Motivation: Worthless? Or Indispensable

Why is it that one person gives up on the piano as a child and later becomes a chess grandmaster?

Type “fitness motivation” into any search engine and you’ll soon be drowned in quick fixes to get you gym-ready. Piled on in #fitspiration memes, gym posters, and endless articles with titles like “The 15 Most Motivational Workout Songs of All Time,” these messages, like the picture-perfect athletes on their covers, just won’t quit.

They’re fauxtivation, flashy and shallow, and they rightfully get criticized in the fitness press.  If these gimmicks were enough to drive behavior change and get people to train hard through the weekly grind, we would have a nation of Ironmen, World’s Strongest Women, and World Cup champions.

However, motivation is undeniably essential to our success. If you’ve played sports or the iron game for any serious length of time, you’ve almost certainly had the experience of being tired and sore, your body begging you to do anything else but hit the day’s scheduled light workout (It’s a light day. It doesn’t really matter if you miss it…). On occasion, a pep song or motivational quote might get you going, but more often, it’s a quiet voice in the back of your brain: “You know you’re going to do it. Just get up and get it over with.” And somehow, some way, you do.

Some have argued that this isn’t motivation, but discipline. If you have the discipline to get to the gym and put in the hours, it doesn’t really matter if you like it or are motivated. Just make it a habit and suffer through. There are mounds of research to support the idea that the ability to delay gratification and adopt habits are keys to success. It’s fairly obvious, in fact. Still, I don’t think it’s the whole picture.

Why is it that one person gives up on the piano as a child and later becomes a chess grandmaster, committing tens of thousands of hours to the play and practice needed to master the skill? How does a collegiate athlete have the discipline to suffer through early morning practices, tense competition, and competing time requirements, only to “go to seed” after graduation? Did they lose their ability to exercise their willpower? Is discipline task-specific, and if so, why?

To help fit the pieces together, I have to tell you about a friend of mine and his love for pizza.

Jim’s Flossing Problem

My friend (let’s call him “Jim”) received a clean bill of health at his annual physical every year, with one exception. The dental exam. He’d fume at the “moderate risk for periodontal disease” comment and go on a tear, putting up reminder notes on his bathroom mirror and marking happy faces on his calendar when he hit his target of brushing and flossing twice a day.

After a few weeks, though, he’d get busy and skip it “just this once” or promise himself he’d make it up after lunch. He wouldn’t, so one day would be a miss. He’d get back on the wagon for a few days, then it would happen again. Then one day became two, two become five, the reminders would disappear from the mirror, and the whole thing would be buried again until next year. Does that sound like your last New Year’s resolution?

Then, something changed. I caught up with him for lunch after not seeing him for a few years, and while waiting for his girlfriend to arrive, he excused himself and stepped out to the bathroom with a small baggie of travel-sized toiletries: floss, toothpaste, mouthwash, the whole shebang. Our dates arrived, we caught up, and before he left, he mentioned he’d been going through that routine, sometimes several times a day, for months. Why?

“My girlfriend has celiac disease, and I might make her sick if I kiss her after eating food with gluten. I like pizza, and I like her. It seemed like the only way.”

After years of habit tricks, reminders, and failures, what made Jim change?

“Real” Motivation

Fauxtivation may be useful for a period or just plain fun, but as a long-term approach, it has the solution almost completely backwards. Obsessing over your hype song or getting warm fuzzies about your Instagram ‘loves’ starts with a basic assumption: “I need to feel good to train.” These strategies are all designed to get you those good feelings, but we simply can’t feel good on command. Even worse, failure is itself a bad feeling. Eventually, you will slip, and like Jim, you will start feeling bad about your slip. Then you start feeling bad about feeling bad, because feeling bad means you can’t train because you’re operating on bad assumptions. Eventually, you’d rather drop the whole thing rather than live in the failure spiral.

This is not to say that motivation is meaningless. In a summary of available research on expertise, Dr. Anders Ericsson pointed out that there appears to be a timeline for motivation as children develop into masters. When children are introduced to a new activity, it’s usually as a form of play. The plastic golf club isn’t for anything. It’s just a toy. Eventually, they discover that the toy is part of something bigger, and their initial positive associations carry them through into getting started. Under instruction, they begin to improve, they notice that improvement, and the process of mastery becomes, in part, its own reward.

Finally, the once-beginner starts competing and winning, investing greater and greater time in the sport until:

“…the motivation to practice becomes so closely connected to the goal of becoming an expert performer and so integrated with the individual’s daily life that motivation to practice, per se, cannot be easily assessed.” – Dr. Anders Ericcson

Mastery and You

If you’ve worked at developing mastery at anything for more than a few years, you’ve gone through this process. Maybe you started lifting weights because your doctor told you to, it was part of your sport, or you just wanted to look better. You start hitting PRs, you see a physical change, and you notice the effect of improved strength in the rest of your life. You start building friendships in the gym that reach into your normal life. Your diet changes, your values adjust slightly, and the sport becomes part of your identity. You’re now a “lifter,” your family’s “go-to fitness guru,” or even a “coach.” When someone asks why, your answer has layers deeper than even you know.

Getting Motivated

When I mention motivation, I’m not talking about posters and gym selfies. Motivation is the purpose that makes practice a priority. Jim made a major life change because the behavior now carried a purpose: enabling romance and demonstrating to his new girlfriend that he cared about her and she could feel safe with him. I am not trying to be glib. There can be many internal obstacles to change, and I’m not suggesting everyone will have a rock bottom or eureka moment and march, unwavering, on the path to lose 100 pounds. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that.

The question is how we move down the path to true motivation. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not a kid playing with a toy golf club, but you can still hop on the motivation train Dr. Erickson outlines and build your reason over time.

  • Start with something you enjoy or, more likely, make what you need to do fun. Fauxtivation may come in handy here—play music you like, litter the wall with posters, lift with your friends, whatever works, but fight to avoid needing these to get to the gym.
  • Build a habit and a discipline to carry you through long enough to get past the initial stages and see success. Accountability partners and coaches can help here.
  • Identity your reason and make it actionable. Ask yourself: what is important enough to me that I’d skip a beer or some Netflix to go to the gym? As time goes on, expect this reason to change and embrace that change.
  • Pay attention to your success. Be mindful in the gym. Notice your technique and celebrate improvements. Track your weight or your pictures in the mirror and celebrate when it moves the way you want. Don’t just check your brain at the door. Soak in the specifics. Be your own coach.
  • Occasionally, take moments to reflect on your progress and what you get out of your training.

Once these are in place, you won’t need other people to tell you how to get motivated. You’re already there, and anything else on top of that—the hype songs, the Facebook Live attention, the posters—won’t derail you or distract you from your purpose: your true motivation.


1. Ericsson, K. Anders, Ralf T. Krampe, and Clemens Tesch-Römer. “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.” Psychological review 100, no. 3 (1993): 363.