I hear it all the time. Whether it’s a friend who is struggling to lose weight or someone I overhear in line for coffee, there’s always a hint of desperation in their voice: “I know what to do to lose weight, I just need to do it. I need to get more motivated.”
There is a grain of truth to this statement. If you can find the right source of motivation, you’d shock yourself with the things you could accomplish. But if you’re even thinking this way in the first place, you probably already know how important it is to eat well and stay active. You are motivated. In fact, you might even be motivated enough to sign up with a personal trainer or pay a nutritionist to overhaul your diet.
So why is it still so hard to follow through on these commitments? Often the problem is not your level of motivation but a counterproductive mindset that undermines it.
Breaking Bad Habits
When you think of building motivation, you probably think about rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. And when it comes to health, you might think that too many carrots (or carrot cake?) is exactly your problem. The logical conclusion then is that you need more discipline. This is why you’re inclined to pay someone to torture you in bootcamp. If you can’t force your own butt to go out in the cold and run stadiums at 6 a.m., maybe Meathead Mike can make you.
Ironically, though, no one is as hard on you for your shortcomings as you are on yourself. When you hit snooze one too many times and miss your training appointment or come home late from work and heat up a frozen burrito for dinner, you’re the harshest judge. Mike will still get paid, after all.
As motivated as you are, events like these can be crushing. You blame yourself for the slipup. You question your motivation. You wonder if you have what it takes to be a healthy person or if you’re doomed to kill yourself with your own bad habits. Maybe it’s in your genes to be lazy and being healthy is impossible for you. Ugh. What could be more demotivating?
A common misconception is that people who are able to create healthy habits have a tremendous amount of discipline—that they are able to wake up early and go to the gym no matter how dark and cold it is outside. As if they are capable of torturing themselves indefinitely and that trait somehow makes them better people.
Here's Why That's a Myth
Psychological research has shown that people who are able to create healthy habits don’t have more discipline, they have more self-compassion. Instead of beating themselves up for not being perfect every time, they ask how things could have gone differently. This takes them out of “I’m a lazy loser” mode and into problem-solving mode. Instead of thinking “I should have just dragged my tired butt out of bed and forced myself to go to the gym,” they think, “I was really tired today and it caused me to oversleep. I should try to get to bed earlier next time. Is that realistic?” They don’t see the situation as a problem with themselves; they see it as a puzzle to be figured out.
I call this a Problem-Solving Mindset. The Problem-Solving Mindset is powerful because it takes emotions out of the equation and forces you to address the reality of the situation. Rather than judging yourself for being lazy, you can acknowledge that you were tired and ask why.
Maybe you didn’t get enough sleep or have too many demands on you at work. What can you do so that you can feel well-rested when you wake up in the morning? You have self-compassion by acknowledging that oversleeping is a consequence of being tired and that being tired is normal when you don’t get enough restful sleep. Oversleeping doesn’t make you lazy; it means you need to figure out how to give yourself the fuel and rest you need to function at your best.
Instead of being harsh on yourself and performing worse under the pressure, you must take care of yourself so that you can perform better. There’s no value in beating yourself up. If your best friend or child were struggling with a similar situation, would you just assume they’re hopeless and give up on them? Of course not. You would be kind, listen to their concerns, do your best to point out the positives, and steer them toward the answer. You must treat yourself with the same dignity. Not only do you deserve it, it’s also the only way to solve your problem.
The healthiest people practice self-compassion when something they wanted to accomplish doesn’t go the way they'd hoped. This gives them the mental clarity and emotional distance to adopt the Problem-Solving Mindset and have the best shot at getting it right the next time.
This post originally appeared on Summer Tomato. Darya Rose, Ph.D is the author of Foodist, and creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME's 50 Best Websites. She eats amazing things daily and hasn't even considered going a diet since 2007. To learn more about getting healthier and feeling your best, sign up for the Summer Tomato weekly newsletter (and free starter kit).