Did you have endless motivation when you first started on Paleo or keto, but somehow that energy fizzled out and now the whole thing just seems exhausting? Are you struggling to find the get-go to cook from scratch or go to the gym when it’s so much easier just to order takeout and watch reruns of The West Wing?
Think of it as a valuable warning sign, like the pain when you touch a hot stove. The motivational slump is a message: “What you’re doing isn’t working. You need a new plan. It’s time to be proactive and shake some things up.”
Why is this happening?
If someone offered you 25 cents to copy the dictionary by hand, you’d probably laugh at them. You could make more money in less time by walking around random streets watching for coins people dropped on the ground. But what if you could get $100k/year for life, with no further obligation, if you just hand-wrote the entire dictionary once? Most people would take that offer - the effort is big, but the reward is huge.
That’s motivation - when the reward we expect from doing something feels large enough to justify the effort, at the time when we need to put in the effort. We feel motivated to eat a Paleo or keto diet when the rewards (health, weight loss, etc.) seem important enough to justify the effort of changing our behavior right now.
It’s like a set of scales, with effort on one side and reward on the other. The more effort we’re putting in (or the more effort we think we’ll need to put in), the more reward we need to feel motivated. Nobody's going to copy out the dictionary by hand for 25 cents, and nobody's going to give up their favorite comfort foods without a darn good reason.
But what if life happens, there's some huge exhausting crisis, and the effort of making healthy food suddenly seems so much bigger? What if we lose sight of the rewards because they’re so long-term, and the long term consequences stop feeling important when we're actually faced with the cheesecake?
Why motivation to eat Paleo or keto can slip away
Almost anything can throw off that delicate balance of effort-to-reward.
The effort you’re putting in can increase - for example, over the holidays, the effort of staying on track with food can get a lot higher thanks to social pressure to eat junk food at parties. If you suddenly have to deal with a family crisis or a demanding time at work, you might be so tired that it takes a huge effort just to get off the couch, much less cook.
Rewards can also start feeling less important or more remote. Especially if the changes aren’t fast, it can feel like the reward isn’t coming at all, which is demotivating.
Unfortunately, it’s easy to get demotivated with a lifestyle change like Paleo or keto because the effort is today, but the rewards are often far in the future. Humans are prone to something called “delay discounting,” meaning that any delay in receiving a reward reduces its perceived value. Our brains prioritize immediate small rewards (enjoying a tasty cupcake today) over huge future rewards (being healthy and not having diabetes in 30 years).
Also, each individual food choice makes such a tiny impact on our long-term health. If resisting one cupcake right now gave you a guaranteed diabetes-free future forever, that would be one thing. But in real life, the reward is so diffuse and vague and related to so many different decisions that it’s hard to really feel that reward for each specific choice.
Tip things too much to the effort side of the scale, and take enough weight off the “reward” side, and that feeling of motivation starts to go away.
How can I fix this?
Here’s a quick action plan for getting out of a motivational slump. It’s a very short exercise to:
- Add some weight to the “reward” side of the scale (both long-term and short-term).
- Brainstorm ways to take weight off the “effort” side of the scale.
A Motivational Mini-Worksheet
You will need: a pen and paper (or a computer) and half an hour.
Make four columns:
- Column 1: list the long-term, big-picture goals that you want to achieve with Paleo or keto and why they’re meaningful to you. For example, “I want to lose 100 pounds and keep it off, so that I can have healthy years with my kids in my 40s and 50s.”
- Column 2: list the specific behaviors (what to eat/avoid) that are most critical to accomplishing each goal in column 1. You can have multiple bullet points in column 2 for each goal in Column 1.
- Column 3: list a short-term benefit for each thing in column 2. Pick rewards that benefit you within 24 hours at the most. If you have nothing for Column 3, this may be a high-effort, low-reward behavior (more on those later).
- Column 4: list one action (or many!) that you could do to make the healthy behavior in column 2 a default or low-effort option.
Here’s an example:
Column 1: Goals
|Column 2: Behaviors||Column 3: Rewards||
Column 4: Tweaks
|I want to lose 100 pounds and keep it off, so I can have healthy years with my kids in my 40s and 50s||
|I want to build my physical fitness so I can go hiking with my daughter.||
Write strategic reminders to yourself about your goals and the short-term rewards of each particular behavior. Leave them where you'll find them when you need them. When you're struggling with willpower, try focusing on the short-term rewards you just identified ("eating this is a short path straight to a stomachache") and not abstract future rewards like "better insulin sensitivity."
Then go ahead and do the things in column 4 to set yourself up for success with your target behaviors. In fact, if you’re struggling in a really extreme way, Column 4 can become your list of goal behaviors. Don’t even worry about getting to the gym three times a week; just make it your goal to pack up your gym clothes before bed. When you’re ready to take on the challenges in Column 2, you’ll have a ready-made set of supportive habits to make your behavior changes easier.
Changing high-effort, low-reward behaviors
Sometimes, you just have behaviors that are really hard and you’re struggling to find an immediate reward that feels compelling. For example, maybe you’re trying to quit soda, but your work provides it for free (so there’s no monetary cost to you for drinking it) and you don’t notice any immediate benefits from drinking water instead. That would be a high-effort, low-reward behavior change. Here’s a plan for those:
- List all the high-effort, low-reward behaviors that you’d like to target.
- Rank them in order of priority.
- Choose the most crucial item on the list. Focus your energy and motivation on that one thing. Reduce the “effort” side of the scale by taking all the other high-effort, low-reward stuff off it.
- Once your first behavior is firmly entrenched as a habit (say, about 3-6 months of doing it consistently), then add a second. Eventually, you can get them all.
Habits stick where motivation doesn’t.
The long-term solution to this problem is to build habits that will pull you along without the force of motivation. Habit is the “hack” that will get you on the right side of the effort/reward equation for the long run. But in order to make a new habit, you have to start doing the thing before it’s habitual, and that’s where all these motivational tweaks come in.