Do you need motivation?

One of the greatest challenges for gym newbies is being consistent and committed to your goal. Motivation is necessary to get started but it is good habits that will carry you through. Motivation is a short-term emotion dependent on one's willpower. DId you know, willpower is actually a commodity within the mind. Every time we resist a temptation or force ourselves to complete a task, we spend willpower. A social psychology study in willpower gave two groups of people a box of fresh smelling cookies and a box of plain radishes. Group 1 was allowed to eat cookies and radishes. Group 2 was told they could only eat the radishes. Both groups were then given an impossible geometric puzzle to solve within 30 minutes. The results showed that the cookie-eaters took an average of 19 minutes before giving up whereas the radish-eaters gave up in 8 minutes! The researchers attributed this to the depletion of one's willpower. Resisting the temptation of consuming cookies affected the ‘radish groups’ patience in solving the problem. In the same notion, think of all the January ‘resolutioners’ at the gym who dropped out by February. What separates gym regulars from failed' resolutioners' are their habits. Habits are automatic routines. Do you ever question whether you should brush your teeth? Probably not. Because habits are so natural, they won't deplete your willpower. Habits will keep you in the game not motivation. Reaching any goal requires time and perseverance so developing good habits is a must to succeed.

Below, I will explain three principles and action plans based on social psychology to help you form good habits.


To form habits, we need to convince the mind that change is possible and self-driven.

To best understand this, Chip and Dan Heath, authors of “Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard” described the mind through the story of the rider and the elephant.

The rider and his elephant are on a mission to reach the other side of the country. The rider and the elephant make a good team because the elephant is strong enough to carry the rider to his destination and the rider can direct the elephant where to go. The rider and elephant together have beat many obstacles so far. Steep hills, rocky terrain and jungles are no match however one day, the elephant encounters his biggest fear: the mouse. It panics and overpowers the rider taking them off the correct path. Once the mouse is gone, the elephant is calm and the rider finds his way back. The rider finally succeeds when he learns to control the elephant and prevent encounters with the mouse. 

The rider represents your logical and rational thinking side of your mind. The elephant represents our emotional mind. The journey to the destination represents the process of achieving a goal. It is our job to harness the power of both sides of our mind to build a habit.

1. Direct the Rider: The logical side of the mind needs to know the facts.

Example: Exercising will help me look better, have more energy, lower my blood pressure…

2. Motivate the Elephant: When we act based on emotion, we can make choices on impulse without thinking through them. Finding ways to use emotion to motivate change and remain in control of our habits. This is a double edged sword. Emotions can convince you to either go to or skip the gym.

Example: Your girlfriend/boyfriend breaks up with you... you immediately hit the gym to get fit in spite of them.

Example 2. Someone brought Krispy Kreme to the office, somehow you ate 5 of them. You say the days wasted and skip the gym. - catch your inner elephant panic and use the rider to control your emotion. I got to train to get fit!

3. Shape the Path: Finding ways to create/modify our environment to support our goals and habits.

Example: Find a way to transfer the Krispy Kreme guy to the other location. Preferably my location.


This stage is about convincing the rider that they need to start taking action. This includes determining the destination and the value of getting there. 


Meet Joe. A former exerciser who stopped 5 years ago after starting his new job. He would like to have a fit body and fix his slouched posture from sitting all the time.


Instead of pointing out the obvious to Joe and telling him to exercise more, I provide him with ONE simple behavioral task that Joe will find easy to complete.

Joe, start going to the gym to do a light 10-minute run 2x/wk.

Although, this may not achieve Joe’s immediate goal, this will help him develop a habit of coming to the gym. This will also likely improve his mood and build up some muscular endurance.

If I told Joe to come in at least 3x/wk, complete 10-20 sets of resistance training for each muscle group and diet for at least a year, he might achieve his goal sooner but the rapid change in his lifestyle would be difficult to sustain. Willpower is limited but it can be trained. In a social psychology study regarding adherence to goals, they compared groups who were given one goal versus multiple goals. The percentage of adherence for the single goal group was significantly higher by ~30%(if my memory serves me correctly-it’s also in “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath and “Influence” by Dr. Robert Cialdini). In my own fat-loss boot camp “The Biggest Winner”, I apply the same strategy of single simple goals. One of the first habits I help my clients develop is to drink a 500mL bottle of water during your meal. The premise is that people are often dehydrated which trigger hunger hormones resulting in overeating. Instead of having my clients focus on the daunting task of “eating less”, I provide one behavioral task that will progress them towards the destination.

Think of one simple behavioral tasks you could take on to achieve your goal.


Motivating the elephant is to evoke an emotional response that highlights the need for change.

We know the facts. Yes, exercise is good for me and I should probably quit smoking. The reality is, I still haven't changed. Knowing the facts are not a powerful enough driver for us to take action.

To evoke this emotional response, we need to find reasons that spark feeling in ourselves.

For example, my clients that are new parents are more self-driven after we’ve discussed how their increased fitness level will help them have more energy, spirit and strength to play and see their children grow up.

Another technique is providing demos to show your audience what change looks and feels like. Example: showing Joe in the mirror how he would look with better posture will motivate him to achieve the goal because it evokes the feeling of confidence and strength.

Similar to the previous tip, we can use a trick known as the self-fufilling prophecy highlighted In Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“. He points out that a powerful driver of our actions is the need to live consistent. We want to be consistent with who we say we are and what we say. No one likes to go against their word. When we tell someone our goal, society is holding us accountable. Similarly, when we take on the identities of an ‘fitness enthusiast’ or ‘personal trainer’ or any other title, we make actions to back-up it up. The elephant/ego is attached to this ideology of consistency and identity. When we bring attention to the elephant about these traits and identities, we promote them. (assuming they are desirable qualities by the individual)

If you take the stairs everyday at work, you are an ‘exerciser’! If you go for walks on the weekends you are also an ‘exerciser’. The idea is to bring out positive qualities you see in others to empower their identity.

So to motivate the elephant: evoke emotions, empower their identity


Shaping the path is about changing the environment to support your goal. With some brainstorming, it’s easy to determine which parts of your life might deter or promote your goal.

Here are 5 easy ways to shape the path to keeping you active:

  1. Wearing your workout clothes under your work clothes or buy more workout clothes
  2. Preparing high protein snacks to help your muscles repair and keep you full
  3. Getting the closest gym membership to your convenience so you will go
  4. Joining a fitness page/group ( ) to remain accountable
  5. Join a boot camp/personal training/challenge as a social aspect/commitment to working out

To shape the path: change the environment, use social proof and pressure to motivate behavioral change


The three principles, direct the rider, motivate the elephant and shape the path are effective tools in any type of work you do.

The beauty of these principles are that they don’t require lots of power or resources but when implemented correctly, they can create significant changes.

If you have any questions, comments or inquires about my fitness services, feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me at