How Do You Stay Motivated When Your Goal Feels Unachievable?
If you search for “motivation” on social media, you’ll be inundated with endless cringeworthy memes, quotes and desperate attempts by well meaning people to seem more badass than they actually are. These pieces of content are, I think, meant to motivate you. I doubt they have that effect on many people. If you’re anything like me, these things make you want to throw up, not work out. With this in mind, let me begin this article by saying this isn’t a fluffy, motivational, vomit inducing piece of work. The intent behind this article is, rather, to present to you something I’ve thought through in detail, with the aim of helping you to take a different and more sustainable approach to your fitness goals.
The point of this article is to address what I believe to be at the root of much of people’s lack of motivation – feeling like your goal is so massive it’s insurmountable. You’re standing at the bottom of the mountain and can’t imagine how you could ever possibly make it to the top. Regardless of the nature of your goal, I’ve seen this mindset cripple too many people before they’ve even got going. They look at how far they have to go and can’t even see the point in starting. It feels unachievable.
So, what’s the answer? Well, in my experience, the antidote to this self-destructive way of thinking is to adopt the incremental progress approach.
Incremental progress means that whilst you always have the ‘big’ goal in mind (the mountain), your main focus is to simply get the comparatively minute bits of progress under your belt each day and each week. The old saying ‘the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’ has been overused so much it’s become cringeworthy and cliché. But the reason it’s survived for so long is because it points to something incredibly powerful. Achieving a big goal is rarely the result of massive, impressive action. Rather, it’s usually the result of small, consistent steps over a long period of time.
When you need to make a big financial investment in something, for example, the deposit on a house, you don’t look at the figure required and loudly proclaim to all that will listen that there simply isn’t any point, and you’re going to set up shop outside the local train station in a small cardboard box (at least, I hope not). You start putting the money you can aside, maybe you take a few extra hours at work, maybe you cut back on some bills, and most importantly, you don’t lose your shit if the money isn’t in your account a week after you started saving.
We see this play out in the weight loss arena all the time. I have a client who has sabotaged his own efforts at losing weight so many times he’s lost count. His goal is to lose six stone (84lbs). Every time he tries to start again, he’s so daunted by the magnitude of his goal that he can’t see how he’s ever going to achieve it. A ‘what’s the point’ kind of attitude starts to creep in.
There are two important psychological factors we’ve introduced to keep this guy on the right path. Firstly, we’ve broadened his time horizons (this is a huge point and I wrote a whole article about it, which you can read by clicking here). Secondly, we’ve introduced the concept of incremental progress to help chunk down this gargantuan goal into something more manageable. While we know his long-term goal is to lose six stone, we’re not focused on that. Instead, we’re focused on being consistent with the simple, daily tasks, that are going to result in a 1-2lb per week drop. By doing it this way we’re not only taking his mind off the massive task he has ahead (which is demotivating to think about), but we’re getting little wins under his belt and building some forward momentum, which is massively motivating. If you can see the external results from the work you’ve been putting in, and if other people can see them too, you are going to be intrinsically more motivated to carry on putting that work in. Finally, because we’re setting a lower bar for success (1-2lbs per week rather than 84lbs in one go), we can relax how strict we make this process on him. We aren’t looking for miracles overnight, so we can afford a little more flexibility. This makes the process more sustainable and stops him from feeling more like playing chicken on the M62 than looking at another stalk of broccoli for tea. Since adopting this approach, this fella has lost just under a stone and is feeling great so far. He still has a long way to go before he reaches that hefty target, sure, but he isn’t focused on that. He’s focused on what he has to do today to reach his goals this week. He’s taking the journey up the mountain one step at a time.
This approach isn’t exclusive to weight loss. I’ve personally used this strategy to great effect when it comes to building muscle. As we know, getting stronger is a really important component of building muscle. Progressive overload, the act of progressively getting stronger over time, has been used by meatheads and casual gymgoers for decades to stack more lean mass on their frames. However, this knowledge alone can leave you comparing yourself to the biggest guys in the gym and wondering how you’re ever going to lift even half of what they’re warming up with.
Again, incremental progress can help you here. We must adopt a long term mindset, with short term goals. By using a logbook, tracking how much weight we lift on certain exercises and for how many reps, we can be the scientist in our own training. From week to week, we aim to gain an extra rep here, an extra 2-3kg on the bar there, or an improvement in control somewhere else. By doing this, we gradually increase our strength (and as a by-product, our muscle mass). This doesn’t seem like much in the short term. Okay, so you bench pressed 80kg for 6 reps last week and you got it for 7 reps this week. Yeah, give your sen a carrot. But over the longer term, we can see that these incremental increases in strength mount up to incredible progressions. I’ve literally seen people struggle to dumbbell press 10kgs on their first day in the gym, and after three months they’re getting 30kgs out for reps. That’s no small increase.
Now, progress on that particular point is always going to be easier when you first start this type of training. Once you build a base level of strength and a tolerance to weight training, you’ll have to work harder both in and out of the gym to consistently improve your performance. But the philosophy remains the same. Incremental progress, on each workout, one week at a time.
