Witmer’s Wisdom: Motivation Is Programmable

Taking a few small actions a day is all it takes to create a positive motivational spiral.

Photo: Paul Rutherford -- UltiPhotos.com
Photo: Paul Rutherford — UltiPhotos.com

I used to think my job was simply to provide great training to self-motivated athletes. I figured either you have motivation or you don’t, and it wasn’t my job to sort it out for you. But, I was wrong.

I still provide great programming to self-motivated athletes. But I’ve also come to see that motivation isn’t just about Instagrammable inspirational quotes that make me cringe. Over the years I’ve slowly realized that motivation is a complex problem worth solving. In short, I have come to learn that motivation is programmable.

If you’re like a lot of folks out there, the pandemic and the uncertainty of the next season have left you feeling “bleh.” You are possibly feeling heavier — both physically and mentally — and even if you know what to do to get back in shape, it’s hard to tap into the reasons why you want to.

But you don’t need to feel at the mercy of your own lack of motivation or lack of willpower. Nor do you need to feel badly about it. Lack of motivation isn’t a character flaw — it’s a programming flaw.

Here’s how to reprogram your motivation so that you can more easily get started and stick to your workout plans. I’ve seen this work dramatically for my one-on-one Premium clients, and I know it can work for you.

Step 1: Recognize Your Current Motivational Death Spiral

When we are feeling unmotivated, it is often because we have fallen into some repeated thought and action patterns that keep us stuck.

You tell yourself, “I can’t believe I let myself get this out of shape,” or “I need to start working out.” Life happens, and sometimes that means a workout doesn’t. Then, when it is time to work out, you find yourself saying, “I don’t feel like working out now,” or “I’m too busy/tired this evening.” It’s the same thing the next day… “I have no discipline. I’m so lazy. It’s too hard to get started up after not doing this for so long.”

The cycle continues every few days or weeks as you continue to collect evidence for why you are lazy and why working out is so hard to begin.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s likely you’re losing your connection with why you want to work out. Instead are feeling like you should work out and are choosing to feel bad about yourself versus expending that energy on finding solutions to whatever issues are getting in your way.

First, of all, yes you should be working out and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But death spiral thoughts about how you are lazy and how it’s hard to get started aren’t actually going to help you get started or stick to your workout plans. These actually keep you stuck.

Everyone’s “death spiral” thoughts are different. And we may have different thought patterns for different areas of our lives as they start stagnating. Start noticing what yours are!

Step 2: Identify What You Actually Want

Do you even want to be working out right now? Maybe your life really is too hectic right now. Maybe you really are overly stressed and it would be more healthy not to pile another thing onto your life right now. Or maybe it would be best to re-imagine what working out looks like for you in your current situation.

If you could drop worrying about what you should want. Can you identify what you do want?

It can be easy to lose track of what you actually want if you don’t take the time to pay attention. Below are some options for things you might want. Do any of them resonate with you?

  • Do you want to feel better physically?
  • Do you want to reclaim your identity as an athlete?
  • Do you want stress-relieving hard workouts?
  • Do you want to push yourself out of your comfort zone?
  • Do you want to take good care of yourself emotionally by staying in your comfort zone physically?
  • Do you want to get back in touch with your body after not using it much for a while?
  • Do you want to make a new team this year?
  • Do you want to make a bigger contribution to the team you’re on?
  • Do you want to be a good role model for others?
  • Do you want to be proud of yourself for getting/staying fit and healthy?

By figuring out and listening to what you actually want, you can start to increase your desire for healthy action. You can also start to problem solve for what you want to accomplish rather than feeling like it’s gotta be track workouts or nothing.

Step 3: Start A Motivational Spiral

All you want to do with this step is to create some space for motivation to appear. If you have some motivation but want more of it, you’re creating some space for it to grow.

The key to this step is that you need to 100 percent believe what you are telling yourself. You are connecting to and cultivating whatever seed of motivation you already have, not trying to force yourself into magnitudes of motivation you don’t yet possess.

This can be as simple as stating what you want every day from Step 2 above. It can be a reframing of who you are. For example, “Sometimes I enjoy exercise,” — as opposed to “I am lazy” — might be a believable way to think about yourself. It can be ideas about motivation itself. One of my clients started with the simple idea of, “it is possible that I can make space for motivation to appear.”

The aim is not to argue with your death spiral thought patterns, but rather to create an alternative spiral that also feels true but is more helpful than your death spiral thinking. Writing down these more helpful thought patterns every day is a simple way to remind yourself of something you already know to be true, that is more helpful than the unhelpful thought patterns you’ve been involuntarily repeating.

Step 4: Make One Small Choice About One Small Action

You’re currently feeling at the mercy of your own poor decisions, lack of willpower, etc. It’s like you feel incapable of making choices that will actually help you. To break the cycle you’re going to make just one small choice and take one small action every day.

Your one small choice is to decide on something small that you can without a doubt, without much effort, struggle, or resistance, do every day with your current level of motivation. Here are a few things my clients have chosen to give you some inspiration:

  • Some number of pushups or pullups every day
  • Writing down some motivation spiral thoughts every day
  • Eating one vegetable every day
  • Going to bed before midnight every night

Notice these actions alone are not intended to get you in shape, fix your diet, make you stronger, or change your life. Instead, think of your chosen action as a symbol of your larger goal. This works because…

  1. You are making it easier for your brain to collect evidence that you can make choices and follow through on them.
  2. The act of making a choice — any choice — in the direction of a goal increases your motivation toward that goal.

Remember this is a motivation-enhancing program, not the program that is going to give you the end result you want. Instead, you are increasing your motivation with regard to pursuing what you want. With enhanced motivation, you’ll be able to look for, evaluate, and follow programming or coaching that will give you your desired result.

The Program

Now that you’ve done the four steps above, the motivation program is simple. Every day you will:

  1. Write down your motivation spiral thoughts.
  2. Complete your chosen action.

That is all. Everything else is optional and extra and fun.

Before you discount this program as too simple, try it for three weeks and let me know how it goes! If it doesn’t work, you’ve wasted about 30 whole minutes of your life and you’re no worse off than where you are now.

Every athlete on my UAP Premium program starts with some variation of the process above. I have seen athletes go from struggling to work out at all to happily working out six days a week. Even for athletes not struggling with motivation in general, a motivation program enables them to make other necessary changes in their habits and actions in order to produce the results on the field that they want.

And best of all, your compliance doesn’t need to be perfect! If you can do the above for just four or five days per week, I can almost guarantee that by the end of three weeks, you’ll be doing more workouts than you are now. And with a lot less stress and worry about all the things you’re not doing.

Time to Get Started

If you are really struggling with motivation right now, if you’re stuck in a rut and can’t seem to get out, please be in touch. You don’t need to live like this — change is possible for you.

Get started with the process above, and you will feel differently in just a few weeks. For additional guidance and support, I’ve got a new program coming up specifically for those of you who are feeling stuck when it comes to working out or having mixed feelings about returning to ultimate. If you want to feel excited about ultimate, if you want to stick to your workout plans and get in shape for ultimate season, sign up here and you’ll be the first in line when our new program opens up.

  1. Melissa Witmer
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    Melissa Witmer is the founder of the Ultimate Athlete Project. She has been a part of the ultimate community since 1996, and is an author, content creator, and coach. Something of a citizen of the world, Melissa lives and works abroad and has instructed and connected ultimate players and coaches from all over the world.

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