The Trouble with Inspiration
The fitness industry and its participants are in the midst of an arms race: our over-reliance on inspiration and motivation to fuel our workouts is slowly inoculating us—effectively building up our collective tolerance to the things we used to find inspiring—and leaving us in a constant search for something bigger and better to get our motivational fix. There's nothing wrong with being inspired, but we've come to expect it as a daily, hourly, or even minute-to-minute occurrence. Anyone who's done this consistently for any length of time has come to terms with the hard—or maybe just boring—reality that effective training is typically more about the prosaic than the passionate.
Passion and motivation aren't bad things, it's a matter of dosing and balance. When taken too far, I see three key problems with our dependence on artificially induced inspiration:
I'll dig into these potential pitfalls, and outline some of the scientific and anecdotal evidence behind my reasoning. Finally, I'll propose a solution—habit—and present some of the evidence in its favor.
Any discussion of motivation owes some attention to dopamine, the key hormone/neurotransmitter involved in driving human behavior. Colloquially mischaracterized as a part of our reward system, dopamine is actually released in anticipation of a positive outcome. This in turn drives our urges and behaviors in pursuit of everything from food and sex to exploration and learning. Put plainly, dopamine is what gets us off the couch and into our running shoes—it's the anticipation of having completed the act and reaping the associated rewards that actually gets us moving.
Dopamine works within a neurochemical feedback loop: a biological system in which the outcome either amplifies the system through positive feedback, or inhibits it through negative feedback. Dopamine drives what can be considered "seeking" behaviors, and when these lead to successful (pleasurable) outcomes, the brain's opiod system releases the chemical equivalent of a reward—a clear example of positive feedback. Over time, this pleasurable response creates an association between the reward, the behavior, and the seeking behavior that kicked things off. As a result, dopamine continues to drive similar behaviors.
The key to dopamine's lasting effect is in the reliability of the reward—if it fails or falters, the feedback loop is inhibited, and dopamine is suppressed.
Dopamine works within a neurochemical feedback loop: a biological system in which the outcome either amplifies the system through positive feedback, or inhibits it through negative feedback.
Over the next few weeks this system will play itself out on the grandest of scales as New Year's resolutions drive people into our gyms, their brains effectively flooded with dopamine. For a few weeks a combination of novelty and easy weight loss will continue the dopamine drip and they'll keep showing up, their resolve strengthened via this biochemical process. But as things get harder—as their brain and body grow accustomed to exercise and progress slows or stalls—the flow of dopamine dwindles unless the perceived reward is replaced with something more consistent.
On a neurological level, inspirational sayings are nothing more than a different form of reward. Having a fit-bodied instructor tell you that, "you're giving yourself the gift of whatever you have left!" or to, "say yes to yourself!" temporarily fulfills the rewards side of the dopamine equation; it is the reward. As such, it has the power to help fuel our dopaminergic feedback loop—at least in the short term. But given time and repetition, we adapt; the novel becomes the norm, and what was once perceived as a reward is now just background noise. The input hasn't changed, but our response to it—and the resultant output—has. Perception becomes reality.
This all leads us back to what I see as the three problems in relying on external inspiration to drive consistent behaviors. In no particular order, I see our reliance on inspiration as:
Outsourcing your drive in any way is inherently unreliable—who exactly are you outsourcing things to and what's their investment? More specifically, we've seen how these manufactured rewards don't consistently feed our dopaminergic brains, and have likely felt first-hand the results of this shortcoming—"last week she said, 'do it as a gift to yourself', but this week she just said, 'you can do it'... I just didn't feel as inspired!"
Social media—even mainstream media at this point—reflects a distorted version of reality, one in which every workout has a sexy partner across the way, a great outfit, a beautiful view, and a soundtrack to match. We're inundated with hashtags and slogans proclaiming just how fun, easy, and perfect this all is. It's an unrealistic expectation, and can leave reality feeling pretty flat. The same can be said of constantly being reminded that, "you've got this... yes I can, yes I will!" or that, "I like how I look. I like how I feel. I got it!" If you don't feel that way, does that mean that something's wrong with you?
Finally, emotion is exhausting. Spending too much time caught up in the throes of any form of passion—regardless of the specifics—is draining. In the moment you may find yourself carried along by the currents of emotion, but in the long run it takes its toll.
Alternative Fuel Sources
I've long been of the mindset that if I can't present a solution, highlighting a problem is a lazy, indulgent act. With that in mind—and since I've asked you all to abandon what I see as a flawed reliance on inspiration—let me propose a solution. Before I do, a quick caveat in the interest of disclosure: I am a terrible cheerleader. Just not a club I've got in my bag. Additionally, I can be pretty cold and calculating in my approach to training—something I've actually worked hard at improving for my clients' sake, and with good results. I mention this to provide some perspective and to acknowledge my own bias. I still think I'm right, but of course I do... take this with whatever dose of salt feels appropriate.
Rather than relying on feeling inspired week after week to get us through our workouts, I would have us lean on the power of habit. It's a deliberately boring solution to a sexy problem. Where sex appeal seems to be masking weakness, the more workmanlike habit is incredibly utilitarian. What it lacks in sex appeal it makes up in staying power.
Much of habit's power comes from its efficiency—over the centuries human beings evolved to be relatively conservative, particularly in their use of energy. The human brain makes up about two percent of our bodyweight, but is responsible for roughly 20 percent of our energy use. More or less efficient brain processes can lead to pretty notable swings in energy consumption. Habits are powerful because they are metabolically cost-effective; making decisions is literally tiring. For that reason, we use habits as shortcuts, using them to replace conscious decision making and conserving energy in the process.
Habits can be seen as nature's very own life hack— evolution's way of helping us save energy.
It's been estimated that as much as half of what we do on any given day is driven by habit. In his outstanding book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman outlines the brain's built-in tendency to take the proverbial path of least resistance in an effort to reduce energy consumption, and our daily lives reflect this. I drove to work today—safely—but largely without decision making.
Where inspiration is unreliable, habits are dependable. Rather than being unrealistic, they are almost painfully pragmatic. And if emotions are exhausting, habits can be seen as nature's very own life hack—evolution's way of helping us save energy.
Detachment & Sustainability
The bottom line is that emotion is exhausting. There's value in doing something hard while detaching yourself from excess emotion. Show up because there's work to do, and do the work because you showed up. It's ok to say something inspirational once in a while—it's probably actually a good thing—but it works better as one of the tools at your disposal rather than as your entire repertoire.
If you enjoyed this post, pease consider sharing it with someone who might feel the same way!
*An unimportant footnote: the inspirational quotes above were all overheard—by me—with varying degrees of amusement and frustration. This is the kind of stuff we're actually saying to people on a daily basis.