Motivation and the Hierarchy of Needs

I have been thinking about how our current covid-heavy situation might be affecting our motivation and willpower lately and my research led me to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Now, this may sound dry but stick with me for a minute.

This is how the hierarchy goes, in order from most important to least important (remember, this is in “the survival of the species” terms).

  1. Biological and physiological needs – food, drink, shelter, warmth, sleep, air.
  2. Safety needs – protection, security, order, law, stability.
  3. Love and Belongingness – family, affection, relationships
  4. Esteem (cognitive, aesthetics) – achievement, status, responsibility, reputation
  5. Self-actualization – personal growth and fulfillment
  6. Transcendence – Helping others (this was a later addition to the hierarchy)

If we are striving to maintain motivation for some of the higher needs on Maslow’s scale, like “Self-actualization” (personal growth and fulfillment), but – for perhaps the first time in our lives – we are faced with the possibility of our “physiological” or “safety” needs not being met, well isn’t it totally understandable that our motivation for self-improvement takes a backseat? Or gets the boot altogether?

Here’s an example: you want to learn how to do a pull-up properly so you resolve to exercise for at least 30 minutes each evening after dinner. Great! But instead, you find yourself reading social media posts about how the food supply in your nation is deeply flawed or obsessing about how your retirement savings have taken a hit during the current financial downturn.

By nature of our own instinct for survival, the motivation to get strong enough to do a pull-up is replaced by worry about safety and security.

This is the problem with relying too heavily on motivation. And I mean any time In hIstory, not just during a global pandemic.

In the Weighless program (unlike in most diets or exercise programs) we take the focus off of motivation and willpower and instead build systems that can withstand stress and uncertainty. We focus on paying attention to the thoughts and the feelings that drive our choices and actions. Are they true? Are they meaningful? What other choices do we have that are rooted in reality (not just in fear)?

By doing this we can circumvent motivation and achieve our goals, even during stressful times.

Motivation can certainly help you survive but it is unlikely to help you thrive.

There’s a choice to be made

I know it seems like a lifetime ago, but think back to before we were all plunged into this global pandemic. What was on your personal To Do list? What goals were you working toward? What projects were most important to you?

Are those things still important to you? Why or why not?

Does it still feel possible to make progress toward your objectives? Why or why not?

It may be tempting to use this disruption and uncertainty as a reason to give up on goals you have been working towards.  Or as an excuse to (over)indulge in things that move you even further from your goal. 

Alternatively, you can choose to find the ways in which this disruption offers an opportunity.

  • Cooking more at home means eating more nutritious meals.
  • Less commuting means more time to exercise.
  • Fewer trips to the grocery store means less impulse buying.
  • Not eating out equals less temptation to overindulge.
  • The loss of old routines is a golden opportunity to establish new patterns.
  • A change in employment status is a chance to pursue a new path.

You can decide which of your previous habits you want to return to when conditions allow and which of them you’ll shed for good. After all, not all of what we used to consider “normal” was good for us. 

How do I know that it is possible to grow and thrive in the midst of chaos and uncertainty?

I’m watching you do it.

In March, just as Covid was shutting down the world as we know it,  a new cohort was just beginning in the year-long Weighless program.  We’ve got teachers, parents, essential workers, business owners, furloughed workers, and first responders. And these people are KILLING it!  They aren’t making excuses. They are figuring it out.  (And if you can learn to weigh less during a global pandemic, there’s really nothing that can stop you.) 

In a few weeks, we’re planning to open enrollment for our next group. We don’t know how the current situation will affect enrollment.  We may have a smaller group than usual. And that’s totally fine.  In fact, it may be a bonus. Because these will be people who understand that conditions are never ideal and that health and well-being is not a luxury. And that right there is a powerful predictor of their success. 

In the meantime, I want to encourage all of us to use the challenges we are facing as an opportunity and not an excuse. 

