Build Better Habits To Stay Motivated

Focus on the process, not the goal.

We begin new ventures with the best of intentions to follow through. We make nutrition changes, we promise that we’re going to work out more frequently or perform our mobility every day, or we swear that we will do accessory work three times per week. But somehow, we lose the motivation to continue after a few days, weeks, or months, or after we experience setbacks.

3 Keys to Positive Change

If you’re reading this, it’s because you’re having trouble staying motivated or you have struggled to stay motivated in the past and want to do better this time around. There are three keys to making positive changes in our lives:

  1. Want the change. Knowing that a change is good for us and the desire to make the change are two different things.
  2. Believe that the change will make life better. Buy-in is critical if we’re going to stay motivated. The most common roadblock to success in nutrition changes is that athletes don’t really believe that the dietary changes their coaches are asking them to make will actually work. For example, eating clean is typically an easy sell, but telling an athlete that they need to eat more in order to lose body fat is much more difficult for athletes to accept and implement.
  3. Believe that we are capable of the change. Finding resilience in the face of setbacks is critical for staying motivated, and this is where having a coach in our corner can make all the difference. Ultimately, we are responsible for believing in our ability to achieve our goals, but when the going gets tough, a coach can remind us of where we started, how far we’ve come, and can remind us that the day-to-day process is the focus.

What are the little things that must be done, day in and day out, to reach your goals? [Photo credit: Jorge Galvez]

Learn Focused Practice

The resources available to us to stay motivated are just about limitless. Formal accountability programs, like nutritional counseling and challenges, informal accountability programs, like getting our friends to text us and ask if we ran this week, and the many books, articles, and studies that have been conducted in order to figure out motivation are sought out constantly—not to mention internet meme sensation “Motivation Monday” providing weekly reminders to stay motivated and focused.

If resources abound, then what are we missing? Some would say that a lack of willpower is why we are unable to stay motivated enough to complete a task or make a lifelong change, and I would agree, but I think it goes deeper than that. Knowing and remembering what we want when faced with temptation is what allows us to resist temptation. That focused practice may be new to us and may make all of the difference.

From psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct:

“When you think of something that requires willpower, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most of us, the classic test of willpower is resisting temptation, whether the temptress is a doughnut, a cigarette, a clearance sale, or a one-night stand. When people say, ‘I have no willpower,’ what they usually mean is, ‘I have trouble saying no when my mouth, stomach, heart, or (fill in your anatomical part) wants to say yes.’ Think of it as ‘I won’t’ power.

But saying no is just one part of what willpower is, and what it requires. After all, ‘Just say no’ are the three favorite words of procrastinators and coach potatoes worldwide. At times, it’s more important to say yes. All those things you put off for tomorrow (or forever)? Willpower helps you put them on today’s to-do list, even when anxiety, distractions, or a reality TV show marathon threaten to talk you out of it. Think of it as ‘I will’ power—the ability to do what you need to do, even if part of you doesn’t want to.

‘I will’ and ‘I won’t’ power are the two sides of self-control, but they alone don’t constitute willpower. To say no when you need to say no, and yes when you need to say yes, you need a third power: the ability to remember what you really want. I know, you think that what you really want is the brownie, the third martini, or the day off. But when you’re facing temptation, or flirting with procrastination, you need to remember that what you really want is to fit into your skinny jeans, get the promotion, get out of credit card debt, stay in your marriage, or stay out of jail. Otherwise, what’s going to stop you from following your immediate desires? To exert self-control, you need to find your motivation when it matters. This is ‘I want’ power.”

Hone the Process

In general, we know what we want when we come to the gym. We want results. The ability to remember what we really want when faced with temptation (staying in bed instead of going to the gym, eating junk food instead of healthy food, etc.) is an important first step in reaching our goals. Visualization can be a powerful tool here: picture yourself as the finished product of what you are working towards. How do you act? What do you think about? How do you walk? What are you eating? What do you look like? Now acknowledge that you only get to be that person if you do the hard work.

Beyond a lack of willpower, or what I’ll now refer to as focused willpower, with the focus being that powerful image of ourselves as the finished product, there is also our need for instant gratification. It’s a buzzword for good reason: we expect cause and effect to take place within a very short window. Unfortunately, that’s not how things work. The scale will fluctuate and the numbers we squat will rise and fall based on many, many factors. Progress is not linear.

These types of setbacks can completely derail us, and so an important practice, one that is often missed, is taking it one day at a time. Alcoholics Anonymous has it right. Each day is an opportunity to do the things we need to do to reach our overarching goals, those big scary ones, like lose 20 lbs or do a pull up for the first time or make it into the top 500 in the CrossFit Open. What are the little things that must be done, day in and day out, to reach those goals? Those are the focus. If we don’t do those things, if we mess up for whatever reason, then we do them tomorrow. It is liberating to be focused on the process rather than the goal.

You win the day if you do your work, and that is what it takes to reach a big goal.

Do the Work Every Day

The best part of training is that our training is never complete. Think about it: if you reach that big goal, that successful person that you pictured earlier, are you going to stop there? It is very unlikely that you will. You’ll set even bigger goals, because humans naturally seek out challenges. Training is a lifelong process, so when you experience failures or setbacks, remind yourself that you have tomorrow to do better. Stay true to that picture of yourself as a completed project, remember that it’s what you really want, and do the work every day. That is what it means to stay motivated.


1. Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct (New York: Penguin Group, 2012), 16.

Leave a Comment