To sum up all of what we’ve gone through so far into a take-home message it’s this: Build small wins. Small wins create the motivation to continue creating small wins. These wins compound over time to create the necessary momentum to achieve much bigger targets. Big goals are awesome, you should aim as high as you can and not be intimidated by the size of the goal – but equally, don’t get caught up in that long-term vision. The work, that isn’t sexy, attention grabbing or often novel, is done on a day to day basis. Make today a good day, then wake up tomorrow and make that a good day too.
The Pre-Requisites For Motivation
Okay. That was the main point I wanted to drive home in this article. If you click away now, I can live with that. However, I wanted to address a few other factors when it comes to motivation. These factors are, in my opinion, ‘pre-requisites’ for staying motivated. They won’t necessarily make you motivated by themselves, but the absence of them may make motivation significantly less prevalent (in my opinion).
You may be a little surprised that I’ve listed sleep as a motivational tool. Maybe you’re thinking sleep is the furthest thing from motivational you could possibly get. In a sense, you’d be right. But when you look at it through the lens of whether it’s absence could reduce your levels of motivation, sleep becomes an obvious factor. A lack of sleep can put you into a more fragile state of mind, leaving your willpower compromised. It can also have innumerable detrimental effects on your body, such as disrupting the way your hormones work. For instance, if weight loss is your goal, you’re probably interested in restricting calories in some way, shape or form. Insufficient sleep can upregulate the hormone ghrelin, which is linked to increased hunger, and downregulate the hormone leptin, which is linked to satiety (click here to read a study that supports this). This could result in overeating due to stronger signals from your body to eat than if you had higher quality, higher duration sleep.
To learn more about sleep & how to improve yours, you can read my article on sleep by clicking here.
2. A Clear Goal
If you don’t know the target you’re aiming at, you’re very unlikely to hit it. This seems obvious, right? But the amount of people that start a goal with only a ‘generic’ sense of where they’re going is, well, staggering. It’s not enough to say you just want to be a bit fitter. That doesn’t tell me much of anything, and more importantly, it doesn’t tell you anything either. What exactly do you want? Maybe you’re not too sure, and that’s okay. But you do need to spend some time thinking about it, and decide what it is you’re looking to get out of this process.
This is the first thing I ascertain with every single new client I take on. What exactly the goal is. Often, I’ll have to ask the same question in three or four different ways before I get the information I’m looking for, but not always. Sometimes it’s clear as day. Whatever it is for you, sit and think on it for a few minutes and make sure that you have a very clear intention for why you’re bothering with this fitness thing in the first place.
3. A Reason Why
Once you have your goal solidified in your mind, a reason why that goal matters is essential. Again, this is something I establish with new clients before we start working together. I don’t always like asking this (as I don’t like to be confrontational or intrusive), but I’ve found it’s an incredibly effective way to create some meaning behind the goal. As a mental exercise, it may be useful for you to think through this for yourself. Why does this matter? Why not just stay the way you are? What will life be like in six months’ time if you quit on this goal and don’t do anything? These are all good quality questions to ask to establish a powerful driver to keep you on the right track.
4. An Effective & Sustainable Plan
Now we’ve established our goal, our reason why, and we’re not too tired to give a shit about the whole thing, it’s time to create an effective and sustainable plan to achieve it. In other words, we’ve got the ‘what’, we’ve got the ‘why’, now we need the ‘how’.
What exactly you need to do is beyond the scope of this article for two reasons: Firstly, because it would make this article about 10x as long (and you may already be dozing off), and secondly because what exactly you need to do depends on who exactly you are. There are fundamental principles we all need to follow, but the specifics are very individual & tailored to your circumstances.
There’s a fine balance that needs to be achieved when creating your approach to whatever specific fitness goal you may have. That balance is between effectiveness (i.e. making sure the plan actually works) and sustainability (i.e. making sure you can stick to it long term). If you make your plan too stringent, you may grow to resent it, and then it’s just a matter of time before you quit. Usually in this case, you’ll go further than just quitting, too. You’ll actually go further the other way, and in a few weeks end up in a worse position than when you started (this is often what happens to people who follow fad weight loss or shake diets).
On the other hand, if you don’t make your plan stringent enough, you won’t make any progress. To get something different, you have to do something different. So while it may be super easy and sustainable to sit on the sofa all day long, it’s probably not conducive to achieving your fitness goals.
Again, I’m not going into the specifics of setting up a plan in this article (I have plenty of other articles on that topic), but for now, suffice to say that you’d probably be wise to strike a balance between what’s effective and what’s sustainable for you when building a plan.
In conclusion, the approach that most people take to motivating themselves is largely ineffective. Trying to get yourself motivated using motivational quotes, videos or willpower alone will rarely be enough. Instead, the approach I’m advocating for is designed to stack the deck in your favour. By building a plan that works, yet is sustainable, you build small wins that create momentum. This motivates you to continue racking up the wins and seeing the progress. Then, as long as you have the pre-requisites for motivation which we’ve been through, you should have a really high likelihood of succeeding and maintaining your success with whatever your fitness goal may be.
I hope this article has been valuable to you. If it has, or if you know someone who may benefit from reading it, please feel free to share it with them.
Thanks and speak soon