June 01, 2015

Save Your Strength

photo: David Mark
By Crabby McSlacker

So this is just a strange little post about a sneaky motivational trick that's been working well for me lately, but it may be Absolutely Useless for a normal person.

The tip deals with a persistent problem that can derail the most sensible, well-researched, brilliantly designed exercise program.

The problem?  In order to work out, you have to show up.  Often at a specific place, and possibly at a specific time, and generally wearing some sort of appropriate clothing. There may even be equipment and gadgets and gear to haul along.

Even if it's as simple as standing in front of your own television set in your spare room with the intention of doing an exercise dvd... you still have to get yourself in front of that tv and turn the damn thing on.

So WTF is the Problem?

Sometimes it's simply logistics. Other stuff in life comes up that's more important than exercise, and you have to take care of it. 

This trick is no help with that.

But often the problem is:  we talk ourselves out of exercise based on how miserable we know we're going to feel doing it.

The Voice of Doom

You may think this voice in your head is weak and lame, but not necessarily!  The voice that tells us that we should skip going to the gym or jumping in the pool on a cold morning because it will totally suck? It's just doing its job, trying to keep us out of trouble.

The practice of anticipating negative consequences is actually quite useful.  When, for example, our crazy cousin Abigail proposes we join her on a trip to a third world war-torn country in order to obtain a tummy tuck, breast implant, and butt lift for way way cheap? The ability to mentally rehearse possible unpleasant future outcomes is hella practical.

So yeah, that voice isn't evil. It's just working overtime, protecting you from something that, true: possibly may be miserable. But possibly not.  And in any event, it's a possibly miserable thing you're doing On Purpose.

How to deal with negative rehearsal?

Cut Yourself in Half

If we have an intention to exercise, there are two parts of our motivation system that need to each do their bit to make it happen. I conceptualize these as "Commitment" and "Strength." You have to learn to SEPARATE these two functions.

What the hell am I talking about?

So: there's the Strength part of our motivational system that actually DOES the exercise.  Or it doesn't, but let's just say generally, when it's in the middle of pedalling up a hill or swinging a kettlebell or swimming a lap, it usually does at least something approximating what it's supposed to, even if it's unpleasant. It's the part that goes "I'm sore and tired and I don't want to do this, but I AM doing it, yay me! I am so kickass, I am so awesome! Please kill me now."

But before Strength can do it's thing, Commitment has to step up.

Commitment has a whole different job.  Commitment has to plan, to motivate, to do all the dirty prep work. It has to put you at the right place at the right time, wearing the right stuff. Commitment does NOT need to rehearse and endure and persevere through misery.  It needs to do stuff like lace up your sneakers and remember your sunglasses and open the front door and close it behind you. It has to trust strength to do its job and put up with any possible misery... LATER.

See where this is going?

Often what gets in our way of our commitment to exercise is that our subconscious is trying to help us by sending Strength in too early.  And strength does a really shitty job of motivation if we are not yet in a situation where it can be useful.  

When Strength is on the scene, it feels it must preview everything unpleasant that is to come and mentally rehearse and endure it ahead of time.  This confuses commitment, because it says: "wait, why am I trying to get us somewhere we shouldn't be in the first place? Maybe I can come up with some good rationalizations for postponement instead. Is that maybe some drizzle outside?"

So a big part of Commitment is learning the job at hand: don't think, just get there.  In order to be good at commitment, you have to learn to shut off the movie projector and trust Strength to do the job when the time comes.

Switching It Off: Easier Said Than Done?

OK, so all that sounds like just a long-winded rehash of the simple idea that you should stop doing negative mental rehearsal when contemplating exercise to keep from wimping out. Which you probably already knew. The question is, how do you just stop?

Partly: realize that because negative rehearsal is a habitual self-protective function, you're actually going to have to practice to retrain your brain. Plus, you'll probably even feel guilty for not running negative scenarios in your head until you get more used to trusting your future self. Now how screwed up is that?  

But by envisioning that you have two different motivational jobs, you often can redirect the nagging voice by getting it to nag you in a more helpful way. It needs to do the Commitment job now, not the Strength job which it will do later.  So your Inner Nag can focus on reminding you how smug you'll feel once it's over, or how lame you'll feel if you bail, it can remind you of all the health benefits you'll be getting, or even better, it could help you find your f--cking car keys that have yet again sprouted tiny legs and wandered off and hid somewhere.

Of course some of you love the heck out of every single minute of exercise you get, and look forward to your workouts with such excitement that this whole discussion seems like crazy talk.

