Motivation vs. Willpower

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I mentioned in the last post that I was reading and enjoying Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults. Chapter five of his book contains some information that I found very thought provoking. This chapter discusses the process and details of those who’ve successfully maintained weight-loss. The National Weight Control Registry observed several key behaviors in those who lost weight and kept it off.

  • Weighing: If weight-loss is your goal then looking at a scale will tell you if it’s happening.
  • Monotonous eating: Eating very similar meals repeatedly makes it easy to track caloric intake. Further successful weight-losers to vary their eating less during the weekends and holidays. (“Monotonous” may imply boring. I don’t believe it has to be that way.)
  • Exercise: What we eat (and don’t eat) is absolutely vital for weight-loss. It seems that exercise is absolutely vital for maintaining weight-loss

(Interestingly, subjects do report eating healthier eating as part of the weight-loss process, no specific diet was identified as being best.)

More important than habits is the motivation that underlies these habits. Motivation is different from willpower.  Fitzgerald suggests that motivation activates will power, sort of like computer software (motivation) activates the hardware (willpower). He says that “evidence suggests that most people have all the willpower they need to lose weight and that what separates the successful losers from the failures is motivation.

The NWCR study found that 90% of members reported having failed in previous weight loss attempts. In other words, these people failed a lot. It seems the people who succeeded kept on trying due to motivation. This got me thinking about my own views on willpower vs. motivation.

It seems that we often talk about willpower as a negative thing. We criticize ourselves because we don’t have enough of it and we wind up eating a bunch of cake. Or else we see overweight people, drug addicts or smokers and we say they don’t have the willpower to lose weight or quit. The word willpower mostly seems to come up when there’s something negative drawing us towards it and we know we’ll succumb to this evil thing, and then we’ll hate ourselves afterward. The practice of willpower seems a cold, Spartan type of undertaking.

In contrast, something that motivates us is a positive thing that we want. It’s something that makes us look past the temptations, triggers and roadblocks to our success. We may not be perfect in our eating and exercise habits but the motivating factor makes us keep trying. I think in a lot of cases motivation actually makes us want to undertake the healthy behaviors that lead us to our goals. As noted in Diet Cults, it’s motivation that makes for successful willpower.

Not that everything about our motivation is positive. Fear may be a great motivator. For instance, a doctor says, “If you don’t lose weight you’ll have a heart attack in five years.” For a lot of people, that may be the type of revelation that motivates them to lose weight. A similar scenario may play out if we lose a loved one to a preventable illness like diabetes.

Maybe shame motivates us. I recall a client who stepped on a scale, saw the numbers and said, “That’s it!  I can’t do this anymore. I HAVE GOT TO LOSE WEIGHT.”  And he did.

Money is one of the best, most popular motivators out there. Look at participants on the Biggest Loser. They go through an especially ugly hell to win fame and fortune. (I’ve seen all of about 3 minutes of that show. It scared me.)

I was speaking to a very wise friend about all of this and he said that inherent in this motivation to change is a genuine belief that a change for the better is possible. Beyond the fear mentioned above, we must see and believe in a better life for ourselves. A living belief in a better future sustains motivation. Without this belief motivation withers and dies.

From what I know, motivation must come from within. I’m not sure how to impose motivation on someone. I think perhaps I can draw motivation out of a client by asking the right questions. This is a challenging prospect! This involves a developing a fairly intimate relationship with a client and asking some nuanced, sensitive questions. This has given me a lot to think about.

What motivates you in your fitness endeavors? Surely something must motivate you to wake up early or carve out time in your busy day to grunt, groan, sweat and lift heavy objects. Most of you aren’t pro athletes or models. So why do you do it? I’d like to know. What makes you keep on keeping on?

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