Discipline, not motivation

If you follow my blog, you probably noticed I go to the gym and lift weights on a regular basis. I’ve been doing that for the past 5.5 years. Some people marvel at the fact I do this, on a regular basis, for so long (5 years isn’t long, but when the New Years gym joke is everyone signs up in January and by Valentine’s Day the gym is empty again, 5 years is an eternity). Sometimes I wonder about this “long regularity” as well, because I’ve lifted weights on and off since I was a teenager, but it never “took” as strongly as it has this time around.

An old friend recently asked me how I motivate myself to exercise.

I said I don’t motivate myself. It’s discipline.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no model of (self-)discipline, and I know there’s much I need to improve about myself in this area. But to me, this is what it is. I don’t need gym memes and coffee to drag myself to the gym, whining and hating it all the way. Yes, there are days when I don’t want to go, when I have to force myself to drag-ass to the gym and do it anyways. But I do it, because that’s what you do. Why?

Because I want results.

I started lifting weights as a teenager, because I hated being the skinny weakling geek (and, you know, chicks did big pecs and biceps, right?). I enjoyed lifting, I enjoyed devouring every bit of information I could find, which generally meant asking the school bus driver to drop me off at the 7-11 instead of the proper bus stop near my home, so I could get this month’s edition of Muscle & Fitness or Flex off the newsstand. I worshiped at the altar of Joe Weider, and made my workouts like I read in the magazines. And while that was OK, I never really got where I wanted to go. Eventually things would wane. Looking back now, I can see it would wane because I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it, then other things would take my interest.

As I got older, married, kids, and took a desk job, I felt my body going to crap. Time to exercise. I tried all manner of things, and even found myself gravitating back to lifting a few times. But again, the lifting didn’t stick because ultimately I wasn’t getting out of it what I was wanting to get out of it.

But almost 6 years ago I found myself in the same “need to exercise” boat and did something different: I joined a local gym figuring access to all that equipment might “motivate” me in a new way. I started out doing the same old things I knew from my teenage education, then I got sick (flu). But I was also bitten by the lifting bug again, but this time I had The Internet! I started to search for all I could, and in the end learned about things like Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. Life wouldn’t be the same.

What changed?

I got results.

I saw my body improving. I saw my strength increasing.

Every time I went to the gym, I saw things getting better. I was finally getting out of it what I was wanting to get out of it.

Progress might have been slow, but you come to accept this particular game is a slow game, a long-term game, a “it takes years” game. But what helps? You see progress on a micro-level. That you see this week you got one more rep than last week. That this session you added 5# to the bar. It may be small progress, but it’s progress! Or when I spent 16 months and dropped 66 lbs of flab – 2# lost this week, another 1# the week after, 1.5# that week, and over time it added up. And every step you take, it gets you closer to your goal. Every so often when you think you haven’t come far, stop and look back and see how much distance there is between here and the starting line. You should smile. 🙂

When you see those past results, you start to grow faith for future results. I saw how my squat increased 10# every 4 weeks, so I knew if I squatted right for the next 4 weeks it’d go up another 10#, and if I kept it up for a year I could go up 100#. Or when I was defattening, that if I kept my calorie restriction going, I’d lose another 2# this week  and could be 100# down in a year (so just put up with being hungry). Of course it’s not as simple nor linear as that, but the point is knowing that if you are doing the work – and doing smart work (I give much credit to Jim Wendler here) – and seeing the desired progress – that if you continue doing the work, you will continue to see the desired progress. That in time, you will achieve your goals.

Sometimes the work isn’t fun. There are exercises I hate doing, like lunges and split-legged sqauts, but I have found my knees are happier because I do them, so I keep doing them (hating every set and rep). The work sucks, but the results outweigh.

And so, it’s the results – the desire, the quest for results – that “motivate” me.

But again, it’s not really motivation. It’s the discipline. That if I want to achieve my goals, I have to keep working. It’s the consistent work over time that will allow me to achieve. So if I want to achieve, I have to go to the gym. And if I go to the gym, I will take another step closer to my desired results.

This works for me, because I like achieving goals. I like having larger goals, and then milestones and “smaller goals” along the way. That helps keep me going, when I can tangibly see the progress: big results, and mini-results. Not everyone is goal-oriented, but I do think we all like to see results.

And so, I guess that’s what enables me to keep drag-assing myself to the gym. I know what I want, so I have to put in the work to get it. I do love to lift, but I often hate the work I have to do. But, I do the work, because I know the payoff is really what i’m after. And when I achieve that, it’ll be awesome.


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