Interview: Michelle Segar.
I was excited to get my copy of motivation scientist Michelle Segar's new book, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. She and I are interested in so many of the same things—in particular, the big question of how we can stick to healthier behaviors.
Her work is especially interesting to me, because she focuses on "motivation," which is a term that I generally don't use. I was curious to hear what she had to say.
Gretchen: You have a new book being published this month called No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. In your view, how do habits and motivation intersect?
Michelle: That’s such a good question, and it gets to the heart of my book, my research—my life, really. I’m all about creating sustainable behavior change: How can we get motivated to permit ourselves to make our own self—care a priority, and how can we stay motivated to keep it that way? Because I think everyone has had the experience of saying, “Oh, I have to get off the couch and get some exercise" or, “Yeah, I did really well for a while, I was going to the gym every day, but my life just came crashing in on me," or, “I’m so lazy. . .” But I refuse to believe that we are “lazy” or “bad” or “hopeless” when we have had troubling adopting new habits.
In my research I’ve been especially interested in why we fail to adopt behaviors and habits, even those that we desperately want to change and end up spending big bucks for special clothes, programs, gym memberships. I’ve found that our cultural context—“Exercise will make you thin,” “Do it ‘till it burns,” and “No pain, no gain”—plays a huge part. There’s even a new message now, “Exercise is medicine.” Through socialization, these become our beliefs about exercise, especially how exercising will benefit us. But many of these beliefs actually poison our motivation and prevent us from sticking with it over time. So as much as we try to break our “bad exercise habits,” we fail over and over again and just end up feeling bad.
My research and other science suggests that our primary reason for initiating a new healthy habit, like exercise or dietary change, strongly influences our motivation and ultimately our ability to stick with it over time. If our motivation feels like a “should”—we should try to lose weight because our doctor said so, or we should go for a run because we need more exercise—we start off feeling under pressure and that’s a recipe for short-term motivation.
So if the wrong kind of motivation just doesn’t last, what does science show is the best motivator for a lifetime of fitness?
In general, on a day-to-day basis, we are not motivated long-term by logic, or at least not for very long. So you can tell yourself that you need to exercise to lose weight, for your appearance, for your health, because your mom said so, whatever—but that’s not going to keep you going to the gym forever, sweating off the pounds, especially if you don’t like high-intensity exercise or you hate to sweat. Logic often motivate us to start, but for many of us, these pragmatic or pressurizing purposes for exercise are not compelling enough to maintain.
Here’s the basic example: You want to lose weight, so you go on a strict diet. But eventually, you find that you really want that bag of chips. So you think you’ll just try one, but it’s so good you eat the whole bag. Then, of course, you feel like a failure. But wait, here’s what’s really happening, and how you can use it to your advantage.
We tend to make decisions on the basis of how things make us feel in the moment, and we especially respond to immediate positive reinforcement: If it’s supposedly “good” for us but we don’t see the result for months or years, we lose steam. If it makes us feel amazing right now, if we enjoy it in the moment, our brains flood with happiness chemicals and we’re going to keep coming back for that great experience again and again.
Apply this to doing exercise that feels good versus working up a sweat because you think you should, and Voila! You’ve changed your behavior for the long term. I detail the full method I use with my clients to achieve this shift in No Sweat.
Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?
Well, spending a summer with my cousin many years ago actually helped me develop the habit of flossing every night! But as an adult I would say my husband has influenced me the most. When I get deeply involved in a large project or many smaller projects, I make piles of materials and papers all over the floor. I am a very visual person and I want to see all the resources that I’m using for any given project. That makes for a very messy office, which can leak into the rest of our house. My husband has done a great job of helping me become more aware of when I do this so I can course correct and not reinforce this habit with more piles.
I am a big believer in setting up systems to support and maintain our desired behaviors, and in taking a step back to understand the undesired behavior so you can overturn it. So, in talking to my friend about this challenge, we came up with a new system for me. I now have magazine racks across the walls of my office, which supports the visual—based approach that works for me but also keeps my papers neatly organized, vertically, instead of all over my floor.
Do you embrace habits or resist them?
That’s an interesting question! In my personal life I’d say that I rely on being able to negotiate the challenges that arise more than I do habits. I call it “dancing with my challenges.”
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits?
You might be surprised by this, given the focus of my work, but scheduling regular bouts of physical activity is not one of my habits. My schedule varies wildly day by day—sometimes I’m in the office, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m attending a seminar out of town, sometimes I’m working at home. So I can’t just decide that Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I’m going to take a 45-minute walk, even though that’s what really replenishes me.
Instead, I do what I tell my coaching clients to do, and what I suggest in my book: I aim to move for a reasonable amount of time, not necessarily all at the same time, on most days of the week. At the beginning of the work week, or even at the beginning of the day, I preview when I can fit my walk in, but I never count on it—I know that life is likely to throw a curve ball and my plans will get challenged. So I always leave room to improvise by doing less, or doing it a different time or place, or even giving myself permission to miss that planned walk if there really is no time for it. And there’s no guilt because I’m in it for the long haul, so missing one or a few walks every now and then simply doesn’t matter.
What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?
As soon as you asked this question one of my favorite things popped into my mind: My nightly bath! It’s a ritual that helps me relax and quiet my mind so I can transition into sleep mode. In my book, I talk about how important sleep is for me, what I refer to as my “foundational self—care behavior,” the one thing that helps fuel me for all the other things I do in my daily life. (My husband’s foundational behavior is his early morning high intensity workout, but that’s another story!) For me, doing whatever it takes to get a good night sleep is a top priority, and a bath is a pretty delightful habit to have. I take a bath every night, no matter what time I start to wind down, even if I get back from a party at 1 a.m. (not something I do often these days, with a seven year old at home.) My baths feel like a gift I give myself every night.
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