Making Motivation and Willpower Work for You.

Fitness expert Chris Watts gives his advice on why you need to work on your willpower…

Motivation is a funny thing; it seems to ebb and flow like the tides. Sometimes we are highly motivated – crushing our favourite classes, smashing the hardest sessions, and flying high. And sometimes we would rather do ANYTHING than go to the gym. Procrastinating by looking for inspiration on social media, working overtime because you ‘just have to get this finished’. Or worse, just not going at all because you didn’t pack the right clothes, forgot your post workout shake or don’t have your headphones.

So today, lets dive a little deeper, understand what motivation is (and isn’t), learn about willpower and why it trumps motivation in nearly every scenario.


So, back to motivation. If social media was to be believed, achieving your health and fitness goals is simple. All you need is the right motivation – the perfect ‘fitspo’ meme, a picture of a celeb that you want to look like, and the coolest gym kit and success is virtually guaranteed. If, like me, you had to Google ‘what is fitspo?’ – try to avoid as much Z-list celebratory nonsense as possible. Wear gym kit that is baggy, feels comfortable and is warm (especially important when you train in a garage gym with no air-con or heating).

Motivation can be defined as the enthusiasm (or reason) for doing something. Many people wrongly assume that you need to be motivated before you start a new habit or behaviour. This can be why many people get caught up in cycle of procrastination, of consuming motivational videos or memes. Really, all they need to do is take those first steps.

If we are looking at motivation purely through a fitness and health-related lens, then what we really mean is WHY. Why is that specific goal important to you? From the perspective of a regular gym-goer, this starts with a detailed consultation. This should include a medical history, lifestyle questionnaire, exercise history, exercise likes and dislikes, previous injuries, and goal setting to name but a few.

From here the personal trainer or coach can set the program accordingly, ensuring that the client is properly motivated, in part because the program has been tailored and personalised to that specific individual, their goals and understands their lifestyle and motivation.


Willpower is sort of like motivation’s poor, misunderstood, younger brother. One of the key misconceptions is that you either have willpower, or you don’t. Much the same as motivation, it can rise and fall. More importantly, you can improve your ability to use your willpower with a few simple methods. Cambridge Dictionary defines willpower as:

                “The ability to control your own thoughts and the way in which you behave.”

It can be easier to think of it as delayed gratification – the ability to choose long term success over the short-term reward. The reason that willpower doesn’t get as much love as motivation is simple. Willpower requires discipline, control over our decisions. It requires us to control our emotions.

It was way back in the 1960s that research into willpower first started to come to prominence with a now famous study dubbed ‘The Marshmallow Experiment’ by a Stanford professor called Walter Mischel.

To summarise what was a fascinating study (and if you have time, I’d urge you to read a little deeper into it), four and five-year-old children were sat in a private room with a marshmallow on the table in front of them. They were then told by the researcher, that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow whilst the researcher was out of the room, when they returned, they would be given another marshmallow. A simple choice. One solitary, tasty treat now. Or two tasty treats later. What would you have done? We’ll return to this later.

Hack Your Motivation

Just do it!

So how can we make motivation work for us? As mentioned previously, people often seek motivation before starting a new activity. But if you look a little deeper, almost every motivational writer or speaker says, in one way or another, whatever it is you want to accomplish – just get started. And the reason that simply getting started is so important? Active inspiration. Once we start on a path towards a goal, we are building momentum and once we are in motion, we start to become motivated because we start to see progress. So, the big secret to ‘being motivated’ is actually more like ‘make it easy to get started.’

Plan. Execute.

Another great tool to help us get motivated is to schedule our motivation. In the fitness world this means setting goals. And, within these goals, agreeing a schedule of exercise sessions which, if completed, will lead to the achievement of the goals.

Scheduling your motivation, or agreeing to these exercise sessions, and being held accountable, flips your decision-making on to autopilot. With personal training (PT) clients, I always had them add our sessions into their work diary as a meeting. The reasons for this were:

  • It placed their goals, their health and fitness, on the same level as their work and gave it the same level of importance.
  • Just by placing it in the same diary as their work meetings also meant it was visible every day. This in turn meant that every week, they were aware of what was coming up, could arrange work meetings or tasks around their exercise sessions, ensuring that there were no conflicts and therefore – no excuses.
  • It meets the clients where they are at. Generally, my PT clients were busy professionals and, by scheduling their sessions in their work diary, it demonstrated to them that I was a professional too and that I understood the importance of working with them and around their job.

Create a ritual

Linking the previous points together, the final thing that we can do to enhance our motivation is to create a ritual around our exercise schedule. A ritual is simply a set sequence of words or actions performed regularly and, without realising it, we all use them every day.

For example, many of us have a bedtime ritual. My little boy has a bath, brushes his teeth, gets his pyjamas on, closes the curtains, and has a glass of milk whilst I read him a couple of stories. This happens every day, in that order. This bedtime ritual helps him understand that it is bedtime, calms his mind and helps him relax before going to sleep (most of the time!)

Creating a ritual around exercise helps reduce any anxiety around exercise and puts the decision to exercise almost on autopilot because, instead of those questions racing around your mind (‘What do I do? How do I do it? When should I do it?’) you have a clearly defined routine that maximises the chances of success.

An example exercise ritual could be scheduling your exercise sessions for the week, packing your gym bag the night before and putting it by the door, making and having a pre-gym snack on the way, using the same locker and executing the same warm up routine before your session.

How to train your willpower

So, remember the marshmallow experiment? What would you have done – had a tasty treat as soon as the researcher left? Or waited patiently for TWO when they came back in the room? Be honest now. Now, the researchers followed up with the children for over 40 years and found that, in almost all cases, the children that were able to wait for the second marshmallow and delay gratification scored better in every aspect the researchers measured (more academic, socially competent, verbally fluent, rational and attentive).

Success it seems, all boils down to choosing the effort of being disciplined over the ease of distraction. But the question remained, was this innate – did the children who were successful, naturally have more self-control, more willpower? Or was this a trainable ability?

Researchers at the University of Rochester looked into this and found that if a child had reliable experiences with the researchers (if the children were promised something, the researchers followed through with it), then these children learned to see delayed gratification in a positive light. It is worth waiting and, more importantly, I have the ability to wait. Children who had unreliable experiences had no reason to trust the researchers, no reason to believe that they would get the second marshmallow, so they just ate the first one!

Make good choices easy

So how does this relate to fitness? In part – environment. If you want the ability to make good choices, for example, choosing to go to the gym – then create an environment around you that make success easier and poor choices much harder. Pack your bag the night before, put it by the door so you have to pick it up on the way to work. Make sure that you’ve scheduled the gym session so that you know (and potentially your partner too) you are going and that you’ve planned your day around it.

You will mess up

Another extremely important aspect of hacking willpower is to plan for failure. I’m sure we’ve all experienced it before. You have been ‘good’ all week, attending the gym regularly, making the majority of your meals or choosing the healthier options if eating out, walking more, drinking more water. But then disaster strikes! Your boss springs ‘after work drinks’ on the team. You can’t say no, don’t want to let the team down so you agree to go.

Six hours later, you missed the gym, your lovingly prepared meal has gone off in the car boot. You are staggering down the high street, dropping pizza slices as you go. You blew it so you might as well blow the rest of the weekend too? Start again on Monday? The classic ‘all or nothing’ mentality is the curse of every gym-goer striving to achieve their goals. It’s so easy to slip into it. But research shows that missing a single day of gym attendance, or a day ‘off the wagon’ with your diet, has absolutely no discernible impact on your long-term success.

Use the ‘if – then’ technique

Planning for failure in this sense, isn’t as bad as it seems. All it means is for you to consider what could go wrong and make a plan to deal with it. To effectively plan for failure, one of the best ways to do this is the ‘if – then’ technique. The if – then technique forces us to acknowledge our weaknesses. It addresses the fact that, more than likely, things will go wrong. It allows us to put a plan in place. All you do is complete the sentence – If (unexpected problem) happens, then (how you will respond)…

  • If I don’t wake up in time to go to the gym, then I will go for a run instead.
  • I have to take a client out for lunch, but I will choose a healthier option.
  • If I am late getting out of work, then I will do a body weight circuit at home.

Planning for failure is actually a clever way of ensuring you are going to be successful. Life is a series of spinning plates that we have to juggle and sometimes, the room is on fire too. Have a plan for when things go wrong. It will help you to keep things in perspective and view them as bumps in the road, rather than a four car pile up. It means we have more chance of staying on track towards our fitness goals.

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