Working out and motivation:

Photo Credit: Roberto Trm

Photo Credit: Roberto Trm

A few months ago, I decided it was time to start working out regularly. Actually, this wasn’t the first time I’d set this goal.

Several times during the last few years I’ve noticed myself slipping into a particularly sedentary lifestyle, based mostly around staring at my computer screen. I’m someone who spent most of his high school years playing multiple sports regularly. By regularly, I mean almost every day I would exercise in some form for at least an hour, if not longer.

As I said before, I’ve made the decision to get back to regular exercise several times. I even bought a medicine ball, a cheap set of adjustable weights, and made my own kettlebell, but I’ve never been able to motivate myself to work out for more than a few days in a row. 

Well, I’m proud to say, I’ve been working out regularly for the past 3 months, usually 3-5 times per week. I’ve used two main motivational techniques:

Photo Credit: Multimaniaco

First, I knew I needed to develop a regular workout habit, and in order to make it stick, I was going to have to force myself create a routine that I wouldn’t quit on after a few days. With this goal in mind, I searched the internet for relatively fast workout that would throughly kick my ass. What I found was the 7 minute workout, a short circuit training routine that hits all the major muscle groups in quick succession and left me in a sweaty puddle in just over 7 minutes.

In order to make sure I stuck with the plan, I signed up with Stickk allows you to appoint a judge to monitor your progress towards an objective. You set the goal, type in your credit card information, and set up a donation to a charity or anti-charity of your choice. If your appointed judge doesn’t verify that you’ve completed your goal within the timeframe, the money is gone. To keep myself honest I appointed Helen as my judge, and set up two consecutive weekly donations of $500 to the anti-charity of my choice: The National Rifle Association. My self-defined challenge was to work out every single day, and with $1,000 to the NRA on the line, there was no way I was skipping a day!

Shortly after completing my challenge, I worked at a gathering for self-directed learners called Trailblazer, where I had the opportunity to attend a workshop on gamification. Gamification is when one uses game mechanics to motivate themselves or others to behave in desirable ways, and is widely used as a marketing tool. For example, distributes digital ‘coins’ to anyone who reads articles or watches videos on the site. Users are encouraged to accumulate large amounts of coins, which can be traded in for rewards like keychains, hats or discounts at the online store. The workshop leader challenged us to come up with a gamification system for one aspect of our lives, and I immediately knew what I would choose.


I had noticed that with the challenge, that while losing money was a powerful motivator, it didn’t make me want to go above an beyond. By the end of two weeks, doing a single run through the 7 minute workout didn’t feel as challenging, but I had no reason to push myself beyond the minimum requirement. I created a new system that gave me points for pushing myself beyond the initial 7 minutes. For every extra 30 seconds, I would accumulate points which I could eventually trade in for one of my favorite treats: a peanut-butter chocolate mousse topped vegan brownie!

Photo Credit: Chema Concellon

Photo Credit: Chema Concellon

This has worked wonderfully, and I now have a regular fitness habit, no regular rewards required. One final important aspect of gamification is having long-term achievements to strive for. My first long-term goal was to weigh 150 pounds, after hovering around 140 pounds (plus or minus 5) since about age 18. I’ve achieved that, and I’m looking for a new long-term goal. I’m also currently training for the Philadelphia marathon (I ran my first half-marathon during session 2 of Not Back to School Camp!), so more weight gain is somewhat counter intuitive. Any ideas?

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6 Responses to Working out and motivation:

  1. Molly N. says:

    How many points equal a brownie?

    This article might be of interest to you:

    It touches on what kind of self-talk might be best to encourage long-term commitment to something if you run into any sort of failure. It’s also relevant to feedback given to others, so it’s a nice read regardless. This is the essence of it: “Negative feedback, on the other hand, will encourage us to try again and/or harder when we at first fail if that failure signals that we’ve made insufficient progress, but discourage us from continuing to try if it signals insufficient commitment. Thus, according to Fishbach, “…a math student who receives a bad test score and infers lack of commitment will subsequently reduce her efforts, whereas her classmate, who infers insufficient progress from the negative feedback, will subsequently work harder.””

    I have a similar story to you in that I have often gotten into a workout routine and then stop after a short time – usually, for me, because of some minor setback and I think it is related to the above concept. I didn’t change anything substantial but for some reason from May onwards I have been able to work out consistently. I got really determined to meet a goal and completed the Couch to 5K program and ran my first 5k in August. My next goal is to do 5k to 10k and to incorporate weights into my routine – I got a bad cold (I think my body knew that it was camp time even though I wasn’t there) and haven’t been able to work out for a couple of weeks, but I think the reward of each past goal completion motivates me to continue on to the next. Signing up for races creates goals easily, that you are also motivated to stick to since you’ve paid an entrance fee. Not every goal has to be different, and some can be connected: I want to improve my 5k speed, and I can do that by continuing to train for the 10k and also cross training.

    • That article seems like it gets at a lot of the stuff Carol Dweck talks about in in her book Mindset. It seems like its all about what your perception of your progress is. She talks about how kids who are told that they’re smart don’t try as hard at things that are hard at first, whereas kids that are told that they’re hard workers will try harder when they get to the challenging stuff.

      I was giving myself 2 points per 30 seconds, 200 points for a brownie. It was awesome, but I think if I were trying something that wasn’t naturally rewarding after some time I’d need a more sophisticated system, including bigger long-term rewards for long-term success.

      • Molly N says:

        I think also tapping into what is fulfilling/intrinsically motivating about your goal is important for the long term as well, a la Dan Pink. He does talk a lot in Drive about how rewards can ultimately be bad motivators, though I remember it being dependent on the type of task you were doing. I wonder if his ideas apply to rewards and praise negotiated with oneself as well as with teams…

  2. Cyris says:

    It’s funny that you mention the “7 minute workout”, I’ve been doing that every morning this week! It’s a great circuit, and warm up for my day.

  3. What next?
    Ironically, this is ALWAYS the answer: give it away. You already started on the path down that long-term goal with this blog. But now, find a way to duplicate what you have done with similar results for someone else. And then someone else. And soon, you have a community of people who’s lives are distinctly different because you invited them to play the game of life with you!!

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