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

Getting Unstuck

Have you ever wondered what it is that keeps us stuck at a particular weight, or a particular level of fitness, or a particular amount of money in the bank (etc)? Well, I have. And I have to say that the answer is more surprising and simpler than I had imagined.

Photo of a cat in a tree

It is our habits.

This is how it goes: our behaviours/actions are based on our thoughts, and our thoughts are based on our inputs. Our inputs revolve mainly around our habits, and those habits are perfectly curated to support our current results (body weight, fitness, job, relationships, and so on).

Let me restate that: our current habits are the perfect blueprint to achieve our current life.

So, what do we need to focus on to create a change in our current lot in life? Developing new habits.

Current Self vs Future Self

Most of the habits we engage in on a daily basis are designed to satisfy our current self with little or no regard for our future self (let alone our ideal self). For example:

  • Current self passes the fridge and opens it up to see if there is something delicious in there to much on. Future self wishes that current self would show some self-control.
  • Current self sees that there is some extra money in the chequing account and decides to order-in dinner three nights this week. Future self sure wishes the retirement savings account was a little more robust (and our waist line was a little less robust).
  • Current self hits snooze one more time and rushes into work without doing the morning movement routine. Future self is stiff and lethargic.
  • You get the idea. Current self’s habits are holding future self in stasis which means ideal self is left to hang.

Building the Ideal Self

So, what if we designed our habits to support future self instead of only satisfying current self? Could we break out of a rut? Could we reach our larger life goals? Could we become the ideal self that current self only dreams of and future self laments?

Yes! Yes we can.

Remember that our current habits, behaviours and actions are exactly the ones that we need to repeat in order to continue to be the person we currently are.

So, in the Weighless program, we focus on what we need to do instead to move toward the person we desire to become. How we change those small behaviours, repeat a different set of habits, and (as we say in the program) “become the type of person who _insert_desired_outcome_here_” instead of remaining stuck in our current self.

So, what habits and behaviours does your ideal self engage in? What is holding you back from becoming the type of person who chooses those instead?

Exercise is making me ravenous

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

One of our Weighless Community members recently emailed with a dilemma:

I recently started hiking 5-10 mi a day and I am now ravenous all the time.  I eat my usual sized meal and I’m still hungry…or I’m hungry again 30 minutes later. I have upped my calories a bit, but that didn’t seem help. I also tried eating more frequently. No luck there either.

Eventually, my body acclimates, but if I increase my speed or add more miles, it starts over again.  Is there a way to control this? I was hoping to lose 5-10 lbs, not gain it!

In fact, there are some strategies for dealing with this.  But first, I needed to know what KC’s motivation was for continuing to increase the intensity and duration of her hikes.  It’s usually one of three things. 

Exercising to lose weight

If you’re exercising more in order to burn more calories in order to lose weight, then you may be shooting yourself in the foot.  

Exercise can stimulate the release of hormones that increase appetite. This is your body’s well-meaning (but perhaps unhelpful) attempt to replace those lost calories.  And moderate intensity, long duration activities like hiking, cycling, and jogging are the ones most likely to have this effect.   (Consuming a lot of gels and goos during your workout can make it worse). 

Exercise has so many benefits–and we want you to enjoy them all!  But as a calorie burning strategy, it often backfires.  You log more minutes on the treadmill in order to burn more calories but then end up hungrier as a result.  And this is why, in the Weighless program, we don’t encourage exercising in order to burn calories or lose weight.  (More about that here.)

Exercising to get fit

If the goal is simply to get fitter (which we certainly DO encourage!), you might want to opt for shorter, higher intensity workouts or interval training. These (when combined with a generally active lifestyle) can get you fit a lot faster. And they are also less likely to stimulate the appetite to the same degree. 

Training for a challenge

Now, as it turns out, KC was not hiking in order to burn calories or simply to get fit.  She wanted to get to the top of a certain mountain.  Just for the satisfaction of meeting the challenge (and, of course, enjoying the view).  This is an awesome reason to train!  But in that case, part of the challenge will be figuring out how to manage the impact of endurance training your appetite without overeating. 

