I’d had my workout all planned out. I was going to warm up with a boxer shuffle, arm swings and jumping jacks; bang off a kettlebell routine; sweat it out with some sparring drills; then cool off with some slow kata and a stretch. It was going to be great. I was a dedicated karateka, and nothing was going to get in the way of my training. Instead? I lost motivation, turfed the workout, and defaulted to potato chips and Not Safe For Work posts on Reddit. Again.

What went wrong? I had the time to exercise. I had a plan. I had really good intentions. I was going to follow through this time, honest! And yet I still didn’t do it. Was I lazy? Weak-willed? A failure? There must be something wrong with me, right?

Wrong. I was perfectly normal. I had just made some faulty assumptions about motivation and the decision-making process.

Motivation is Fickle

Many of us think motivation is the key to success. With motivation—we think—anything is possible. We can do anything, achieve anything, be exactly who we want to be, if only we want it badly enough. Enthusiasm seems to be the critical precursor to action.

And so we wait for motivation to inspire us. And when it does come we feel great, we feel charged, and we get things done. But what happens when we lose motivation? It becomes all too easy to ditch the workout for some other short-term comfort.

Motivation is unreliable. Willpower is fickle. Drive comes and goes. And relying too heavily on “feeling like it” will potentially undermine our success.

Our Brain Likes Easy

So there I was, workout planned, but I didn’t follow through. My motivation was low, and that smartphone and bag of chips looked a whole lot more appealing than a workout. I chose easy over difficult.

Turns out our brains are hardwired to choose easy. Faced with a decision between two tasks, our brains will guide us to do the easier one. Haggura et al. found exactly this in a study on decision-making (https://elifesciences.org/articles/18422). Participants were asked to determine whether dots on a screen were moving right or left. If they believed right, they moved a lever with their right hand. If they believed left, they moved a lever with their left hand. What participants didn’t realize is that one lever was heavier and more difficult to move than the other. The result? Volunteers favoured the direction that required the least effort. How difficult a task seemed had a direct influence on the decision-making process.

So I wasn’t weak-willed. My brain was just wired for laziness.

Our Environment Matters

I had planned to workout, but instead reached for my phone. My exercise clothes were in my closet. My kettlebells in the basement. My sparring gloves in my gearbag. But my phone—that was within reach. Ultimately my environment supported choosing my phone over exercise. So how could I have ensured choosing the workout over Reddit? By changing my environment to favour the former over the latter.

The key is changing our surroundings to make the desirable behaviour easier and the undesirable behaviour more difficult (The Learner Lab). I needed to remove obstacles to make a workout seem easy, and create obstacles to make picking up my phone seem more difficult. My clothes and gear were scattered through the house—my brain perceived this as too many obstacles. A potential solution would be gathering all of my clothes and gear in one place, preferably a central location where I could easily access them. As for my phone, I needed to make browsing on my phone more difficult. Perhaps by removing my Reddit app. Or putting my phone in another room. Or turning it off entirely (gasp).

Visual cues are important here. I see my phone: I pick it up. I don’t see my gear: I don’t exercise. Putting my gear in a central location would create a visual trigger, a reminder to get off my butt and exercise. Hiding my phone would remove the trigger that would otherwise inspire me to waste hours online. Altering those environmental triggers to favour the desirable outcome thus greatly increases our likelihood of success.

Motivation is Not a Prerequisite for Action

Feeling motivated to perform a task is fantastic. Staying committed to our goals would be far easier if motivation were not so unreliable. But its absence is not necessarily a deal-breaker.

With some careful changes to my environment, that chip and Reddit binge would seem not worth the effort, and that workout much more appealing. By making the workout seem easy, I would be much more likely to achieve success.

“Just not feeling like it” need not derail us from our goals. A few simple tweaks might be all it takes to stay on task.

What are some changes you could make to your environment, to make your planned workouts easier?

Recommended Resources

The Learner Lab is one of my favourite podcasts. Check out this episode to learn more about desirable vs undesirable outcomes: Designing Your Environment for More Action and Better Learning.