“Peter,” my friend Byron emailed me a few days ago. “I haven’t been diligent about working out over the past five years and I’m trying to get back in the gym and get myself into a healthier state. I’ve found that on my quest for a Mind, Body, Spirit balance, my body has been neglected. I need to fix it, and it’s VERY hard for me to get motivated. Any insight?”
It’s the kind of question that’s on many of our minds in the midst of New Year’s resolution season.
Something you should know about Byron: He recently started a business and he’s constantly developing his skills through training programs he pays for with his own money. So it’s not that Byron is unmotivated in general. It’s just that he thinks he’s unmotivated to work out.
But Byron is wrong. “I need to fix it,” he wrote. He is motivated to work out; otherwise he wouldn’t have emailed me. He clearly cares about getting fit and when you care about something, you’re motivated.
No, Byron’s challenge isn’t motivation. It’s follow-through.
Which is important to realize because as long as Byron thinks he’s solving for a motivation problem, he’ll be looking for the wrong solution. He’ll try to get himself excited. He’ll remind himself that being in shape is really important. Maybe he’ll visualize the partners he’ll attract if he looks better or the years he’ll add to his life if he gets in better shape.
Each attempt to “motivate” himself will only increase his stress and guilt as it widens the gap between his motivation and his follow-through, between how badly he wants to work out and his failure to do so. We have a misconception that if we only cared enough about something, we would do something about it. But that’s not true.
Motivation is in the mind; follow-through is in the practice. Motivation is conceptual; follow-through is practical. In fact, the solution to a motivation problem is the exact opposite of the solution to a follow through problem. The mind is essential to motivation. But with follow through, it’s the mind that gets in the way.
We’ve all experienced our mind sabotaging our aspirations. We decide to go to the gym after work but then, when it comes time to go, we think, It’s late, I’m tired, maybe I’ll skip it today. We decide we need to be more supportive of our employees, but then, when someone makes a mistake, we think, If I don’t make a big deal about this, he’s going to do it again. We decide we need to speak more in meetings but then, when we’re sitting in the meeting, we think, I’m not sure what I’m going to say really adds value.
Here’s the key: if you want to follow through on something, stop thinking.
Shut down the conversation that goes on in your head before it starts. Don’t take the bait. Stop arguing with yourself.
Make a very specific decision about something you want to do and don’t question it. By very specific, I mean things like: I will work out tomorrow at 6 AM or I will only point out the things my employee does right or I will say at least one thing in the next meeting.
Then, when your mind starts to argue with you — and I guarantee it will — ignore it. You’re smarter than your mind. You can see right through it.
As for Byron, I have a few tricks that can help him shut down his mind and improve his follow-through — some things I’ve written about in the past:
Create an environment that supports your workout goals. Have your gym clothes sitting by your bed and put them on first thing when you wake up. In fact, work out first thing, before your mind realizes what you’re doing.
Use a trainer or commit to work out with a friend. It’s harder to argue against your accountability to another person.
Decide when and where you’re going to work out — literally write it in your calendar — and the likelihood of follow-through will increase dramatically.
Commit to a concrete plan that is simple to quantify: 45 minutes of movement a day, cut out sugar, go to the gym six days a week.
Realize that the follow-through challenge will only last a few seconds. As soon as you put your sneakers on and start heading to the gym, your mind will give up arguing with you.
Discipline will be useful for the first week as you get back into working out. But after that, momentum will take over and the pleasure of feeling more fit will quiet the internal chatter.
Finally, think of all the above as a multifaceted campaign. A checklist that you should go through each day to make sure you are stacking the deck in your favor.
I once took a golf lesson with a pro who taught me a certain way to swing the club. After the lesson, he issued a warning.
“When you play with others, some people will want to give you advice. Just listen to them politely, thank them for their advice, and then completely ignore it and do exactly what I’ve just told you to do.”
That, Byron, is precisely how you should respond to your mind.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This story first appeared in the Harvard Business Review.