We’ll tackle topic that in another post–perhaps on a more appropriate channel, such as the Get Fit Guy or Nutrition Diva podcasts.  But in the meantime, we’d like to hear from you!  What is YOUR motivation for the various types of exercise you do? Are you exercising to get fit? Training for a challenge?  Or in an attempt to manage your weight? 

The Power of a Craving Reboot

When I was younger, I worked for a division of the Government in IT. In that crowd, there is a running joke that almost any computer issue can be resolved by “turning it off and back on again.” And all joking aside, it really does work… a surprising amount of the time. Seriously, give it a try next time your computer, phone, tablet or even TV is giving you grief.

The American author and poet, Anne Lamott, also wrote that “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Which is a key point in her TED talk called “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing” which I encourage you to check out.

This restarting strategy is very similar to something we teach in the Weighless program as a way to outwit random food cravings. And no, it doesn’t involve you having to go and take a nap everytime you get a craving for [insert default food here]. It simply involves taking a break from the situation that caused the craving in the first place.

Many conventional diets will simply tell you that you are not allowed to have that food (or will try to sell you on a substitute version) but in Weighless we prefer to be both a little more forgiving and more realistic in our advice.

We know the strength of willpower but we also know its weaknesses – so whenever possible we prefer to take it out of the equation.

So, instead of using a ton of willpower (if you have any left at this point in the day) to resist that urge, we suggest instead to make a deal with yourself to simply take a break for 10-ish minutes and remove yourself from the location or situation that kicked off the craving. Restart your inner CPU, as it were.

Then, the second part of the deal with yourself is that if you still have that same craving after 10-ish minutes of letting your brain reboot, follow through and go ahead and enjoy a sensible amount of that treat. But, and this is important, you REALLY take the time to enjoy that treat!

Don’t eat it distracted.

Sit down, focus on the treat, and enjoy the heck out of each bite until you are satisfied.

You know what? Honestly, more often than not after the restart, our members generally forget about the craving and move on with their day. And even if they don’t, the anticipation, the ritual and the mindfulness of eating that treat with no distractions makes it more enjoyable and often they find that just a few bites is all they required.

Try this strategy next time you find yourself with a random craving and let us know how it works for you. I bet, like my crappy old MacBook, a restart will make all the difference.

Why you don’t stick to your plans

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

We’re hearing a lot these days about the value of planning: A daily schedule to impose some structure to our suddenly formless days. A task list to keep us focused and productive while working or studying from home. A meal plan to keep us from mindlessly grazing all day.

So we dutifully make a plan for the day…and then abandon the plan by 10am. It’s tempting to conclude that planning doesn’t work.

But here’s the thing everyone forgets to tell you about planning. The trick is not in making the plan. The trick is in sticking to the plan you’ve made.

Because I can almost guarantee you that however solid and reasonable your plan, when it comes time to execute it, your brain is going to rebel. It will argue that it doesn’t really matter whether you write that email now or later, or whether you eat this or that. After all (your brain will say to you), you made the plan. You can change the plan. No big deal, right?

And the more often you throw the plan out the window, the easier that “no big deal” moment becomes. Each time you alter your plan, you empower the part of your brain that always wants to give up.

At the end of the day, however, you’re very likely going to be disappointed with the results. A lot of the work you planned to do is still undone. The exercise session you planned somehow didn’t happen. Instead of the nice salad you planned to have for lunch, you ate an entire tube of saltines, 4 slices of american cheese, the cookie you planned to enjoy after dinner plus three more. You’ll wonder how the day got so out of control.

The problem here is that your brain has (at least) two parts: A higher brain that’s looking out for your future well-being and a lower brain that favors immediate gratification.

Which part of your brain do you want calling the shots?

