We’ve all been there – some of us more often than others – in that situation where you’re meant to be doing some exercise, but when the time comes you’re really tempted to just bunk off and do it another day.
This might happen if you’re tired, stressed, moody, distracted, or maybe you simply just don’t feel motivated. It can also happen if there is nothing inherently rewarding or enjoyable for you about the form of exercise you do. If this is the case, it’s time for you to switch things up and try something new.
However, if you are often affected by the other aforementioned factors, there are mental practices that you can get into to reduce the power that negative thoughts and feelings have over your behaviour!
I’m going to write a series of posts on this subject, each addressing individual practices that are simple but often surprisingly powerful. As with anything, different psychological techniques will work differently from one person to the next, so it’s worth trying them all out.
The first practice I’m going to discuss is possibly the most important as it actually lays the foundation for other techniques:
Get present and check in with yourself.
One of the easiest ways for us to cave under the influence of our emotions and impulses is to react to them without consideration.
You may have noticed that the way you “feel” is often different to what you are logically thinking. This is simply because we are wired to work not only on logic and conscious thought, but also emotions, urges, instincts and habits.
For instance, you may logically decide that you want to go to the gym to continue improving your fitness and feel good about yourself – but at the same time, what you really feel like doing is heading straight home, vegging out on the sofa and scoffing a bag of popcorn.
On a basic level, this is due to the interactions between systems in our brain that have different functions: the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system), and the “thinking” part (the pre-frontal cortex).
The problem with our emotional brain is that the emotional and physiological feelings it creates are often more powerful than logic, because they initiate a reaction or behaviour much more quickly, and they are compelling. They also pop up out of nowhere with no effort, whereas using conscious thought to plan, problem-solve and make decisions takes effort.
Consequently, we often make decisions based entirely on the way we feel at the time, instead of stopping to think more clearly. We do things to satisfy our emotions and impulses, instead of our logical, long-term goals. This is natural, particularly if you’ve had a long day, because we rely much more heavily on our emotional brain when we are tired and our resources are down. [Hint: if you struggle to motivate yourself to exercise in the evenings, do it in the morning when you’re fresh and revived!]
However, there is something you can do to slow things down and give yourself a better chance of doing what you set out to do. They key here is to put some distance between the way you feel (i.e. your emotions) and your subsequent behaviour.
The first step toward reducing the power our feelings have over our behaviour is to be aware of them. Initially, start taking note of the times of day and situations that make you feel “demotivated”or negative. This can give you a bit of an insight into any specific triggers, if there are any. For example, if you start to realise that you always feel least like exercising after work, then do it in the morning or at lunchtime.
Then when you find yourself in a situation where you’re tempted to skip a workout, spend a few minutes paying attention to how you are feeling and what’s running through your head. When I say paying attention, I don’t mean judging – I mean just observing. What kind of emotions or mood are you experiencing? What are you “thinking” to yourself?
You might notice that you have some constructive thoughts, such as: “I should go to the gym, I know I’ll feel good afterwards”, but also some unhelpful thoughts, such as: “I really can’t be bothered, going home is more appealing, I’ll go another time.”
Unhelpful thoughts and feelings become problematic when we treat them too literally. We treat them as something that must guide our behaviour. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
If you find yourself tempted to bail, try labelling your thoughts. I know this sounds odd, but bear with me. Say you are thinking: “I really don’t want to do this because I’m tired.” Try modifying it like so: “I am having the thought that I don’t want to do this because I’m tired.” It may sound strange, but clearly identifying and stepping back from your thoughts authentically demonstrates to you that they are just that – thoughts – and they don’t have any power over your behaviour.
Note: this takes practice. You can’t expect to master these things instantly, particularly given the counter-intuitive nature of focusing on thoughts you might usually try to ignore.
By becoming more present and identifying what is going on internally, you are then in a better position to make rational decisions and persist towards your goals, rather than acting on impulse. Consider how satisfied you will feel once you have done what you need to do – think back to how satisfied you were last time you exercised. Perhaps remind yourself that the discomfort and apathy you are experiencing now will not last for much longer.
For some people, this kind of pausing and heightened self-awareness of thoughts and emotions is just what they need to steer themselves in the right direction. However others need something extra – becoming aware and creating distance between themselves and their thoughts isn’t going to cut it alone – and this is fine.
Either way, increasing your self-awareness and engagement with the present moment lays the foundation for pretty much all other psychological techniques, simply because you need to be aware of what is happening to solve the issue!
My next post will reveal a different way of tackling situations such as these, so keep a look out!