriers I have to exercise are many, and the motivation to exercise is buried under them. I don’t have to face any barrier to stay the same. Without addressing these barriers and the fact that I’m comfortable not exercising, I have no momentum for change at all.

So how did I start exercising? I’m lucky (well, “lucky”). I had a catastrophic injury that required exercise to reduce chronic pain. Suddenly, all those barriers I listed above became secondary to daily, chronic pain that I had no way of escaping. Yoga turned out to be the only way I could find pain relief. I stopped caring about sweating and drive time and embarrassment. I had an increase in my intrinsic desire to change, driven by some very real circumstances.

Change doesn’t happen until the pros of moving into a state of discomfort (sweaty, embarrassing, expensive, painful exercise discomfort for example) outweigh the cons of staying in a state of comfort (at home, with Netflix). Since the human brain seeks comfort over everything else, this is a real trick.

If you want to try to make that change, be mindful and explicit about these pros and cons. Make a list! Really exhaust the list of what’s good about staying the same before you start thinking about what might be good about changing. Honor where you are right now before you shame yourself for not being somewhere else.

Once you can see the barriers to change in black and white, you can work on reducing them. However, be wary of this process. Stay mindful–the brain loves to throw up other reasons to stay the same. The brain likes comfort, remember. If your list is still tipped to where the comfort of staying the same is greater than the discomfort of staying the same, you won’t change.

Let’s look at my list:

  • Sweating is gross–this is just true. Not much to do about that
  • I have to go somewhere to exercise (it’s too hot to walk outside)–For me, this is also true. I can’t solve this problem unless I move to a new town. That’s a major barrier.
  • It hurts–In my case, the pain I get when I don’t exercise is far worse than the pain I get when I do. Also, I’ve found ways to exercise that don’t hurt in bad ways and make me feel great which outweighs any pain I feel.
  • It takes a minimum of two hours with travel time and shower/change time–True
  • It’s expensive to join a gym–for a long time I didn’t join one, I found very cheap yoga classes.
  • I have body shame about exercising in public–This was conquered by seeing a private trainer for a year, in her home. No one saw me. Eventually, my confidence grew enough to try a class.
  • I have hard tile floors and it hurts to exercise at home–I picked up a double thick yoga mat, and I don’t typically exercise at home.
  • I’ve never been to X type of exercise before–I hired a trainer to teach me. You can also watch youtube videos or ask someone you trust to help/support you.
  • I’m afraid to injure myself–I *did* injure myself. I’m typing this with a heating pad on my neck. I’ve discovered that physical movement sometimes incurs risk. The benefits outweigh this.
  • I’m scared of trying new things generally (yay, anxiety disorder)–I see a therapist for help managing fear in new situations, and I practice mindfulness regularly.
  • I don’t know what to do at the gym–again, I found an expert who could teach me.

I’ve also added many benefits to my list

  • I feel great after I exercise
  • I feel reduced guilt and shame about my body when I care for it well
  • I am stronger and more energetic
  • I like the activity, it’s fun (who knew?!)
  • It’s great for mindful practice
  • I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride
  • My health improved
  • I have cool muscles

At this point, the benefits of doing the activity far outweigh the down sides (most of the time). If I hadn’t honored the barriers, I might never have gotten to be a regular exerciser.

Give it a try! Make your pros and cons list and see if there’s a whole host of barriers to the change you want in your life. My guess is that you’re not all that lazy after all.

(image: Neon sign, Change licensed under CC BY 2.0)

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