In the Weighless Program, we often refer to that lower brain as our Inner Toddler. And just like a child testing limits, our lower brain is constantly testing to see whether it can get the higher brain to cave in on all those pesky, no-fun plans. But just as a child actually feels much safer and happier when they realize that there are limits that prevent them from doing whatever they want, you will feel so much calmer and more in control when you know that you can count on yourself to stick to the plan. And every time you do, you strengthen that part of your identity.

The art of planning

Whether you are planning your work schedule, your meals, your exercise, or any other habit, you may need to experiment to discover what level of detail is flexible enough to be realistic without being so flexible that it fails to keep you on track. But whatever level of detail you arrive at, it’s helpful to write it down. Because then when your lower brain starts negotiating or you conveniently “forget” what the plan was, you can refer to that document and remind yourself, “Nope, this is the plan. End of discussion.”

At the first moment of rebellion, when your lower brain starts to argue that it doesn’t really matter whether you eat a salad or saltines for lunch, you calmly tell your lower brain, “No, we’re going to stick to the plan–simply because that’s what we planned. If we decide we don’t like this plan, we can make a different plan for tomorrow. But today, we’re following the plan. “

And then you follow through. You trust that what your higher brain planned for you was in your best interests.   When you’re tempted to have an unplanned snack or treat, remind yourself that your plan includes a snack and a treat. Just not this one and not right now.

So, you also want to be kind to yourself when you’re making your plans. You want to be looking out for your best interests, whether that’s finishing the work that needs to get done, or eating nutritious foods, or getting some exercise. But in addition to all of these ways of taking care of yourself, remember that your plan should also include ways of resting and relaxing, things to enjoy and look forward to.

It’s OK to plan a food treat but remember there are lots of other ways that we can give ourselves small pleasures through the day, whether it’s a call with a friend, a nap, a half hour with a book or magazine, or an episode of a favorite show. When we include treats in our plan, it makes it much easier for us to resist momentary urges–because we know we have treats coming our way.

If only as an experiment, I want you to see what happens if you stick to your plan all day long. You owe it to yourself to see what it’s like when you actually take care of yourself that way.

There may be a few bumps. You may feel a little grumbly at times. But at the end of the day, I want you to notice how it feels to have completed (most of) the work you meant to complete, to have eaten (pretty much) the way you intended to eat, just moved your body (more or less) the way you planned to, to have enjoyed the treats that you selected for yourself–and to have both the pleasure of anticipating them as well as the pleasure of enjoying them.

Does it feel better or worse than you feel when you abandon your plan because it doesn’t seem appealing or important in the moment?

If you didn’t stick to your plan, think about why your plan failed. Was the plan too strict? Simply unrealistic? Maybe your work plan needs to include an extra hour to handle unexpected stuff. Maybe the meals you planned weren’t quite enough to satisfy your hunger. Or, maybe you needed to leave a little more time for preparation. How can you adjust tomorrow’s plan to make it serve you even better?

What Makes a Workout?

Photo of an old time gymIn an article I wrote over on my coaching blog, I gave a brief history of the gym (or the “health club” as it was known). In my research, I discovered that it was in about 1977 that the majority of the population slowly started to be introduced to the idea that gyms were a place that you could go to “get fit.” But it didn’t really catch on until the 1980s.

I was 6-years-old in 1977 (and honestly didn’t step foot in a gym until the 1990s) and yet, many of you reading this and many of my peers still have the idea that you can’t get fit if you can’t afford, don’t like, or don’t have time to get to the gym. Or more recently, don’t have a Peleton, treadmill or visit a yoga studio (real or virtual).

Interesting, eh? It really didn’t take us very long to somehow lose our innate ability to maintain our own fitness without outsourcing it to someone or someplace. And never has this lack of understanding been so pointed and obvious as it has been during this current viral lockdown.

