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During exercise I often notice that I'm physically capable, but not mentally. At some point a strong mental listlessness makes me stop my workout.

Normally at this stage a training buddy or a personal trainer would give you a good kick in the butt to create the motivation to do that extra repetion or that extra minute on the treadmill.

How can you do this if you are on your own? How can you build up enough willpower to push you through in the moments where your willpower is at its lowest?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Here's what works for me

Music

If you don't have a taste for techno, develop one. The high BPM (135+) songs not only give you a beat to match; they also give you a rate of momentum to match so you can measure when you're starting to fall off.

Try to sync into your own little world. One of the greatest barriers (at least for me) of working out is the social awkwardness of doing it alone. The better you're able to tune out the people around you the less anxiety you'll feel about doing activities by yourself.

I use two different (and both very high quality) podcasts for workout music. Podrunner and Beatport Burners.

Learn how to make snap decisions

It may seem pretty rudimentary but the ability to make very quick precise decisions is a good skill to have when you need to step out of your comfort zone.

Here's one strategy I've used to build this skill in the past. When you wake up in the morning (for work or school) instead of milling around in bed, immediately jump out of bed as if your house is on fire.

The more time you spend dwelling on a decision the harder it is to make.

Another would be to literally split the decision into two different options and flip a coin to decide. Instead of a lazy/active decision make it an active/active decision. For instance, instead of deciding whether or not to go workout, make it 'workout at the gym' or 'go for a run'. That way you have no path to laziness. The coin is only used as a crutch to get over the anxiety barrier involved in decision making.

IMHO, contrary to popular belief, indecisiveness has very little to do with laziness and very much to do with anxiety. Many people are lazy simply because they're too afraid to break out of their comfort zone. The reward (benefit of getting out) has to be greater than the risk (fear/anxiety involved in the unknown of trying something new).

Shaming yourself into believing that your just a 'lazy person' only makes it harder to become motivated because now you have to overcome both the anxiety of trying something new and the insecurity created by your self-image as a 'lazy person' (ie the risk increases).

Imagine the different ways you can critique a person. First you can attack a person's actions (why don't you get off your butt and get outside), attack their traits (why are you being lazy), or attack their person (you are a lazy person). The first two are easy to change, the third... not so much because you're describing the essence of what that person represents, not their actions. Take this idea into consideration when you critique yourself. People have the singular ability to destroy their own self-esteem without any external interaction because of this. Learning how to separate the 'who I am' from the 'what I do sometimes' is an important skill to learn to prevent from any unnecessary confidence speed bumps.

Adding an imaginary sense of danger is a means to increase the reward of getting out (escape from danger) whereas flipping a coin leaves the decision up to a higher power (luck, god, ect). I could probably write a dissertation about how religion relates to the higher power aspect of decision making but I'll spare you.

Diet/Health

A mental barrier is not always strictly mental. Sometimes, a lack of energy/motivation can be due to your diet/health. For instance: if you're not getting enough sleep your hormones are likely not balanced properly; if you overtrain, your body hasn't had enough time to properly recover yet; if you don't have enough energy you will feel like you don't have enough energy.

The solutions to these issues are simple: get enough rest; plan enough recovery time in between workouts (if you start to feel a decrease of energy); and eat enough (carb load the night/morning before a day of high energy activity) and be sure to eat a lot of protein right after an activity (protein uptake is greatest <45min after exercise) for a better recovery.


I have dealt with and continue to deal with these issues on a daily basis. I could probably be considered a high anxiety personality type (even though my general demeanor is extremely relaxed) because it takes an extra conscious push for me to get involved in a lot of the activities I do.

Fortunately, I've found that the more I get involved in, the easier it is to see the reward instead of the risk when it comes time to make those snap decisions.

Update: @Ivo Flipse just recently posted How Can We Get Willpower Back Once It Has Been Depleted. It's a good read and definitely related to the Op's question.

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disagree with zoning out other people, make friends, that will motivation you more than ignoring them –  Moz Jun 10 '11 at 14:40
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@Moz I don't disagree with you. Working out with other people is definitely a motivator. It just doesn't go well with music. I'd say it's an either/or scenario. Music or socialize. If you mix music (I'm referring to headphones) with being sociable it usually just makes your workout buddies feel awkward. I'll think about how to update my answer to make more sense of that. –  Evan Plaice Jun 10 '11 at 15:24
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I agree with the other answerers about music, planning, and gradual improvement.

When it comes to gradual improvement, I would also like to emphasize that tracking can also be a huge motivator. What's your personal record for this exercise? Can you try to pass it? If you ran 1 mile last time, can you run 1.05 miles this time? If you lifted 100 pounds can you lift 102.5? If you finished your circuit in 10 minutes can you do it this time in 9:50? If you are determined to at least improve on your last workout you may find it easier to keep going.

To help my track my progress I graph all my workouts using Microsoft Excel. It's fairly easy to record your numerical records in a spreadsheet and create a graph out of it. When you look back on the last 3+ weeks of records and see the lines on the graph moving steadily upwards, it's very motivating. You want to work out because you can easily see what you're getting out of it.

