Too many people make the same mistake motivating themselves to work out

Treadmill running workout gym exercise men
Stop lecturing yourself about the benefits of physical activity. Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Getting stronger, looking hotter, being less humiliated when climbing the stairs with spry colleagues — these are all solid reasons to work out.

And yet if you’re having trouble mustering the motivation to hit the gym regularly, do yourself a favour and stop lecturing yourself about the myriad benefits of physical activity. It’s hardly helping.

A better bet? Put a time on your calendar and do it, and trust that you’ll like it.

That’s according to Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University and the author of the new book about human motivation, “Payoff.” Ariely visited the Business Insider office in November and explained that too many people make the same mistake when trying to motivate themselves to do anything, whether that’s working out or writing a report.

The mistake is anticipating that the workout will be awful the whole time and that the only reason to do it is to achieve those long-term goals mentioned above. The activity we’re dreading is rarely as painful as we imagine it will be, Ariely said — in fact, there’s a good chance we’ll enjoy it.

Here’s Ariely:

“When we think about running, it just seems like it’s really going to be miserable and painful and unpleasant and so on. And we don’t engage in it. But the fact is that once we’re in the task, life changes. All of a sudden, we think less about the misery and we learn to enjoy things.”

In other words, as you’ve probably heard before, the hardest part of working out is just getting started. Once you do, Ariely said, thoughts of getting stronger and looking better kind of melt away as you take in the sensation of your breath, the music coming through your headphones, and the sound of your feet hitting the ground.

In psychologist-speak, the mistake we’re making here is placing too much value on extrinsic motivators, like long-term health goals, and too little on intrinsic motivators, like having fun right now.

In fact, a recent study found that while people were exercising, they placed greater value on intrinsic motivators such as having fun and relieving stress than when they were planning to exercise in the future. When they were planning to exercise, they placed greater value on extrinsic motivators like improving their health and becoming stronger.

So back to that bit of advice about putting a time on your calendar for exercise (or writing, or whatever you need to do). “The first few minutes are not going to be that pleasurable, and [you’ll be] sitting there saying, ‘Ugh, I have to do this,'” Ariely said.

The key is having faith that your experience will improve.

“Once we get going,” Ariely said, “things are going to get better.”

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