We all know that person. Or maybe we’ve been that person. The one who gets insanely motivated about a new sport or workout regimen, goes hard for a few months, and then burns out just as quickly. One day she wakes up and just doesn’t want to do it anymore. And then all that progress starts to disappear.
The key to achieving long-term results isn’t intensity; it’s consistency. That said, how to do make yourself show up and put in work day after day, month after month, especially when you really don’t feel like it?
I’m going to be honest: this is something I have personally struggled with quite a bit. Before we dive in, I want to give credit to one of my favorite writers, James Clear. He’s done a ton of awesome thinking and writing about motivation in your workouts and your life. It has really helped me improve my own relationship with fitness, and a lot of the ideas in this article are inspired by what I’ve learned from him. Do yourself a favor and read his stuff if this kind of thing interests you.
Don’t rely on motivation to work out
It’s a myth that staying super motivated will lead to long-term improvement. In reality, no one can keep up motivation indefinitely because motivation is fickle. Some days you wake up and feel like taking over the world, and some days you don’t.
Unfortunately, that’s a pretty fucking unreliable training plan.
The alternative is to build and rely on discipline, but that word brings back bad memories of going to the principal’s office, so we’re going to call it persistence instead.
Persistence means that you don’t have to feel like doing the thing. You don’t even have to enjoy doing the thing every time. You just have to show up and do it, as if you didn’t have a choice in the matter at all.
Think of it like brushing your teeth. You probably do this twice a day, every day, right? (Right?) And you probably don’t have that much emotional investment in it. You don’t have to feel like brushing your teeth; you just do it on a regular basis.
When you embrace persistence, you don’t work out when you feel like it. You make an actual plan of when you’re going to show up and what you’re going to work on. Pick a time slot, block off your calendar, and show up every damn day (or every damn Tuesday and Thursday, or whatever). It’s a lot easier to be consistent if you’ve committed to a routine than if you say “maybe I’ll work out tonight if I have time/if I’m not too tired/if nothing more interesting comes up.”
Use peer pressure to your advantage
Showing up consistently is, of course, a lot easier if you’re in a group sport or a class that meets at regular times every week. Humans are social creatures, and no matter how introverted you may be, the caveman in your brain is desperate for the approval of the tribe.
Personally, I have found myself to be much more consistent in showing up for roller derby practice than in any individual workouts I participated in in the past. I not only feel pressure to show up so that I’m not letting my teammates down; I also get a lot of positive reinforcers like camaraderie and praise for improvement than I would if I were to work out alone.
If you’re not a team athlete, and you haven’t yet built up your individual persistence muscles, it might be time to recruit a workout buddy or an accountability partner. Choose this person wisely. You want it to be someone who won’t let you off the hook easily, but also someone you trust and enjoy spending time with.
Remove friction in advance
Anything that stands in between you and your workout makes the workout that much less likely to happen. We call that friction. It could be a lack of clean gym clothes, a long drive in traffic to get to your workout space, feeling tired in the morning because you didn’t get enough sleep, or any number of other factors.
If there are multiple sources of friction, they really add up, and they’re going to amount to you spending your workout time sitting on the couch instead.
When you’re committed to sticking with a long-term fitness plan, then you’re going to want to remove those sources of friction. That could mean changing small things in your routine so that you have a more conducive environment to your fitness goals:
- Doing smaller loads of laundry more often so you’re never out of sports bras
- Laying out your workout clothes the night before if you work out in the mornings
- Finding a new gym that’s super close to either your home or your work
- Rescheduling nighttime hangouts with friends so you’re fresh and rested for morning workouts
- Picking a fitness class or gym time that’s during the time of day when you feel energetic
- Setting a reminder on your phone to drink water throughout the day so you’re not dehydrated before your workout
- Pack your preworkout drink or snack with you if you work out after work
Anytime you catch yourself not really feeling like doing your workout, pause and see if there are some environmental factors that could be tweaked to remove friction.
Set small goals for your workout
A mediocre workout is better than no workout at all. Not every day is going to be a personal record, and that’s okay. Don’t be shy about scaling your workout down a little if you’re having one of those days where you’re tempted to skip. This could look like lowering your weight or distance by a small amount, shortening the duration of your workout, or switching to bodyweight exercises only.
For the really tough days, try setting an extremely easy goal with an optional stopping point: “I’m going to run from here to the next stop sign. If I get there and I’m still not feeling it, I can turn around and come right back. Otherwise, I’ll keep running.”
Sometimes it feels like you’re being a wimp if you’re not going hard. (I know, I still beat myself up about this every damn time.) But it’s better to scale down than skip entirely—or push so hard you burn out and have to skip the next day. Try to be kind with yourself and acknowledge that today may not be your best day, but you’re sure as hell going to show up and do something.
Sometimes you really do need a rest day
Before you decide it really is time to skip a day, inspect your motives for not wanting to work out and be honest with yourself.
Some days you’re sick. Some days you’re fatigued and your body needs rest. In those cases, pushing yourself to work hard can do more harm than good. Taking a rest day when you really need it isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of listening to your body and respecting its limits.
What you want to avoid is getting into the negative spiral of “treating yourself” to a day off without a compelling reason. The instant reward of canceling plans can be really addictive, so beware if you catch yourself taking too many rest days or finding too many excuses. The more you show up when you don’t really feel like it, the more you build your persistence muscles, and the less you need to rely on motivation to get the job done.