The Science Behind Your Lack of Motivation

The Science Behind Your Lack of Motivation

Logically, you know what you need to do to be healthy. There’s plenty of available information out there on how to eat right, exercise, and practice mindfulness.

You have the right tools and plenty of other accomplishments under your belt.

So why, when it comes down to actually doing the darn thing — whether that’s weekly meal prep, meditating for five minutes, or going out for a run — is it so hard to stick to the plan?

What’s the real reason behind your lack of motivation?

Why You Lack Motivation

Unmotivated woman lying on couch

Before you beat yourself up, know this: A lack of motivation doesn’t make you a bad person.

“Lots of people think that motivation and willpower are character strengths [or flaws if they’re lacking],” says Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D.N., CDCES, CHWC, FAND, creator of the video course Stick With It. “But really, we respond in predictable ways based on human nature.”

Here are some of the psychological reasons behind your lack of motivation.

No Clearly Defined “Why”

Feeling like you should do something isn’t enough. You need to feel personally connected to a goal.

Otherwise, your motivation will inevitably fizzle as more immediate-feeling concerns take priority.

“It’s really important to take the time to understand what that change will do for you,” says Emily Capuria, LISW-S, CHHC, psychotherapist and author of Happiness Happens.

“When you’re eating healthier, how will your life change? What new experiences will open up for you? How will you think, feel, or experience life differently than you do now?”

If you haven’t thought through these questions, you’re bound to fall off track.

You’re Hard-Wired to Resist Change

Even if they don’t serve you well, your established habits are comfortable and difficult to shift.

In fact, some research shows that it can take around two months to establish a new health-related goal.

Again, this isn’t a matter of laziness. It’s human nature.

“Our brains track towards the familiar,” Capuria explains. “Any kind of change naturally triggers resistance. It creates a disruption in already established pathways in the brain and threatens one’s sense of safety and security.”

What you experience as a lack of motivation can actually be your body’s attempt at protection and self-preservation.

You’re Impatient

Tired female athlete sitting on stairs outside

There’s nothing like results to stoke your motivation, but results take time.

“You don’t hit the gym and instantly get ‘toned,'” says Capuria. “You have to push through to get those benefits. This requires consistent action over time.”

When it takes weeks or months to see the fruits of your labor, it can be challenging to maintain motivation.

You’re Focused on Restriction

It’s harder to stay motivated when your goals are based on what you can’t do (“I’m not allowed to eat anything with added sugar”) or are the product of a negative mindset (“If I don’t work out, I’ll get fat”).

“We often view exercise and healthy eating as something negative or even as a punishment for previous, regretted behaviors,” says Weisenberger.

“I feel like a knife is stabbed into my nutritionist’s heart when people say they have to work out to burn off the extra calories from a splurge the night before, or that they have to eat very little because they overate earlier,” she adds.

Capuria agrees that restriction is always a bad idea.

“It triggers that inner rebel that says, ‘Forget you, watch me!'” she says. “It also can lead you to hyper-focus on what you can’t have, so it becomes almost obsessive, and you feel like you’re in a constant battle. It always triggers the feeling of lack and scarcity.”

Tips for Boosting Motivation

Woman looking at her laptop looking bored

Your lack of motivation isn’t permanent, nor does it define you.

According to both Capuria and Weisenberger, there are simple ways to boost your motivation and get closer to achieving your goals.

1. Identify What You Want

Remember: Purpose drives motivation, so take the time to identify your “why,” and get specific.

“The way I teach people to navigate change is to create a really clear big-picture vision for themselves — what do you want, who will you be, how will you show up in your life differently, and how will you feel?” Capuria says.

For example, “I want to start exercising for 30 minutes three times a week because I want to be able to keep up with my kids, be more adventurous in my travel, and join my friends on hiking trips,” is better than, “I need to get in shape.”

2. Use Empowering Language

The way we talk to ourselves affects our motivation, explains Weisenberger.

“Use empowering language, because the words you hear yourself say will influence your motivation and behavior,” she says.

“If you say, ‘I can’t eat that,’ you’re embracing a negative mindset.

Instead say, ‘I choose not to eat that,’ because those words give you the power of choice.”

Positive self-talk can help flip your internal script and encourage real change.

3. Start with Small Changes

Total life overhauls and unrealistic goals only lead to burnout and disappointment, which are motivation’s kryptonite.

Build up some momentum by setting challenging but attainable goals, like taking nightly walks, adding extra vegetables at dinner, or drinking an extra glass of water with your morning coffee.

“Look for ways to add simple things to what you’re already doing,” Capuria says.

4. Get an Accountability Partner

Couple stretching outside

Peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing. Research indicates that an “accountability buddy” can help you achieve your health-related goals.

Try making a daily exercise date with a friend for a streaming workout class or joining an online group that will support and encourage you.

5. Focus on What You Enjoy

You don’t have to suffer to make meaningful changes to your health. If you don’t like a particular food, skip it.

Not into the latest workout trend? Try something else.

“There are so many ways to move your body,” Capuria says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s skiing or yoga or jogging or walking or dancing in your kitchen. When you find activities you enjoy, you’ll stick with them.”

Looking for more expert tips? Head over to BODi and find out how our at-home workouts, nutrition programs, and online community work together to help you reach your health and fitness goals.