Everyone and their dog is currently sharing their workouts on social media, asking people like me to teach some workouts they can do at home, and online workout services are gaining more traction than ever because of this lack of understanding of how to stay fit on our own. And I am not trying to shame anyone. This is a good and natural reaction but …

Give a person a workout video and they are sweaty for a day.
Teach a person how to exercise and they are fit for life. 

So, I want to make it simple for you. Are you ready?

The three criteria that a movement needs to fill in order to qualify as an exercise are:

  1. Raise your heart rate (a little or a lot)
  2. Challenge your muscles (a little or a lot)
  3. Move your body beyond your comfort level (a little or a lot).

That is all.

Here’s an example: let’s say you are carrying the laundry basket up some stairs, how can make that into an exercise?

  • Go up the stairs quicker or two steps at a time,
  • add more weight to the basket,
  • hold the basket in a different way than usual,
  • go up some of the stairs sideways.
  • Boom – you are exercising! And getting the laundry done!

Now you may be thinking, “that sounds too easy, what if I am more fit than that?”

Well, there are three factors that need to increase to create fitness, and they are:

  1. Distance
  2. Duration
  3. Intensity

That is all.

Here’s an example of this: let’s say you have been carrying that same laundry basket up the stairs for a few weeks and it is feeling easy now. Then you could:

  • increase the intensity (by adding more weight to the basket),
  • you could increase the distance (by going up and down the stairs a few times),
  • you could increase the duration (by taking each step slower and more controlled).
  • Boom – you are getting more fit from the same task!

Sure this is overly simplified. There are a lot more factors you can add in (like which body parts you want to develop) and more considerations that are fun to focus on (learning to do a pull-up) but when it comes to doing nothing (because you feel so lost) and doing something simple like this (because let’s face it, we all need to do laundry during the pandemic) I would choose this every time!

How to feel better right now

Photo by pine watt on Unsplash

How many times in the last 24 hours have you said (either outloud or to yourself) “I’m so stressed”  or “This is so incredibly stressful!”?

And it’s true: We are all going through something completely unfamiliar and unknown. We have to do things we’ve never done before, We have to find completely new ways of doing things that we’ve been doing all of our lives.

This is the textbook definition of stress.

For most of us, the word “stress” has a very negative, even harmful connotation. And when we hear and say and think it over and over again, it enhances the sense of doom and disaster.

But stress is not inherently bad or good, positive or negative. It’s just challenging.  And simply replacing the word “stress” with the word “challenge” can ratchet down the anxiety. And help you reclaim a sense of control and resilience.

Challenges can be energizing. They may cause us to discover strengths and talents we never dreamed of. We may have ideas and inspirations and experiences that we would never have had otherwise.

Of course, challenges can ALSO be difficult. They may be frightening, or painful, or sad. We may feel fatigued or anxious or numb.  I’m not denying that.

But we can work with those feelings (and our responses to them) much more effectively if we can name them more specifically.

So, instead of saying you feel “stressed” and diving for the chocolate, see if you can be more specific.  What actual physical sensations are you aware of? What emotions are you feeling?

And then consider how you can relieve that sensation, or address that feeling.

  • If you’re hungry, fix a meal that will nourish both body and spirit.
  • If your muscles are tense, try a gentle stretching routine.
  • If your breathing is shallow, try some deep breathing.

  • If you are tired, try taking a nap.
  • If you are feeling grief, allow yourself to mourn.
  • If you are keyed up, try releasing some energy by taking a brisk walk.
  • If you are worried about someone, try reaching out to them.
  • If you are anxious about having too many things on your to do list, do one of them.  (Or, remove one of them!)
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed, ask for help.
  • If you’re depressed by news, turn it off.
  • If you’re anxious about the future, bring your focus gently to the present, which is the only realm in which you have any agency.
  • If you’re lonely, reach out to a friend.

We are all stronger, more resourceful and more resilient than we ever imagined.  I don’t think any of us would have chosen to be in our current circumstances. But every challenge is an opportunity for growth. And massive challenges offer the opportunity for massive growth.