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On motivation

I’ve just started going to the gym again – after a break of more than a year. The reasons why I stopped were numerous, a combination of demands on time, travel and illness meant I was away from it for several months, then my membership lapsed, at a time when cash flow was a bit tight. But then I got over the illness, had more money, wasn’t travelling anywhere, so the only reason for not going was laziness. I’d keep on thinking I should go out and start again, but it was easier to do nothing, so I didn’t.

The thing is … it’s always easier to do nothing, the trick is, how do you persuade yourself to do the things that aren’t easiest? The motivation is there for me. Anyone who saw the #jiscexperts14 photos on twitter this week will see I’ve put on weight. One of my jobs is at Loughborough, which is a campus designed with sports science students in mind, so moving from building to building always meant me being out of breath. So increasing the motivation isn’t the answer. It’s maxed out already. I think the mistake made with encouraging change isn’t to find reasons to motivate, the solution is to find ways to reduce the factors that prevent action. The advice often given me was “find something you love doing and do that”. Well that didn’t work. There isn’t anything. Exercise is a painful, boring, uncomfortable experience.

So figuring out how to get myself to actually start doing exercise again, and reflecting what actually worked, I think has some useful lessons in general in how to get something done. So here are a few tips:

1) Exploit your weaknesses more than your strengths.
I’ve switched the time I go from the evenings, to the mornings. One of the advantages of working at home is that mostly I have the freedom to plan my days as I like. Beforehand my schedule was to start work about 9 or 10, then go to the gym about 7 pm. The thing is … I am not a morning person. I find the transition from sleep to awake a really difficult one, to the extent that people rarely expect me to form a sentence before about 11 am. Pushing myself to start work before my brain was up to the challenge was actually counterproductive. Also, I am a procrastinator, once I start I focus and keep going, but it can take me an hour or so of looking at what I have to do, getting up, making a cup of tea, sitting down again, reading news reports, before I start work. I cannot work on a laptop unless Facebook is blocked on it. Planning on going in the evening was therefore a huge disincentive, because going to the gym then puts off the time I can start relaxing. Going first thing in the morning puts off the time I start working. Which is far more appealing. I start later (so my brain is working) and once working I can keep it up until I’ve finished whatever I’ve started, and whether that’s 8 or 9 or 10 pm doesn’t matter, since I’ve already been to the gym. This also means the membership is cheaper. So … bonus.

2) Optimise your environment.
Gyms are awful, depressing places. They’re work, not fun. There’s no way round that. However, they’re made worse by the terrible music played there. So I make sure I’ve got plenty of music loaded on my phone to listen to. It’s surprised me how much easier it is to be in the place if I’m listening to .. say Frankenstein Drag Queens from Planet 13 rather than Lily Allen. Plus my discovery this morning is that the track “Shouldn’t do that” is about the perfect one for the treadmill.

3) Have a system.
It’s very easy to go easy on yourself if you’re making it up as you go along. Thinking at any point, “what shall I do next?” can always be a prompt to the answer “Go home”. But with a set sequence of activities, treadmill, this bit of equipment, that bit, then that, in a certain order, there’s never any point at which you exercise exercise choices. I mean, apply choices about what exercise to do.

4) Build in slacking off into the system.
Having said that, doing the same thing every day or every other day is dull. Plus there’s nothing more motivating then feeling you’ve got away with not doing something. My problem is that if it’s up to me, I’d always get away with not doing something. Yryo Engestrom was a visiting professor at Warwick while I was a student there, and I attended a few of his seminars. In one of these he talked about handing over the decision to an external factor. So instead of saying “we’ve waited long enough, and going” if someone’s not showing, people tend to say “we’ll wait until 20 to, then go” – the clock then makes the decision. So, if someone’s on the equipment that’s next on my schedule, I’ll skip it. It’s a guilt-free way of slacking, but I’ve found really reduces the displeasure of going every day, because, randomly, sometimes the sessions are shorter. But I’m then not tempted to cut it short myself, which would just be the thin end of the wedge. I have found myself doing reps twice as quickly because the next bit of equipment is occupied and if I get to the end of the current one before the next one becomes empty I won’t have to do it, but it’s good to push yourself sometimes.

5) Have simple feedback.
It’s obvious the extent to which feedback is motivating. You get a bit better, it encourages you to do more. But I started off making this way too complex. 75kg weights on this bit, 25 on this, 30 on that. I needed a spreadsheet to keep track of where I’m at. Simpler is to just have one figure and calculate the rest as fractions of that. So at the moment it’s 70kg on the leg push, half that for some equipment, a third for others. Hopefully as I get better that’ll go up. It’s limited by the one I’m worst at, but I’ve been able to ditch the spreadsheet and I just have one number to keep in my head each week, and at some point, surpass.

6) Have appropriate rewards.
I’d sometimes reward myself with a takeaway for having gone to the gym, which is really counterproductive because that would just mean the weight would go back on. Now it’s music, I reward myself with some more stuff downloaded or another CD, so I always have something different to listen to if I want it.

7) Know your limits.
I keep track of my heart rate throughout, at 51 years and 83kg I’m supposed to get my heart rate to 135 bbm. If it goes above 145 I stop. I’ve noticed above 10 bbm over I can actually feel really sick – so I make sure I’m never really that bad afterwards. There’s no way I’d keep going back if I felt that bad after every workout.

8) Push yourself, but only occasionally.
Increasing the amount I’m moving feels like I’ve accomplished something, but really, if I felt I had to accomplish something all the time, I’d soon feel under too much pressure, and that’s going to get me to quit pretty quickly.

9) Look for signs it’s having a beneficial effect
I can’t really say there are many of these. Losing weight is good (about a kilo a week so far). The only positive mental effect is that, whereas before going to the gym when I’d feel stiff and ache while moving around it was evident that this was purely because I’m in my fifties, now I can tell myself I feel like that because I’ve been to the gym. When I move and there’s pain I think “hah workout” rather than “agh I’m so old”. It’s probably a lie, but it’s one I can (almost) believe when I tell myself it.

How does this apply to education?
The key with all of these is to make sure I never end up hating it too much to go back, which is partly what happened last time. I think this is the central message. Unfortunately, the people who encourage others to take exercise are people who like it. These are the worst people to be encouraging others. You hear things like, “once you’re into it, you won’t be able to get enough”. This is a lie. Before I lapsed I went to the gym regularly for about five years. I hated it as much in year 5 as I did in year 1. It is always an unpleasant awful, soul-numbing experience. It can never be good. I resent my cardiovascular system for requiring me to do it. The trick is to reduce how depressing it is.

And out there, there are plenty of people who resent having to be educated. It’s soul-destroying for them. They haven’t found anything that switches them onto it. I’ve worked with NEETs on previous projects and have struggled to find ways to connect to them. Thinking about exercise, and how much I loathe that, but that I’m doing it, has started me rethinking how to address those who don’t like education. Perhaps people like me, who love being educated, aren’t carrying the right message to get through to them, because we assume at some point they’ll love it too. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at making education more appealing for those who don’t like it, we should be looking at ways to get students through how depressing they find it.


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