We like to think we're rational, but we're not. Your ability to make decisions is affected by a slew of factors, including your emotional state. Here's how to use the best of those feelings to make better decisions and achieve your fitness goals.
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Like many others, I've found my fitness motivation unpredictable at best. I could start off as disciplined as Bruce Lee, only to have my iron will devolve into a puddle of "feed me everything" in a matter of minutes. And I know I'm not alone.
Through anecdotal observations with my clients, I've found that this is quite common. It has something to do with what I like to call "fitness mindsets": Five different states of thought that can cause you to act irrationally and snub your goals.
The Danger of Relying on Motivation
Relying on motivation for fitness success is akin to betting that your favourite Game of Thrones character will be around at the end of the season: it's probably not going to work out in your favour.
Think about someone who makes the typical New Years Resolution. 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. At no point does this highly-motivated individual feel that they are being irrational, even if their history of failure says otherwise.
When March rolls around and they have failed — probably due to a poor effort-to-results ratio — they rationalise their failings. Perhaps work got in the way, or they decided to "accept themselves for who they are" and so on.
This happens to all of us, all the time. Some people can identify with being on a diet, rationalising their way to getting wasted, and then justify scarfing down thousands of calories worth of McDonald's at 3am. When it comes to fitness decisions, we assume ourselves to be rational regardless of our emotional state. This, paradoxically, means that we're not being rational at all.
The Five Fitness Mindsets States
Based on what I've seen in my clients, I've created a model of five fitness mindsets, which are driven by two main factors:
- Your motivation levels
- Your energy levels
These states can can last anywhere from minutes to days. Sometimes they are as spontaneous and appear with no rhyme or reason. They are:
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 decisions that optimise both your fitness progress and your emotional and mental satisfaction. Ideally, we would stay in this state permanently... but we all know that doesn't happen.
The "Determined" State
Energy: High Motivation: High
In this state, almost nothing that can derail you from your fitness goals. 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 that the nitty gritty details of your fitness fitness regimen are sorted, because let's face it: the logistics are a pain to deal with. So, you might as well maximise 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, you can't bring yourself to go to the gym or prepare healthy meals, but your energy levels are still high, which often leads to outlets like binge eating or drinking. It can be easy to undo progress in the spendthrift state. Ironically, this state is often brought about after continued progress in which you feel that "partying" some of it away is justified. When (or if!) you do make it to the gym, you still want to be productive, but the original focus and drive you started with has disappeared. As a result, you'll probably spend some time program hopping or making it up as you go along.
The "Listless" State
Energy: Low Motivation: Low
The desire to train and follow your diet is low. If this state is short-lasting, you may do everything you can to rationalise 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 for a very different reason than when you're in the "spendthrift" state. The justification that occurs isn't one of rationalising your progress, but rationalising 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 this is caused by 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.
How to Switch to a Better State and Make Better Decisions
Unfortunately, moving between states is not easy. They involve feelings, which are difficult to change instantaneously. You can, however control what you do with them.
If you follow your desires when you're not in the objective or determined states, you're setting yourself up for disaster, because your decisions are irrational. Here's what to do instead:
- 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. Pretend you're a coach giving yourself advice, then following it. 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. Remember, humans aren't built to be rational. Funny creatures, yes; objective, no. Understand this whilst forgiving yourself for being human, and you'll be OK.