But, for those of you who deal with reluctance...

Is negative rehearsal ever a problem for you? How do you deal with it? Any other motivational problems or solutions or thoughts?


  1. Thanks, Cranky, this comes at a perfect time for me... Negative Rehearsal ain't just about avoiding exercise, you know... Your post reminded me how much smoother my life goes when I "act as if," or "fake it till I make it." ... Unfortunately, I've fallen deep into the worrywart abyss on too many occasions, and become totally incapable of positive forward motion while I do a grand hand-wringing wallow. .... But not today, thanks to your timely metaphoric butt-kicking. :-)

    1. Windy, glad the reminder was timely! I know you have amazing abilities in terms of turning negatives around, so I know you don't need advice from me, but thanks for tuning in!

    2. Windy, isn't Crabby great at posting what is needed? I love that about her!

  2. Death Ride GrandmaJune 1, 2015 at 5:58 PM

    Believe it or not (and I often have a hard time believing it myself), in spite of all the riding I do and LOVE, I often have a hard time walking out the door. I hate cold, and San Francisco bay weather is often chilly. I exercise enough that heading out with at least one sore place already is not exactly unusual. And I really do love to read and hang out with my grandchildren.

    My solution seems to be variations on outsourcing the responsibility. So I schedule rides with friends or groups - make sure I am responsible for bringing the food, or the route sheets, or something. And I am pretty obsessive about being on time, so I get there. And I have a few gym classes I take all the time - we notice when the other regulars are not there, send emails explaining why we are not in class - so I have to show up for those. The other variation is that I do have a coach and get an online homework assignment every week. And that's sorta like the on time thing: if I have homework, I do it.

    If I had to figure out how to make myself do it alone - well, I am scared of that. I plan to retire at the end of the year, and leave my gym, and who knows how good I'll be about new scheduling? And I am up to 2 1/2 chin-ups now - do NOT want to lose that! I am always very impressed by how much you do, especially when you travel. Other than cycling & maybe running, I pretty much let it go when away from home. I will have to work on your suggestion about listening to the correct motivating voice!

    1. Funny DRG I was just reading about habit formation and how different approaches working best for different people... and your "outsourcing" approach is a great one, and is in fact what I should be doing but don't!

      I suspect that since you've found what works for you, you'll be able to adapt a new version to your new lifestyle and find ways to get external social support/accountability around your goals.

      And wow, you're up to 2 1/2 chin ups???? That's awesome!!!! You never cease to amaze me with your energy and determination.

    2. DRG, you are a constant source of awesome to me!!! Love the accountability factor…very clever!

  3. Negative rehearsal is a huge problem for me, so i am going to think about this and see how i can nip it in the bud.

    1. I'm surprised Messymimi because you always seem to do such a good job of finding positives in challenging situations. I didn't realize how much work went into it behind the scenes!

  4. Negative rehearsal only shows up when I need it.

  5. I have been working out for 18 years this past March even so there are still times I don't
    "feel" like it and have to talk myself into it. I am aware that we have negative bully voices in
    our heads. You have to get better at telling it to SHUT UP! sit down and be quiet!!! which, I do
    most times it rears its ugly head. I got a real hoot out of reading this today.

  6. When I skip yoga, it's because I'm too hungry to wait ten or fifteen more minutes for supper. Of course, ten or fifteen minutes will not make me collapse with low blood sugar, but it's difficult to ignore my stomach yelling at me. This usually doesn't happen more than once a week, but lately it's been happening more and more. Maybe I should eat more lunch?
    Getting exercise is another matter. As someone who hardly ever stops moving at work, I don't think I need a lot of exercise AS exercise. What i need is the rhythmic forward motion that is so good for the brain. But as someone who is experiencing a lot of foot pain lately, and who has a doctor who is in the process of selling and/or closing his practice, thus screwing up my insurance, my Strength is speaking truth when it says "But that's going to hurt!"

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Skip yoga? What blasphemy is this, Mary Anne? Just kidding of course, but eating more at lunch may be something to try. I like to be as empty as possible at yoga, so being hungry at yoga time is a plus for me.

      Good for knowing when NOT to exercise because of pain. I lack that…I go to yoga and tell myself that I won't do certain positions, but I sometimes end up doing them anyway. You have inspired me to SKIP yoga tomorrow night and let my shoulder continue to heal.

