Conjure Up Motivation for Working Out

A long list of tricks, mindsets tweaks and other tips for getting to the gym when you don't always feel like it.

Aug 15, 2022
A friend asked me how I keep myself motivated and push hard in the gym since I work out alone at home. Naturally, I wrote an essay in response. Let me cut to the chase. 

Accept that motivation will never be your primary driver

It sounds cliche, but it’s the raw truth. Motivation is fleeting. If you’re counting on it to get you to the gym, you will likely fail. 
I'm rarely motivated the moment I walk into the gym. But I'm committed to consistency. And I’ve learned, as explained to me in countless self-help books, that motivation really does follow action. 
Hence, I’ve developed the ability to move through the lack of motivation. I mentally detach from the dread, acknowledging that it’s there, but not letting it take over. 
Fortunately, the dread usually dissipates within 5-15 minutes.

Always have a plan and a backup plan 

It is essential to have a plan for several reasons. 
First and foremost, you need a plan because you want results. If you show up without a plan, you will likely waste time, fail to progress, and lose momentum. 
A plan will also help you transition through the first phase of most workouts when motivation is low and you're fighting the urge to walk away. 
In addition to my actual training program, I always have a plan for warming up. 
Warmups help me get past the nagging dread of working out. They don't need to be complicated and long. Typically, my first 10-15 minutes in the gym consists of: 
  • 3-5 minutes: dynamic stretching (deep lunges, downward dogs, etc.)
  • 3-5 minutes: getting my heart rate up with rowing, running, jump roping or moving through the next phase with increasing speed
  • 3-5 minutes: lightweight / bodyweight movements that mimic the patterns I’ll be lifting shortly. Squats, pushups, good mornings, band pull aparts, etc. I start slow in the first round and build up speed as I go.
I also have a plan for when things don’t go to plan.
All too often, something happens and my dedicated window for working out slips or shrinks. Instead of letting such hiccups throw me off completely, I have ways of adapting on the fly. 
The easiest way to work around a tight schedule is to use an AMRAP formula. 
AMRAP stands for as many reps (or rounds) as possible. Whatever amount of time you have, pick 3 to 6 movements, set a timer, and cycle through. 
I typically will treat the first few rounds as a warmup and increase my weights as I go. 
You can either pick lifts you would have done that day or take a full body approach by picking one pushing movement, one pulling movement, one knee bending movement, one hip hinging movement, and one ab exercise. 
You can also do the same thing but EMOM style. EMOM stands for every minute on the minute. Instead of continuously moving, you work for 30-50 seconds every minute, using the down time to rest and move to the next station. 
On these days, the goal is to move and maintain consistency. 

Give yourself grace for a day, but not for two days

This is surely an unpopular opinion, but it works for me. If shit happens, it’s ok. I just do everything in my power not to let it become two missed days. Obviously, if I’m sick this doesn’t apply. 

Track everything

I track everything I do in the gym. I commandeered my partner’s iPad Pro and use Google Sheets, but you can use a notebook or app. 
Typically, I have my plan in the spreadsheet and I write down exactly what I lifted and if needed, notes about what I should do next. 
For example, I'll track:
  • Deadlifts: 6 x 10 reps at 190. Form was sloppy - stay at 190 for another week
  • Back Squats: 5 x 8 reps at 150. Next time try 155.
  • Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 10 reps at 35. Next try 3 x 12 reps at 35.
If you don’t track, it's too easy to forget and fail to respect the principle of progressive overload which is critical to progress and results.
I also keep myself on task by using a running clock (again on the iPad) to ensure I rest properly between sets. Without the clock, it’s too easy to either rush to my next set or get distracted and waste time. 

Remember how little time you spend in the gym

In terms of pushing hard, it helps to contemplate just how little time you spend in the gym, but how impactful it can be.
I always think about how I'm spending 60-90 minutes in the gym. That's 1/24 of my day. I've already done the hard work to get my ass in the gym and warm up. So I owe it to myself to get the most out of it.
Along the same lines, if you lift 3 times per week and aim for 15-25 working sets per session, that's 75 sets per week max that you need to push. Assuming every set is 10 reps and each rep takes 5 seconds, that's a total of 62.5 minutes of work in a week.
I’m always so excited to back squat the night before leg day. In the morning, it’s inevitably daunting. Then, I remember I only get ~40 working reps in a week so I better make them count.
And why make them count? Because results require pushing close to maximum effort.
I also highly recommend not looking at your phone during your workouts. It’s a sure fire way to lose steam and waste time. 
In the last 2 years of working out alone and programming for myself, I can count on one hand the number of times I've cut a workout short because I just didn't want to finish. I just don’t want to be that person. 
Of course, there are times when you should not push because you are truly exhausted. One of my favorite gym mottos is: Life to train another day. 
It takes time to learn the difference between laziness and fatigue. But, if you’re tired, adapt your plan. 

Use mental tricks for getting through dips in your willpower 

When the going gets tough, take one set at a time. 
I do my best not to worry about all the work left to do. This is especially useful when doing 5+ sets of something. My mantra is often: nothing but the rep in front of you. 
When you're close to the end and you want to quit, I tell myself to keep pushing for one more song. Sometimes I do this for 5 songs. 
I think this technique is the temporal equivalent of narrowing your visual focus, which is a proven technique for pushing hard. In a recent Huberman Lab podcast, Dr. Emily Balcetis, explains how runners who repeatedly focus on visual milestones like a tree up ahead, run faster than those who don’t do this. 

Embrace the fear of failure

When I'm lying in bed, not thrilled about waking up at 5am to work out, I imagine how shitty I'll feel at 7am when I sit down to work without having worked out. I don't want that feeling... so I haul myself out of bed. 
It turns out that fear is more motivating. In another Huberman Lab podcast, Andrew Huberman explains that we are better at moving away from fearful things than moving towards things we want. 
Apparently visualizing failure, versus visualizing success, can double the likelihood that you will reach your goal. If you don’t have time to listen to the full two hour podcast, listen to this clip

Identify as a lifter

I got this from the book, Atomic Habits. If you want to be something, tell yourself you are that. 
As opposed to outcomes-based thinking (I want to lift more), try identity-based thinking (I'm a lifter so I lift). This technique has helped me change my life in many ways, including becoming a writer. 
When you're sitting at your desk, with the choice of working more, or ditching out on the workout to get a drink, or otherwise relax, repeat: I'm a lifter so I lift.
That’s what I do: 
  • Accept that motivation will never be your primary driver
  • Always have a plan and a backup plan
  • Give yourself grace for a day, but not for two days
  • Track everything
  • Remember how little time you spend in the gym
  • Use mental tricks for getting through dips in your willpower 
  • Embrace the fear of failure
  • Identify as a lifter
I don't know if it ever gets easier. 
I supposed it does in the sense that I love how I feel and look and I don't want to lose that. But motivation is fleeting and workouts are always hard. 
I often think about how I have to prove myself to myself everyday. It’s daunting, yet quite cool to consistently achieve such goals. 
What other techniques have worked for you? I’d love to know how others keep themselves focused and committed over the long haul.

A note on programming 

If you want to write your own program for general strength and physique training, I highly recommend reading The Glute Lab by Bret Contreras and Glen Cordoza. Despite the name, it's well-rounded. I describe it as an approachable textbook on programming.
As for apps, I've never used one, but these are three I would consider based on feedback from friends and / or following their social content.
To the women out there: don't be turned off by the manly muscly images on some of them. These all offer great lifting programs for strength and physique development.