How to motivate others to make some of the healthy choices you’re making? It’s not so easy. Anyone who’s found it difficult to get on the right path understands the frequent resistance of their loved ones to adopt similar lifestyle changes. Despite intellectually understanding the benefits of exercise, for instance, they may feel too busy or hopelessly behind to start a fitness routine. No one doubts the power of eating healthy, but many of people are caught in dietary ruts and haven’t been sufficiently motivated to change.
But your friends, family, and colleagues have a secret weapon: you. You’re proof that someone they know can break bad habits and start good ones. You’re actively looking for articles like this one, and therefore motivated to motivate them. Unlike well-being gurus they may see on book covers or television, you’re in their lives and in their corner. That’s incredibly powerful, as are some of the specific ways you can be a daily or weekly motivational presence for people who know they need to get healthier but haven’t had the right personal nudge in that direction quite yet. Here are some thoughts on how to motivate others:
- Help them find the “why.” Get clear on why better health is important to them. Maybe they’re tired of their clothes not fitting. Maybe they’re managing a health condition that requires better habits. Maybe it’s vanity. Maybe it’s a desire for more energy or better sleep or a prolonged life or higher performance. Maybe it’s general prevention. Maybe it’s something else. Regardless, the key is to connect them with a specific goal that feels personal. They will be more likely to take steps toward a destination when they’ve said, out loud, where they’d like to go.
- Listen. It may seem obvious, but it’s essential. Use your own suggestions as motivation where appropriate, but actually hear what the other person is saying about what they want out of a different habit. Don’t replace their story with your own. The more you understand their rationale, obstacles, fears, and desires, the easier the entire process will be.
- Incentivize the process. If it’s been a while since they exercised, you may suggest a small system of self-bribery. This is especially true in pursuing the small bits of progress that ultimately add up to something like a smaller waist size. Try to come up with a rewards system that’s built into your relationship with the person you hope to motivate. For instance, if you live with them, say you’ll watch a show or movie of their choice after a healthy dinner together. If it’s a friend, offer to take them out to lunch after they hit the gym. Figure out the best “habit loop” that makes sense for them. Habit loops involve a cue or trigger for the desired new behavior, the routine, and then the reward. If they’ve found that similar tricks haven’t worked when they’ve tried to use them, it’s possible that having someone else as the protector/dispenser of rewards will provide the extra incentive they need to actually get the job done.
- Don’t be a scold or perfectionist. There’s a reason you’re helping to motivate someone — because change is difficult, and progress doesn’t always go in a straight line. If and when there’s a hiccup in the process, use it as an opportunity to refocus the person you’re motivating on the big picture. While there’s no one right way to motivate, the least productive “how to motivate” approach is one that involves shame or negativity or asking the other person to reach impossibly high expectations. Build some looseness and flexibility into your motivation.
- Do be gently insistent. Try not to let them delay or slip out of their new commitment without explanation. Flexibility is good, but so are specific plans and start dates. Make it clear that life can interfere with plans and people are allowed the occasional day of laziness, but that this commitment is a commitment and means something to you. When they understand that you’re part of this, supportive but firm, they’ll take it more seriously themselves.
- Ask them to sign a contract committing to exercise or healthier eating. Act as a “witness.” When promises are put into writing, in the presence of another, they can feel more real. If feasible, put a (healthy, reasonable) penalty into the contract, whereby your loved one will donate to charity or take care of a long-delayed task if they skip a workout or ignore their nutritional goals during the week. The contract should be specific in outlining the exercise and/or eating habits. Again, externalizing and publicizing these goals can put the right kind of pressure on someone to follow through.
- Don’t trip over positive thinking. Positive thinking, or visualizing the results you want as a motivational exercise, is great. That said, there is a caveat to be aware of in order for their visualizations to work. Once you’re clear on the outcome(s) they want, like toned muscles or amazing energy, help them to identify their internal blocks or resistance to change, and strategize as to how they will overcome these barriers to success. If they know they’re more likely to follow through with exercise during a certain time of day, for instance, make sure they focus on that window of opportunity.
- Be a workout or meal buddy. This, more than anything else, is a practical way to help someone achieve real progress. Actually do the thing with them. Offer to go to the gym, take a fitness class, or share meals. Bicycle together or cook together. Mutual support and accountability are powerful ways to keep their momentum fired up over time. Research shows that fitness clubs, recreational sports teams, and workout partners increase exercise compliance, weight loss, and commitment to goals in the long term. Fitness buddies help you enjoy your workouts more and can offer support navigating slumps and discouraged moments along the way.
There is no doubt that that making changes for the better requires commitment, and there may be times when your friends and family feel uninspired or unmotivated. Know that you will encounter those moments, and set them up for success by implementing tools and strategies that will keep them moving, even when the going gets tough.