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Motivation is not Indefinite: Why most New Year’s resolutions quickly end in failure

By William Clark, Adjunct Lecturer of Health and Wellness Studies, Binghamton University, State University of New York
In January, 40% of Americans will make New Years resolutions, and nearly half of them will aim to lose weight or get in shape.

But 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, and gyms will experience a decrease in traffic after the first and second months of the year as those who made New Year’s resolutions to get in shape lose steam. As a lecturer at Binghamton and former Olympic weightlifter, world champion powerlifter and strength coach, much of my life has been spent in training halls and gyms around the country. People often ask me, “How do I stay motivated to work out?”

Motivation and short-term objectives

Years back, when I was at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, one of the sports psychologists told me that motivation is a lie. It took me years of experience and research to figure out why, but I believe she was right.

Personally, I have no issues getting up on a cold and dark morning to train when a competition is drawing near. But when there is no immediate objective or goal in site, getting up that early is much harder. Motivation is driven by emotion and that can be positive, as long as it is used for a short-term objective. For some, a New Year’s resolution can serve as a motivator. But since motivation is based on emotion, it can’t last long.

Think of it this way: No one can laugh or cry indefinitely, and that is exactly how we know that motivation will fail. Emotion is a chemical release yielding a physiological response. If someone attempting to get in shape is reliant upon this reaction to propel them towards working out, they are almost sure to burn out, just like with a resolution.

When people buy gym memberships, they have the best of intentions in mind, but the commitments are made in a charged emotional state. Motivation helps with short-term objectives, but is virtually useless for objectives that require a greater length of time to accomplish. In other words, don’t totally discount the value of motivation, but don’t count on it to last long either because it won’t.

Discipline yields results

If motivation won’t help you reach your goals, what will? The answer is discipline. Discipline, as I define it, is the ability to do what is necessary for success when it is hardest to do so. Another way to think of it is having the ability, not necessarily the desire, to do what you need to when you least want to.

Failure to get up when the alarm rings, the inability to walk away from a late night of partying before game day or eating a doughnut when you have committed to no processed sugar are all failures of discipline – not motivation.

The keys to discipline are practice and consistency. Discipline means repetitive – and sometimes boring – action. There are no shortcuts. You can thank motivation for the first three weeks or so of your successful gym attendance, but after that you need to credit discipline.

There is another clear line defining the difference between motivation and discipline. Motivation in and of itself typically fails to build other qualities necessary for advancement, but discipline does. Discipline develops confidence and patience. Discipline builds consistency and consistency yields habits. It is those habits that, in the end, will ultimately define success.

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