What motivates a motivation expert? Competition, for one.

By Laura Williamson, American Heart Association News

Psychology professor Dr. Philip Gable after climbing a mountain in the Alps overlooking Geneva. (Photo courtesy of Philip Gable)
Psychology professor Dr. Philip Gable after climbing a mountain in the Alps overlooking Geneva. (Photo courtesy of Philip Gable)

It's that time of year, when people start making – and almost immediately breaking – New Year's resolutions. But one person you won't find declaring "New Year, New Me!" is motivational expert Dr. Philip Gable.

"I don't do it, not anymore," said Gable, a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware in Newark. "In my opinion, I feel like people make a New Year's resolution just because it's the new year, not because they actually want to make a change. If you really want to make a change, why wait until January 1? Why not make it today?"

Regardless of when you resolve to make a change, "unless you are motivated, you won't do it," he said.

Gable explains how he stays motivated in "The Experts Say," an American Heart Association News series in which specialists discuss how they apply what they've learned to their own lives. The interview has been edited.

How do you make challenging goals feel more manageable?

I use tricks I learned in my field. For example, when approaching a large goal, I try to start with something really small I know I can commit to. Break it down into steps.

Recently, I was trying to eat less sugar. I was eating three or four desserts after supper. I decided that's where I'd start. Now after dinner, I choose dried fruit instead of a cookie. I just picked one thing I could take action on, and that made it feel controllable.

What helps get you motivated?

One of the strongest motivators I've come across is social comparison, or competition. If you involve someone else in your goal, you are more likely to work harder to accomplish it. Get your friends involved and you'll work out longer with them, or try to run faster than them. Or maybe it'll help because you can commiserate with them if you slip up.

You don't have to be openly competitive, either. I'm a quiet competitor. I do it in my head. If I'm working out at the gym, I look around the room to see how much weight somebody else is lifting, or I pick someone in a cycle class that I want to beat in mileage.

I'm a very social person, so also being able to socialize helps. I join running groups and have friends there who help keep me motivated to show up and run faster or longer. Exercise classes are a lot of fun for me. I enjoy spin class and any kind of group exercise.

Dr. Philip Gable recently biked across France. (Photo courtesy of Philip Gable)
Dr. Philip Gable recently biked across France. (Photo courtesy of Philip Gable)

What are some pitfalls to look out for that can sap motivation?

One of the biggest things I see is people being anxious and paralyzed, so they don't even take the first step. Or maybe they take the first step and get paralyzed when they think about how far they have to go. It seems insurmountable to think about losing 20 pounds. So, don't think about losing 20 pounds. Think about eating a healthier supper tonight.

How do you stay motivated when hurdles arise?

Persistence is a hard one. There's going to be a time when you're chugging along, and you hit a plateau and life gets busy. New priorities pop up and make this resolution not so important to you. People join gyms in January and drop out by March. It means you didn't really connect yourself to the goal and make it part of your lifestyle.

People use the word "busy" a lot as a reason for abandoning a goal. What's really going on is there is another thing more motivating than your goal. It means work or other activities are more motivating than going to the gym. There might be a deadline you have to meet or maybe you're working hard to earn a bonus. It's just a shift in motivation.

Oftentimes, it's not that you can't do both – get your work done and do exercise. It's that you are saying exercise is now my fifth priority and work is my first priority. If you could make exercise your second or third priority, you'd probably fit it in.

How do you handle setbacks?

Temporary setbacks happen and that's OK. I tell myself, "Today or this week, I won't be able to meet my goal. But I can schedule a class for next week or set up a run with friends when I know I'm not going to be as busy so I don't fall off the bandwagon completely."

Are there ever days when it's OK or even encouraged to give yourself a break from a goal?

There are reasons you might need to stop working on a goal. For example, it's not wise to work out when you've got an injury. But if it's not something serious and you just need a break, be careful, because one day off can turn into two and that can turn into three.

When I don't feel like doing something, it usually doesn't make me feel better to not do it. But when I push through those situations, if I just do something small at least, then I immediately start feeling a little bit better. That's one of the good things about exercise, there are major neuropsychological benefits. Doing it, even a little, makes us feel less blah.

What other kinds of motivation have you or members of your family used?

When we talk about motivators, there is also extrinsic motivation. Money is rewarding. My wife really likes to use an app where you make a monetary investment when you set a weekly walking goal. Then if you meet your goal, you get your money back at the end of the week. It's really motivating for her to do that.

Do rewards work?

Rewarding yourself for meeting a goal also can be a good motivator because you associate finishing the goal with the reward. It's amazing how quickly my son is willing to finish homework if it means he gets to play video games when he finishes. The same works for me, too!

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