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Why focusing on willpower is the wrong way to find workout motivation


Photo: Larkin Clark for Well+Good
Photo: Larkin Clark for Well+Good

When Steven Ledbetter was starting out as a personal trainer, one of his first clients taught him an important lesson, which he recalled recently during a talk at Equinox’s 2016 High Performance Living Symposium.

After he laid out a plan for her filled with exercises and diet recommendations, he explained, she looked at him with frustration. “I know what to do,” she said. “I just can’t make myself do it.”

“The standard story we have about how transformation works is a lie.”

Ledbetter, the co-founder and CEO of Habitry, is now a renowned behavior change expert with a master’s degree in sports psychology, and he told the trainers and workout enthusiasts in attendance that excluding exceptional cases (ahem, gifted professional athletes), the idea that “hard work and sacrifice” will guarantee that people will reach workout goals is a myth.

“The standard story we have about how transformation works is a lie,” Ledbetter said. “It’s not about willpower and dedication. It’s about finding a community that shares your values and experimenting together…because the reality is people rarely make themselves do stuff.”

That doesn’t mean you should feel discouraged about getting better at push-ups or finally making it to hot yoga four times a week like you said you would. On the contrary, Ledbetter offered his research-backed tips for getting (and staying) motivated—no “you get what you work for” cliches required.

1. Look for the conditions of motivation.

Ledbetter said there are three main conditions that need to be present in order for people to be motivated to reach a goal: autonomy, competence, and belonging. Autonomy is all about you feeling like you’re in control, so make sure you’re playing an active, invested role in your regimen, even if you’re working with a trainer or attending classes. And competence means that if you feel like you’re getting better at something valuable over time, you’ll want to continue. So look for programs where you can constantly feel like you’re moving forward (whether that means getting stronger, losing weight, upping your pull-up count, or whatever that thing is for you), rather than workouts that make you feel incompetent. We’ll get to belonging in a bit…

2. Prioritize the process over the goal to gain momentum.

“Momentum trumps everything in behavior change,” Ledbetter said, which is why it’s important to not get hung up on long-term goals. Instead, focus on the process and just keep showing up day after day, whether or not you can see a light at the end of the tunnel. “The only thing that matters is putting one foot in front of the other, millions of times.” (Okay, that one is a little bit of a cliche, but he swears the evidence backs it up.)

3. Find a fitness tribe.

Finally, back to belonging and community. Anyone who’s ever marveled at cliques of women dressed head-to-toe in SoulCycle apparel (or went from run club to beers, or attended a CrossFit barbecue…) will get this. “The key to motivation is community,” Ledbetter said, and if you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than yourself, you’re going to keep showing up (another key, remember?). So if motivation is an issue for you, quit being a gym loner and find a group you feel connected to.

You’re getting so smart when it comes to sweat sessions. Now, review these six questions to ask before you hire a personal trainer.