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The Science of STAYING Motivated

Shannon Harvey
One of my favourite writers, A.J Jacobs once confessed to having a weakness for dried mangos. He was worried that his daily habit of eating the delicious delicacies was injecting the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of white sugar into his system. In his efforts to dedicate a year of his life to getting healthy, he knew he needed to ditch the sweet treats. He tried several strategies to kick the habit including hiding them, repacking them into individual bags, and staring at a digitally aged picture of himself to make him stop and think, “Should I do this to him?” But nothing worked.

Finally, Jacobs wrote a $1000 cheque to the American Nazi Party and made his wife promise to mail it if he ate another dried mango. “The Nazi Party? Why not Oxfam?” she asked him in his book Drop Dead Healthy. “I want something that will make me sick to my stomach,” he wrote.

Jacobs’ struggle is one that we can all relate to. Wanting to change isn’t hard. Often getting started isn’t even the hard bit. It’s making the change stick that really counts. But our stubbornly pre-programmed human brains are driven by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain and continually let us down in the heat of the moment. It’s one of the main reasons that smokers struggle to quit and drinkers struggle to stop. It’s why we don’t go to bed on time and why most of the contestants of the biggest loser inevitably regain weight once the cameras stop rolling. The all-mighty biological forces playing out beneath the surface of our conscious awareness mean that the allure of momentary pleasure is often just too powerful.

But as I’ve written before, scientists know that commitment and consistency are the keys to a long and happy life. So how do we overcome the tricky transition between getting started, and keeping on keeping on… and on… and on, into the future?

At this point, if I was all about click-bait and selling more copies of my book, I’d tell you that I’ve unlocked one simple secret, or one single strategy to get you over the line. But my regular readers know, that’s not my way. I’m an evidence-based health journalist and when I have a problem such as this, I turn to scientific evidence.

The bad news is that we actually know stunningly little about what the real keys to sustained behaviour change are. Researchers who conducted a recent review which took into account all off the 100 behaviour theories being bounced around by experts wrote; “It is currently unclear what conditions are required to maintain the new behaviour and prevent relapse, or to re-establish the new behaviour after relapse.”

Well, that’s bloody useless, you might think. Thanks for nothing, Shannon.

But not so fast. The good news is that the researchers were able to identify five key themes to lasting change. Here’s a broad summary:

    1.    Having the right motives
This means being internally motivated rather than externally motivated. For example, you change and stay changed because you love it rather than because someone told you that you should, or you love having tonnes of energy rather than you want to look slim at that high-school reunion that’s coming up.

    2.    Having good self-regulation
This means having an ability to override your automatic behaviour, and having strategies to face the curve balls. As I wrote last week in Why Don’t You Go To Bed On Time? having good self-control does influence your health and wellbeing, but it isn’t the key, so don’t beat yourself up if you slip-up like I did.

    3.    Resources
As I wrote in Will vs Skill: Making Healthy Change Last, when you’re tired, run down, or you’ve had a bad day, you’re far more likely to relapse. In many ways this is about self-care so that you have the inner capacity to go the distance and stick to your health goals.

    4.    Establishing habits
This is when you’ve repeated your new healthy behaviour so often that it becomes automatic. Habits are especially useful when your inner resources are low and your willpower goes offline.

    5.    The world around you

This is about being in a supportive environment and having positive social influences around you. See It’s Not Your Fault: Why Healthy Eating Is So Hard and Viral Friendships: How Your Friends Affect Your Health for more.

As you can see, there is no “secret” or “simple solution” to making healthy changes last and it’s complex because humans are complex. Different things work for different people at different times in their lives, and for different reasons. That’s why after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I learned to use a whole range of strategies to try and stay on track and manage my health. I use an “if-then” planning technique. I’m also a fan of changing the environment around me in order to make it a little more effortless and I ask for support from friends, family and medical experts. I try to keep in mind that researchers suspect that the motivations that will inspire me to change in the first place are unlikely to be the same motivations that keep me on track, and that relapse is the rule rather than the exception. I’ve had many set-backs and stumbles on the way but I try not to beat myself up for being weak-willed and flawed when I do.

As for writer A.J Jacobs who wanted to overcome his addiction to dried mango slices by writing a cheque to the American Nazi Party, he used a “commitment contract” or “Odysseus Contract”  – a concept posited by the Nobel prize winning economist Thomas Schelling, in which the “you” of today doesn’t trust the “you” of tomorrow. It comes from the story of the greek king Odysseus, who had his sailors tie him to the mast of his ship so that he could resist the sweet temptation of the singing Sirens trying to lure him to ship wreck. Online companies such as Stickk and Healthy Wage are making great headway in adapting this concept for the masses, but just how effective the technique is at promoting healthier behaviours is still up for debate.

Nevertheless, Jacobs' story has stuck with me for years since I read his book Drop Dead Healthy and I was curious to know how he was getting on six years on from its publication. His answer via email, sums all this up perfectly....

“I actually have not had any dried mangos, so it still works. I have, however, started drinking these terribly sugary Starbucks frappucinos, so I think it's time for another round of blackmailing myself.”

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