Fitness Psychological States And The Problem with Motivation

(Note: This is a slightly longer version version of Dick’s Lifehacker post “The Five Fitness Mindsets” that you can find here)

As human beings, we like to think we’re rational, but unfortunately we’re not. As a person whose self-control could go from high to “feed me all the things” in the matter of seconds, I found my own decision making to be fascinating.

The reality is that when it comes to fitness, we all have a multiple personality disorder of sorts. I call these “fitness psychological states.”

Objectivity and The Danger of Motivational Reliance

If you were to take a survey asking people who have failed to get fit exactly why they have struggled with fitness, most would say it’s because of “motivation.” But motivation is fleeting. It waxes and wanes. By relying on it, you’re putting your success in the hands of a volatile factor that you cannot always control.

In reality “motivation” is particularly dangerous. Motivational reliance reeks havoc on your decision making, because it gives the illusion of objectivity. Think about your typical person who makes a New Years Resolution to get fit. They’re excited about getting healthy and they can’t wait to hit the gym every single day and consume organic salads for the rest of their lives. They think that they’re being completely rational in the process.

When March rolls around and they’ve failed–probably due to a poor effort-to-results ratio–they rationalize their failings…perhaps work got in the way, they wanted to “accept themselves for who they are,” or some other baloney. Yet, they believe themselves to be rational throughout. Hell, let’s look at a completely different example. Many people can identify with being on a diet, rationalizing your way to getting wasted, and then justifying scarfing down thousands of calories worth of McDonald’s at 3am.

When it comes to fitness decisions, no matter what state of motivation we’re in, we assume ourselves to be rational. This means that we’re not being rational at all.

The Five Fitness Psychological States

I’ve observed that at any point, someone is in one of four psychological states when it comes to fitness. While there are a lot of factors that go into deciding which state you’re in–and sometimes it’s completely random–your state is highly driven by your motivation and the amount of energy that you have at the time. This can last anywhere from days to a matter of minutes, depending on the individual.

The “Objective” State

Energy: Normal
Motivation: Normal

In this state, you are being objectively rational. You absolutely understand the tradeoffs of fitness decisions (do I join my co-workers for an unplanned happy hour or do I just go home?) and make the best decision for both your fitness goals and short-term needs. We’ll focus a lot on this state later, because this is the state that we would ideally be if possible.

The “Determined” State

Energy: High
Motivation: High

There’s nothing that can derail you from your fitness goals when you’re in this state. You’ll do whatever you can to execute your diet and training program, and nothing can get in the way. This is a good time to make sure that your fitness regimen is sound so that you’re maximizing your productivity while you’re in this state. Ride it out while you can.

The “Spendthrift” State

Energy: Medium to High
Motivation: Low

In this state, your energy levels are high but motivation for fitness endeavors is low. There’s often a need for an outlet, and the spontaneous urge to binge eat/drink (as with the other low-motivation state), or undo progress is common. Ironically, this state is often brought about after a period of continued progress in which you feel that “partying” some of it away is justified. There’s a subconscious desire to increase your fitness motivation levels to match your energy levels, so you may also experience the urge to program hop or do something in the gym that’s not on your program (if you actually make it to the gym).

The “Listless” State

Energy: Low
Motivation: Low

The desire to train and follow your diet is low. If this is an acute period, you may do everything you can to rationalize why you shouldn’t be following your regimen in the next few hours or days. If it’s a longer bout, you may feel frustrated with your progress and want to quit altogether. You may feel the need to binge eat or drink, but from a very different reason than the “spendthrift” state. The justification that occurs isn’t one of rationalizing your progress, but rationalizing failure.

The “Passive” State

Energy: Low
Motivation: Medium to High

You have the desire to make good decisions, but follow-through is a problem. Often that follow-through is because of frictions that may be unrelated to fitness. For example, you absolutely want to go to the gym to train, but you don’t feel like dealing with traffic or the rush hour crowd. Or perhaps you would absolutely stick to your diet, but you can’t because of the three back-t0-back office parties coming up. You may have been on a regimen for a bit at this point and have even seen success, but there’s an element of burnout, even if you want to keep going. This may last a while at the tail end of a diet, or it may come about spontaneously when you have to make a fitness-related decision, particularly at the end of the day.

Switching States and Making Rational Decisions

Unfortunately, you can’t easily switch between states, because much like moods, they involve feelings. You you can’t control your feelings, but you can control what you do with them.

In order to make good decisions when you’re not in the objective or determined states, you’ll need to follow two steps:

  • Catch yourself when you’re in a different state. This requires a lot of mental energy…it’s not easy admitting that you’re not thinking rationally, but it does get easier with practice. You can catch yourself in a different state by using a totem or reflecting after the fact when you know that the decisions you made were not truly objective.
  • Channel how you would think in the “objective” state. This requires a bit of effort. You can’t automatically think in the objective state, but you can think objectively and mindfully about what you would think if you were in the objective state. It may help to think about pretending to be a coach who’s giving you advice, and then following that advice. If it’s a dilemma you frequently find yourself in (e.g. binge eating after a few drinks), you might want to write future you a note when you’re in an objective state, then read it when you find yourself in that state.

Going against your default way of thinking isn’t easy, but it gets easier and is a valuable skill to learn. In Part 2, we’ll examine specific strategies for individual mental states and how you can go back to making rational decisions.