The other thing I've used before when running is always giving myself 1 more minute before I quit. For example, I may have planned to run for 45 minutes. It's now been 30, and I'm really feeling like quitting. My muscles ache and my feet hurt, and I'm tired. But I don't feel like I have to quit, I just want to. I think to myself "I could quit now and still be happy with myself. I don't need to run the last 15 minutes. 30 minutes of running isn't bad. I can do better later... BUT, before I quit let me see if I can run just one more minute." When that minute is up, I think "Ok, it's been a minute, I can quit now. But... could I go just one more minute before I do?". Ocassionally I really do quit, but often I find that I'll give myself "one more minute" all the way to the end of my planned workout, and I never do quit. It's that mental trick of giving myself an out, then thinking about just slightly delaying it, rather than focusing on the enormity of what's left, that allows me to keep going.

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+1 for "tracking can also be a huge motivator". For me, owning a heart rate monitor has made a huge improvement in my drive because I have a firm metric to measure my progress. For instance, I mostly do a lot of hard cardio ATM to improve my fitness (and lactic acid threshold); so I'll do a 3.5mi beach run and try my hardest to maintain a 176+ BPM throughout the whole run. Plus, to really push the lactic acid barrier I try to throw in a sprint to break 190+ (it's really intense). Without the heart rate monitor I wouldn't be able to do that. –  Evan Plaice Jun 14 '11 at 15:38
    
I also really like the concept of procrastinating about ending your workout to prolong it. The, 'well, maybe I'll just do one more" seems like such a natural response to keep going. I have never even considered trying to use it as a motivational tool. –  Evan Plaice Jun 14 '11 at 15:47
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Like George Throrogood says - I drink alone when I'm by myself.

Working out alone isn't for everyone, if you feel lack of inspiration or mental fortitude when you're by yourself, you have two options: change your situation and find a workout partner (or trainer) or learn to inspire yourself.

How can you inspire yourself?

  • join workout forums and list your logs for others to view/comment on
  • watch training videos or inspirational movies (Rocky?)
  • talk to yourself - in a positive way

You may end up not being able to workout alone, many people can't, we (most of us) are social animals and need that interaction. If the issue with a gym or personal trainer is money related...post on workout forums for local partners.

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I never had a problem working out on my own but I just accept that some days, it's OK to quit early if you don't feel up to it. Also, make friends with people in your gym and talk to them. –  rmx Jun 7 '11 at 14:49
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One of the things I like about the 5x5 style lifting programs is the following model:

  • You start below what you are currently capable of
  • You increase each session (adding 5lb or 2kg)
  • You focus on form over performance

On one of my lifts, I have the same mental issues. I have this lingering doubt in my mind that this is the session I'm going to stall on. Yet, I push out the reps and keep going. It's that process of overcoming the doubt 5lb at a time that helps me keep pushing. I want to see how far I can go without stalling. I know how many reps I need to do, so I do it.

Now, when you are lifting on your own, you simply can't push yourself as much as when you have someone there to push you. Part of the problem is that when you have someone else as a spotter you have a safety you don't have on your own.

My suggestion would be this:

  • Give yourself a plan for progressive improvement. You aren't at your limit yet, but you'll get there eventually. I.e. always go up in weight or increase the distance of your run.
  • Give yourself a set amount of work. I.e. the sets/reps or the intensity you run should be the same.

It's easier to convince yourself to push out a rep when you know it's the last one. At some point you have to tell yourself to shut up and work. Every time you push past the last limit it builds your confidence that you'll be able to repeat history.

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While I agree that it's more risky (or even dangerous) to lift weights without a spotter, I don't agree that you can't push yourself as much. When I workout alone I usually push a lot harder because I don't have to concern myself with keeping pace with somebody else. For instance, last night I went surfing for an hour and a half, and then did a 3.5mi run along the shoreline. I had trouble keeping pace. I definitely wouldn't expect anybody else to keep up. –  Evan Plaice Jun 9 '11 at 15:37
    
@Evan, the risk of injury is greater when weight lifting than surfing and running. Although I concede that if you physically exhaust yourself surfing you might have issues getting back to shore (risk of drowning). That's why there are safety bars in the power racks. You can use the safety bar as your spotter so that you don't have to worry about the failed bench laying against your throat. If you fail on purpose with the safeties in place, you can get the confidence you need to safely push yourself. –  Berin Loritsch Jun 9 '11 at 15:47
    
I was referring more to the motivation aspect than the risk. Ie, I find it easier to become super-motivated when I workout alone because I don't have to be as concerned with pace. I guess YMMV though. –  Evan Plaice Jun 9 '11 at 16:45
    
I do think that is a personal thing. The more you perceive danger the less willing you are to push yourself. But yes, "dumbing down" our workout to match our peers is always a temptation. –  Berin Loritsch Jun 9 '11 at 16:50
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