    2. Listen to your shoulder! My shoulder has been saying "No More Chattaranga" for quite some time.
      I finally, after about ten years, established a daily practice in 1994, and until I started this job, where I get home at six or after and need to be in bed by nine, I never had a problem with being too hungry to do yoga before I ate (my schedule now, as you can see, doesn't leave me time *after* supper to do it) but the more I allow myself to skip it the harder it is not to listen to my stomach.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

    3. I listened, Mary Anne and I am going to listen tonight and Sunday too. Booooooooooooo!!!

    4. My shoulder and I send sympathy.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  7. Good point about the Strength vs. Commitment!

    I went through a year or two of pretty much nonstop negative rehearsal. It was pretty bad. And then one day a few months ago it was like something switched and now there's no dragging! I have no idea what happened, and I'm not looking too closely to figure it out for fear the negative rehearsal will return :)

    1. Looking back may help when something is not a success, but it seems like you are just looking forward and being successful!

  8. I have been experiencing The Voice of Doom a lot lately when it comes to exercise, and this makes a lot of sense to me. I choose workouts that I like, but it's still hard work and I suppose I am picturing misery. I need to remind myself that I do enjoy it once I get going (most of the time anyway).

    1. When I read "The Voice of Doom", I can actually hear it in a gloomy voice!

      Keep on doing what you enjoy…I think that is a big part of getting out there and taking care of business.

  9. Negative rehearsal is a new one to me…or I forgot about it…at least when it comes to exercise. I love yoga and if I don't go, I have a great reason!

  10. What usually works for me is reminding myself how good I feel and how proud I am of myself once I'm finished. That will almost always get me moving with the planned activity of the day. If the voices in my head are really strong, I'll try mentally switching activities (I do lots of different stuff) and see if the voices like that better. Often, they do and respond with, "Yes! Let's do that!" And I realize that my body wanted something different.

    But those voices can get loud! And yes, I talk back to them. Scary, huh? But it works. And reminding them how good it feels to accomplish something usually shuts them the heck up :)

  11. "Is that maybe some drizzle outside?"

    This cracked me up big.

  12. Crabby,
    How did you get a picture of me? He looks just like me except for appearance, musculature, hat, gloves, and location. :)

    Yes! Someone once said that 90% of success is showing up. Some of my wife's students didn't learn that, and they're probably destined for a career in the exciting world of incarceration.

    I'm a lucky schmuck in that I love to exercise, and feel funny when I don't. Part of that is that I choose exercises that are fun. There are plenty of perfectly good exercises that I don't like at all, though I may suggest them to someone for whom they'd be a good fit.

    For music, unlike the screaming metal that some guys like, I go for more varied fare. Here's one related to persistence if you like some mellow R&B rather than techno: I Will Be There: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IY5QgpgrJP0

    Best, Dave/Tabby

  13. UGH.
    I so need to revamp my inner nag when it comes to FICTION WRITING.
    Got me some tips for that? ;-)

  14. Well I kind of have it figured out for fitness. It isn't so much commitment as getting myself thrown out onto the cold porch with a handful of gym clothes before I actually wake up. When I have a bad patch of missed gym sessions then I just make the trip to the porch shorter. You don't really need to brush your hair or teeth you can do that when you get to the locker room etc.
    I don't have a similar strategy yet for pushing around the vacumn or the lawnmower. I need to find a way to disable the Lazy-Boy until the job is done. No! I have no plans to marry some layabout Lazy-Boy stealler!

  15. You know I show up - but I understand this thought process. Early on after losing my weight, I just never wanted to feel like I felt when I was heavy - I think that has stuck with me forever - the kid version of how I felt. Now I do love the weights & have learned to show up for the cardio. :)

  16. It's funny, when I anticipate the worst the opposite happens and if I anticipate the best, I often get the worst! I still always show up though. I'm a hopeless optimist :-)

  17. I often struggle with the negative voice and I know if I listen to it and skip a yoga class or strength training session that I will regret it. But each time I do skip, I also know it gets easier and easier to rationalize an excuse to skip it. SO, I have recognized this pattern and as often as I can, I tell myself that I should just go, just show up, just try a little bit.
    Over half the time I find that I not only did a decent job with yoga or strength training but that I ENJOYED the feelings afterwards. Like a runner's high I suppose, I relish the fact that I showed up. Then I make myself remember that feeling when I struggle to show up and it helps me more often than not, to keep those appointments at the yoga class and with the trainer.

  18. Also don't forget the old trick of telling yourself you can quit after 10 minutes if it really is THAT bad. And of course it never is...

  19. Just the post that I needed! For me there are just times I overthink things. The one thing that has helped me stay consistent is showing up, just like you said. When I think less, and just do things that need to get done are done. Thanks for the reminder.


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