One of the most common questions I'll get from people who struggle to get in shape is how to maintain motivation.
The answer is: you're asking the wrong question.
Before I begin, for a more in-depth discussion on this, check out my most recent episode of Philosophy of Strength podcast.
What is Motivation?
When most people think about motivation, they think about the kind of photo and quote above. I often poke fun at these kind of photos, but they do have their place. We all need to start somewhere, and there does need to be some kind of initial motivation behind us wanting to achieve a goal.
Motivation is defined as:
"a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way."
Motivation can be powerful because it stirs certain emotions within us - emotions that can empower us to go after our goals with ferocity. The problem is that, like any emotion, these feelings are fleeting, and will come and go based on external factors.
The prime example of this is the 'New Year, New Me' buzz. It's a great sentiment, but it tends to lead to overambitious goals. Ultimately the positive emotions and willpower get depleted on a stressful day/week, and people end up giving up altogether. It's at this point that many people will despair and think to themselves "where has my motivation gone?". However the motivation is likely still there, you just aren't having a good day.
Discipline > Motivation
Here's the part the mainstream fitness industry won't tell you: reaching fitness goals is not easy. There will be many days where motivation is low and you want to give up. The thing that pushes you through on these days, and which separates the successful from the unsuccessful, is discipline. Discipline is more variable in its definitions, so here are a few:
"The quality of being able to behave and work in a controlled way which involves obeying particular rules or standards."
"Training that corrects, moulds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character."
"An activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training"
So you see, the problem is not that you lack motivation - it's that you give up whenever motivation wanes.
HABITS: The Key to Honing Discipline
If discipline is doing things when we don't want to do them, then habits are those things we are trying to do.
"A settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up."
Read that quote carefully. Habits are hard to give up, whether they're good or bad.
Our minds enjoy what is familiar. When you begin a new habit, your mind will fight you. If you persevere for long enough, you will stop being met with resistance, but instead an internal pull to do the thing. All of a sudden, you're 'disciplined'.
The key to this working is to start small. Understand that willpower is a limited resource, and the bigger or more numerous habits you try to institute at once, the harder you will make things.
The last thing I'll suggest are two points that revolve around being realistic.
First, ensure that your goals align with what you are willing to sacrifice. For example, getting to sub 10% body-fat might seem like a great idea - until you realise that means less nights out, less desserts, more time in the gym, more time spent prepping food etc. Don't waste time failing on a goal that you aren't really willing to achieve.
Secondly, be realistic in accepting and embracing the fact that you are going to feel crap and demotivated some days. When this happens, assume the mantra, 'anything is better than nothing'. Even doing a single set of push-ups is still better than missing an entire workout, and will keep some momentum going.