I'm really struggling to focus on eating well and doing exercise. I know I need to do it, but I just can't bring myself to, which is making me feel even more demotivated. Why is this?
Knowing that we should do something is nowhere near as powerful as feeling that we want to. In order to make beahvioural change you have to make choices that are congruent with your life and that provide to you a way of seeing clearly how life will be better as a result.
Eating well and exercising regularly can be hard habits to create because we tend to focus more on what is difficult about them rather than what will be great.
Switch your motivation away from the perceived loss of not being able to eat junk food and sit on the sofa. Instead think hard about what it will feel like when you have established a healthy eating regime and got yourself feeling physically fitter.
There is much more forward motion in trying to move towards something enjoyable than there is in trying to escape from something painful.
Start small and don’t expect to create perfection because you will surely fail and as soon as you do your self belief will crumble.
So set yourself achievable objectives.
That might be eating healthily during the week and giving yourself complete freedom at the weekend, or going out for a run twice a week. If it’s more than you’re doing now it’s a win and you need to treat it as such.
It doesn’t matter what standards you set as long as you can meet them.
As soon as you start to feel the benefits of your small changes it will become much easier to extend them into a more fundamental lifestyle change.
It’s worth noting that sometimes we struggle to do the things that are good for us because, often unconsciously, we doubt that we are valuable enough. If all of the things I have suggested here still don’t have the desired effect it would be worth you having a session or two with a therapist to work out why you seem so intent on getting in your own way.
The obvious question to ask here is what’s stopping you? What’s getting in the way? There are a few things at play when we approach a task; our resources (energy), our desire and our attention.
Firstly, check in on your energy; are you fuelled or hydrated enough? Ironically the thing you’re trying to do better may be being hampered because you’re not doing it well enough in the first place! Bad nutrition and low movement can cause fatigue and languishing in the body. Good news is, it doesn’t take momentous actions to start to turn the wheel the other way - the more you eat well and move well, the easier it will become. Choose something very small and do it. Then add more and more layers as you go. Don’t jump head first into a whole new diet or full-on exercise routine.
The next area is desire. Many people don’t feel motivated to do a task... newsflash, motivation is a mythical beast, so waiting for it means we would probably get nothing done. The conditions will never be right. Don’t wait for the right moment or the right feeling – just do it. Stop with the excuses! Behaviour Studies show that motivation follows action. Once you start doing something, you’ll get into it and it will become easier. Try counting down 5-4-3-2-1 and then do what you intended.
In order to ‘just do it’, we need to know what we are doing. Our brains will always choose the easy option unless directed otherwise so we need to set intentions for our brains; tell it what we are going to do. This can be ‘to do’ lists on paper or phones or apps. Write it down and make it small and achievable. Big tasks will create repulsion in our brains and we will avoid it. Brains like bitesize. And tell your brain when you are going to do it so that you can set direction for it. So, you could start with ‘go to the gym for 5 minutes after work on Monday’ or ‘have yoghurt and fruit for breakfast each weekday’.
Where possible also set a reward for achieving tasks; just ticking something off a list gives us a dopamine hit. And combine something ‘boring’ with something more enjoyable like listening to a podcast whilst you walk or jog.
A session with a Spill therapist could be helpful for you to explore blocks and develop systems, or you can do this research yourself through trial and error or reading about what systems are out there. James Clear (author of Atomic Habits) has some great ideas.
Having said all of the above, my single piece of advice would be this: find some small task that you can do and do it every day. It may be eating breakfast or a walk outside, but consistency is the key. Even better is to choose something that makes you sparkle or you know increases your mood. Build new habits. Ultimately, be kind to yourself. You are a human, not a machine, and it sounds like you have a lot going on. Tiny tweaks lead to big changes.
Making changes to anything in life is a process. Often when we make a change, we expect instant results and get disappointed and deflated when we realise it won’t be that easy. You can immediately make things easier for yourself by accepting that these changes will take time and patience and relapses into old behaviours are inevitable.
The following are tips to help you make the desired changes:
Get clear about your motivation for change. Why do you want to improve your diet and exercise habits? What will the benefits be for you and those around you? Write these all down and it may help to print this list out and keep it somewhere you can see it.
What are the disadvantages of not making changes? It will help to write these down too.
Spend time with others who have similar goals or in places that reflect what you are working on.
Make a commitment to change. Tell people you know what you are doing and see if you can get an ‘accountability buddy’ to check in with about your progress.
Get clear about when you will exercise and what you will do. What are the barriers that may prevent this? This may be things like not having the right clothes or using a gym that is too far away. Aim to eliminate any barriers. Do the same with food. What will you eat and when? What might get in the way? It may be helpful to tackle one issue at once. I started improving my exercise routine and because I felt much healthier, I had to put less effort into making changes to my diet. Changes to my diet happened more organically because I had already changed my mind set by exercising more.
Monitor your progress in a journal. It might help to try a 30-day challenge to get you going where you integrate new behaviours over 30 days and then re-evaluate at the end of the time period.
Changing habits can be tough, especially where there are mental conflicts or external barriers. If you need more help, consider talking to a coach or therapist if that's a resource available through your work.