The Unexpected Way Resolutions Hurt Your Motivation

Do You Set Resolutions?

Let me ask you a question. How many different workout programs or diets have you tried in the last five years? Two? Three? Five? More than that? There’s a reason why you make those resolutions over and over.


Whether it’s making new-year’s resolutions or just due to a low point of frustration or misery, we’ve all decided at some point that our diet or workout routine isn’t giving us the results we desire. And so, what do you do? You talk to friends and family, you do a little research, or you check out that product you saw the commercial or ad for. When you finally find that “perfect” solution you dive in head first.

New is exciting

If it’s a diet you’re looking for, you buy the book and go to the grocery store to stock up on all the new, healthy ingredients you need to make those delicious-looking recipes. If it’s a new workout program, you buy the DVD or subscription and maybe even some new workout clothes and equipment. You needed a new yoga mat and running shoes anyway, right?

For a week or so, you’re full of enthusiasm and energy, cooking entire meals for your family or getting up early five days a week to work out. You tell all your friends how much you love your new diet or workout routine and how you’re starting to feel better already. Then, in the second week you make your new meals on only four nights or you workout only three times. In week three, you only make one “healthy” meal or do one workout. By week four you're back to “normal”, eating fast food or pizza five nights and abandoning your workouts altogether.

The shift in perspective

If you think back over the previous few weeks, you notice that something interesting happened. After the first week, you notice that the little voice inside your head started talking about how expensive all those new, healthy ingredients are, and how it takes twice as long to cook a healthy meal. You’ve got so much going on in the evening that it’s hard to make those meals consistently. Maybe you told yourself that your family isn’t crazy about these new meals, and since they’re not on your diet it’s not really fair to them. And besides, it’s not realistic to make two different meals every night. So, I guess this new diet wasn’t really a good fit for you after all.

When you think back on the first few weeks of your new exercise program, you notice that same little voice telling you that you’ve got a lot going on at work right now, so trying to squeeze in an extra hour to go to the gym four days a week is a stretch. Or maybe that old shoulder injury flared up again making two of the workout videos practically impossible. Maybe you tell yourself that the workouts would really be a lot more efficient or effective if you had a gym membership, but you can’t really afford that right now.

Do you see what just happened here?

You went from being totally committed to and excited about your new routine to creating elaborate justifications that explain why it either wasn’t a good fit for you or now just wasn’t the right time. It’s the same workout program from three weeks ago. It’s the same diet from three weeks ago. It’s the same you from three weeks ago. So what happened?

The psychology of resolutions

The answer has to do with why we make resolutions in the first place. When you feel bad about a particular situation in your life, whether it’s your diet, your fitness level or anything else, your mind desperately tries to eliminate or at least avoid the stress associated with that feeling. One very quick and easy way to do that is to make resolutions to change your lifestyle, like a new diet or fitness routine.

When you make that kind of commitment (and I use that word very loosely), your brain essentially takes credit for your new lifestyle before you actually do anything, and so you feel great! All the gain with none of the pain! That’s why you (and everyone else) get so enthusiastic when you make resolutions. It’s basically like a quick “high”.

Unfortunately, that feeling of relief is not sustainable. Once you start living your new lifestyle, the initial “high” you got from making the commitment gradually gets replaced by the reality of how much work you’re going to have to do every day to lose that weight or get that body you say you want.

This is the phase of lifestyle change where you find out whether you were actually committed to getting that beach body, or just seduced by the feeling you get from the idea of making the change. When you reach that crossroads, you basically have three choices.

Reality sets in

Your first choice is to continue doing your diet or workout routine half-way. In this scenario, you typically get very little (or no) results for the level of effort and expense you’re putting forth, so it’s the least likely choice. Another reason you’re unlikely to continue on this path is because doing so means you’ll be confronted by your half-commitment every day. This creates cognitive dissonance, which your mind actively seeks to avoid. I discuss the concept of cognitive dissonance in another video, if you want to check it out here.

Your second choice is to re-evaluate why you made the resolution in the first place, based on everything you know now, and decide to fully commit to making it work. While some people do follow this path, it is unlikely as well. You’ve just spent the last couple of weeks creating elaborate justifications why this isn’t the right time or this program just isn’t a good fit for you. So if you now decide that it is a good fit after all, you’ll have to confront the reality that you were really just making excuses all along, which is another kind of cognitive dissonance. Another reason this choice is less likely is because making a genuine commitment will require a lot of hard work and, unfortunately, many people aren’t willing to do that.

Assuming you don’t go with option 1 or 2, you're left with abandoning the diet or workout program altogether. Doing so is usually is the most attractive option because it requires virtually no effort. An added benefit is that it allows you to keep justifying the decision to yourself and others, thereby keeping cognitive dissonance at bay, at least temporarily.

Eventually, however, as you see more magazine covers at the grocery store, website ads and TV commercials extolling the virtues of the newest exercise fad or celebrity diet, that nagging feeling that you should really be doing something about your health resurfaces. Rather than spending your hard-earned money on another fitness machine, workout program or cookbook, you could just try one of the several you’ve already purchased. After all, other people have had tremendous success using it, and even you were convinced it was the key to finally getting that beach body. Maybe now is a good time for it. Unfortunately, doing so would also open up a psychological “can of worms”, dredging up all those same feelings of how you tried and failed before. That thought is not very appealing to most people; and so you start the cycle all over again.

Lather, rinse, repeat

From a psychological perspective, once you’ve tried a diet or workout program, going back to it will not produce that same “high” that you got the first time around. The only way to reproduce that feeling is to try something new. That's why you have a stack of diet books and workout DVDs sitting in your house, and it's why health and fitness is a multi-billion dollar industry.

So here’s the key takeaway. Before you make any new resolutions, you need to be completely honest with yourself. No one can look inside your head (thank God), so it’s ok to let your true motivation come through. You need to figure out whether you’re more in love with the idea of having that ideal body or with the idea of doing the work it takes to get that body. Ultimately, this difference is an indicator of the source of your motivation.

What moves you?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have a great body, being primarily focused on that means you're motivated by the things you’ll get by having that body: the attention and admiration of others, more romantic “opportunities”, the ability to fit into certain clothes, etc. This frame of mind is what psychologists refer to as extrinsic, or external, motivation. Unfortunately, external things are notoriously fickle sources of motivation, which is why many resolutions fail.

Motivation is much more sustainable when you identify yourself not as a person who has a great body, but instead as someone who does the work it takes to create a great body. Having this perspective means that you are intrinsically motivated, or that your source of motivation comes from within. You may be intrinsically motivated because you want to live a long, healthy life. Maybe you like the way being fit makes you feel and the energy it gives you, both at home and at work. Maybe you like setting a good example for your children. Or maybe you just enjoy the camaraderie of being in a running club. Whatever your reason, that internal motivation is not subject to the whims of society or other people. It's always there, pulling you forward when the going gets tough, which it always does.

So, the next time you’re considering starting a new diet or workout program, spend time thinking about what your true motivation is. If you discover that you’re just in love with the feeling you’ll get from the end result and aren’t really interested in putting in the work, you’ll save yourself a lot of energy, money and emotional distress by looking for something that aligns with your intrinsic motivation.