Confession: In the last month or so, I’ve eaten plain oatmeal for dinner at least eight times.
I’m well aware that a bowl of Quaker oats is hardly the most nutritious or substantive fare. Honestly, it doesn’t even taste that good.
But at the end of a long workday, the absolute last thing I want to do is start chopping up vegetables or steaming tofu or — worst of all — cleaning up after I’ve made a mess in the kitchen.
It’s a problem many of us have faced in some fashion: knowing what the healthy choice is, yet lacking the motivation to make it.
Fortunately for anyone in this situation, research suggests there’s a simple way to make healthy behaviors easier. It’s not about trying to increase your motivation so much as taking advantage of motivation when you do have it.
That’s according to BJ Fogg, a psychologist and director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford. In a 2013 interview with Ramit Sethi, author of “I Will Teach You to Be Rich,” Fogg explained how to ride what he calls the “motivation wave,” or the fluctuations in our motivation levels.
“Motivation only has one role in our lives and that’s to help us to do hard things,” Fogg said. So when your motivation is high, you want to do all those hard things that make future healthy behaviors easier. If you want to exercise more, that would mean signing up and paying for a trainer and scheduling appointments.
In a 2012 presentation, Fogg explained how the motivation wave might apply to a behavior like healthful eating. One strategy is to do is something hard that reduces barriers to the desired behavior.
So when you come home from the grocery store and your motivation is high, you should wash your vegetables, chop them up, and put them in clear containers in your refrigerator where you can see them.
“Later, throughout the week as your motivation sags, your goal of eating more vegetables is easier to do,” Fogg said in the presentation.
Another strategy: When your motivation is high, you can do something that increases your capability to achieve the goal. So maybe you can try your hand at a new (nutritious) recipe that’ll be a lot easier the next time you use it.
Personally, I know my motivation to eat healthfully is highest in the morning before I leave for work and on the weekends, when I’m not at the office. So a good strategy for me would be to do some meal prep after I wake up or, even better, on Sunday afternoons.
Once you hear it, the idea sounds ridiculously simple. It’s a matter of accepting that your motivation will occasionally plummet, and that that’s okay. If you can predict the obstacles you’ll face during those times, you can help your future lazy self to be healthier and more successful.
The interview with Sethi and Fogg is featured in Sethi’s Ultimate Guide to Habits and the full interview is available to premium users on Ramit’s Brain Trust. You can watch part of the interview here: