April 18, 2014

HEALTH AND WELLNESS: Motivation—mystery or mastery?

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By Dr. Stuart Offer

Let’s be honest, we all do it or have done it. I’m talking about New Year’s resolutions. Some of us do it formally and others by just hearing a little voice in our head saying, “This is the year I am going to lose those 10 pounds, start exercising or putting more money into our savings account.” Unfortunately for many, these goals appear as elusive as finding Champ or the Holy Grail. The good news is this does not need to be the case. The problem is not with you, but with the way most people set themselves up for failure. With a little knowledge and the proper outlook, any goal can be achieved. I have personally achieved goal after goal by applying a simple three-step process that can work for you, too.

Step one is choosing the right goals. Second, I find the intrinsic, not the extrinsic motivation within myself. Last, I understand that willpower can be strengthened with practice, but fatigued with overuse. By applying these three pillars of motivation and willpower, you will be able to achieve your goals and sustain them for the long haul.

One of the worst saboteurs I see is goals that are either too easy or too hard. If your goals are not challenging it is easy to lose interest. If they are too hard, you will just run into obstacle after obstacle. When getting started, take into account where you are now and make goals that are easily within reach. Success will build more success. For instance, if you eat out five nights a week and you want to cut back, do not make a goal to never eat out again. Try eating out only one or two times per week and see how this goes. Another example: if you are starting an exercise program for the first time, it is unrealistic to think you will hit the gym five days per week.

In his book “Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” Daniel Pink calls this sweet spot “Goldilocks Tasks.” Once you master your initial tasks, up the ante and reach a little further. Make sure the challenges you face are matched to your abilities. Making progress is the single most important thing when it comes to motivation.

Extensive research in behavioral science shows that people who seek to make changes for extrinsic reasons (superficial, external reasons) such as to slim down for a wedding or to look better at a class reunion, often reach their goals. Then they gain the weight back as soon as the target event ends. Meanwhile, people who pursue more intrinsic goals (internal and with deeper purpose), such as to get fit in order to feel better or to stay healthy for their families make slower progress at first, but achieve significantly better results in the long term. Search for the deeper meaning for achieving your goals. Humans by their nature seek purpose and meaning to make a contribution and to be part of a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. The intrinsic nature of your goals will create purpose and meaning in your activities and tasks.

The last step is to stop relying on willpower. We draw from a limited pool of willpower each time we force ourselves to resist temptation, try to do something we dislike or try to do activities that are out of our reach. It is important not to overtax our willpower reserves. If we try to accomplish too many things at once that require significant willpower, the greater the odds that we will fall short on all of them. For example, if you make a New Year’s resolution to quit smoking, lose weight and start exercising, pick only one of these to pursue at a time. It is also best not to use large amounts of willpower to control day-to-day behavior. Spend your time establishing positive behaviors instead. Once positive behaviors become routine, they no longer require willpower to “do the right thing”—the “right thing” gets done on autopilot. For example, if you set a goal to do a 45-minute workout three days per week and you find you can’t accomplish the third day, make the effort to at least go out for a five to 10 minute walk to maintain the habit and behavior.

Remember, long-term change is all about changing your behavior and lifestyle. I am always more interested in seeing where my clients are in two years than in two months. Slow, steady and consistent efforts are what will make this happen with a minimum amount of discomfort and setbacks. Doing something, regardless of how small, is far better than doing nothing. Now go and do something!

Williston resident Dr. Stuart Offer , DC, CSCS, CLC is a Wellness Coach & Educator with Hickok & Boardman Group Benefits.


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