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Motivation is a Crock: How to Create Healthy Habits and Lose the Bad Ones


Motivation is a
How to Create
Healthy Habits and Lose the Bad Ones
Atkins, MD
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”
I’m a dual
career psychiatrist and author.  And as I
bounce from being the white-coated Dr. Atkins to Charles Atkins the writer
sitting in sweats at his computer every morning I’ve discovered several things
that help with both professions.  Here’s
one–Motivation is a crock.
If I waited to
get motivated to write; there’d be little on the printed page.  Similarly I’ve noted with my patients–and
myself–when it comes to positive behavioral change like exercising, giving up
cigarettes, creating healthy eating habits, ending a bad relationship etc. if
we relied on motivation little would happen.
Especially if the desire is to create a sustainable new behavior that is
done–or not done (smoking, drinking, overeating etc.)–in an ongoing way.
Yet somehow there’s
a magical notion that we can make important changes when ‘we feel like
it’.  And yes, we all get bursts of
the day I stop smoking.
fail my diet starts on Monday.
to God I’ll  never drink again.
Truth is
motivation–our desire to do something–is fickle, or maybe a better metaphor
is it’s like the temperature that goes up and down.  An alcoholic who wakes at eight with a
hangover swears, “I’ll never drink again”.  By noon after a few aspirin the hangover is
gone, motivation plummets, craving and maybe some subtle–or not so subtle–withdrawal
symptoms pick up and by four p.m. he’s in the liquor store getting his favorite
bottle.   It’s not that the morning’s
desire to quit was a lie, it’s just like most thoughts, it was fleeting.
So here’s the
deal about change and creating sustainable positive habits.  It’s simple and it’s hard.  And the folks at Nike summed it up with their
famous snapline–“Just do it”.
If you want to be a writer you need to sit your butt down in a chair,
every single day and write.  It might be
hard at first, but if you stick to it, it gets easier.  Somewhere I read that Stephen King writes ten
pages a day.  That explains a lot, in 30
days he has the rough draft of a novel.
My own writing habit varies on whether or not I’m going in to see
patients.  If it’s a home day, and I’m
working on a new book I write between 5-10 pages.  If it’s a work day, I get up early and write
at least 2-3 pages.  I’ve done this for
years.  As a result, I’ve written quite a
few books.  Yet on at least half those
days as I’m climbing the stairs to my office I don’t feel like writing; the
motivation is not there.  And here’s an
observation, the reluctance to get the work done, passes quickly once I start
to type.  For writers, this is one of the
few truisms that holds water–“Writers write,” and most of us do it
daily, whether we feel like it or not.
So too, knowing
that daily exercise decreases depression and anxiety, controls weight, lets you
sleep better at night and keeps your bones and muscles healthy, is useless information
if you don’t do it.  Again, on most days
before starting to exercise, ‘I don’t feel like it’.  After the fact I feel great–accomplished,
ready to face whatever comes next etc.
But if I waited for motivation, it wouldn’t happen.  And if I stopped exercising all the gains
I’ve made would vanish.
A lot has been
written about motivation and it’s ephemeral nature.  In behavioral science we look at the work of
Prochaska, Norcross and DiClemente who developed stage of change theory.  And how motivation can be the catalyst for
action.  How we take a motivational wish
and turn it into steps toward real change is where most get stuck.  “I know I need to lose weight, I try but
I just can’t do it.”  Really?  Let’s break it down.  What are you actually doing to get that
weight off?  Have you worked these
changes into your daily routines?  Are
you taking in a prescribed number of calories?
Are you portioning your food correctly?
Are you bringing your own lunch to work?
Have you stopped drinking sugared sodas and juices?  If the weight’s not coming off, chances are
you’ve not made the changes you thought you had.  This is where programs like Weight Watchers
can be so beneficial.  They give people wanting
to lose weight, clear information and guidelines, that if followed in an
ongoing way, will help.
For those with
drug and alcohol problems 12-step programs such as AA and NA can be life savers.  Their mission is crystal clear, people coming
together with unified goals–don’t drink or drug.  To this end there is a very matter-of-fact
behavioral plan laid down–don’t use, show up to meetings, call your sponsor or
get to a meeting when you get a craving and so forth.  And of course their famous mantra, “One
Day at a Time.”  Yup, maintaining
change is about managing the behavior one day at a time.
The good news is
that over time the energy expended in creating behavioral change takes root.  This makes tremendous sense, practice makes
perfect.  My desires to write, maintain
healthy eating habits or exercise turn from wishes into concrete habits, with
daily practice.  Yes, I still get the
impulses to screw off and play Words with
instead of finishing the next chapter.  But my mind has been trained that this is the
time to write, and so I do.


  • Charles Atkins
    9 years ago

    I use the distractions as rewards. The writing–because I've made it a priority–always comes first. When I'm done, I get a reward. It's behaviorism at it's most basic. It works for me.

  • Leona Raisin
    9 years ago

    As a sometimes writer myself, Words With Friends seems a more appropriate time-waster than, say, television. Bottom line, my manuscript has fewer pages being added. Distracted by WWF and TV. I will always justify my TV time as long as I can tie it back to wordplay. Blame my love of Scrabble, WWF and TV trivia for me creating my blog and the anagrams I invent. Still, all these distractions keep me away from my writing.

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