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Drive, and How to Maximize It

Our ancestors had no need for “physical fitness” as we think of it.  If you weren’t fast or couldn’t throw hard, you didn’t catch dinner and went hungry.  If you couldn’t lift heavy things, you settled for flimsy shelters that collapsed and left you crushed or exposed.  “Physical fitness” came from just living life, and was not an end in itself.  Life challenged, and we responded.

A big part of the success of CrossFit is that its approach not only creates tremendous physical fitness, but does it in a way that facilitates reaching a flow state. 

In the modern world, we have removed nearly all the physical effort required by life.  While this has many advantages (12 hour shift in a steel mill, anyone?) the human body-mind unit remains a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.  Any ability that isn’t required by daily life is quickly dismantled to save energy for a rainy day – muscles atrophy, blood vessels are torn down, body fat goes up.  Fortunately, our ancestry has also instilled us with what psychologists call “intrinsic motivation” that we can tap into to become and remain motivated to do the hard, sometimes unpleasant work required to develop and maintain physical fitness.

Related: Positive Self Talk: What is it Good for Anyway?

An excellent introduction to intrinsic motivation is Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive,  which relies heavily on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow.”  Flow occurs when a task stretches our current level of ability without being out of reach.  Tasks that provide the opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose help us reach a state of ‘flow,’ that pleasurable sensation of being absorbed in a task, a lack of self-consciousness, and losing track of time.  Flow states are so pleasurable that they are inherently motivating.

A big part of the success of CrossFit is that its approach not only creates tremendous physical fitness, but does it in a way that facilitates reaching a flow state.  The movements are often complex and always require focused attention to what you doing, even if it’s just counting reps.  While time often seems to drag during a hard workout, we normally notice when it’s over that time at least felt differently from normal, even if we didn’t quite lose track of it.  The challenge of improving your time on a repeated workout, mastering a complex movement like the clean, or aligning with your breath to push through a hard run are the type of tasks that provide opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  They are, therefore, inherently motivating.

Kind of.  There is of course a threshold matter of finding physical tasks and improvement worthwhile and finding an environment that is supportive and focused on helping you tap into your intrinsic motivation.   To do so, start with setting your own goals that are intrinsically appealing, rather than adopting someone else’s goals or what you think you “should” want.  Your goal may be to be fit enough to do the “optional” guided walking tours on your upcoming vacation, rather than crush a new personal record for a 5k run.  And that’s fine.  What’s important is that it has meaning and appeal to you.  It should also allow for continuation after reaching your initial goal (more on that below).

Next, find a method to make preparing for that goal fun.  There are at least 3.5 kinds of fun (external link).  Doing activities you enjoy are key to making fitness a habit, which in turn is key to making real progress.  This may mean learning new skills, which can be less than fun at first, as frustration can mount.  Identifying what has potential and sticking with it long enough to get through the hard part of the learning curve is key, as is recognizing what does not have appeal and dropping it once you have given it a fair chance.  This is mastery – the process of becoming proficient, then gaining comprehensive ability in that skill.  Continually challenging your current abilities, then recovering from the effort, is how we improve fitness, gain skill, and attain mastery.

Related: Creating Lasting Change In Your Life

Finally, establish a reward system that operates after-the-fact.  While this may seem to contradict my advice to find a motivating goal, bear with me.  Pink describes these as “now/then” rewards, as opposed to the more common “if/then” rewards.  “Now” that you have learned the mechanics of the clean, you can move to adding weight, or treat yourself to a pair of olympic lifting shoes.  These goals work better for fitness than “if/then” because all too often people achieve the “if”, get the reward, and stop pursuing the endeavor (sound familiar?).  For example, “if I lose 20# by the wedding I can eat all the cake.”  Then not only do you eat all the cake, you stop working out altogether, because your goal has been achieved.

Finding an activity that you enjoy doing and that enhances your fitness in the process is key to a lifetime of physical fitness, enjoyment, and progress.  Becoming intrinsically rewarded by doing what is “good for you” is the fitness equivalent of learning to love vegetables.  When “working out” feels more like “playing out,” you will no longer struggle with motivation, and results will flow like water.  You may also find that your pursuit of mastery of this physical activity spurs you to improved habits in other areas of your life, as you realize that if you want your clean record to improve, you need to eat and sleep better.  Now you are pursuing it for the love of the activity, and fitness is a happy side benefit.

To learn more, or for help finding an intrinsically motivating activity, contact me at john@crossfitslipstream.com.

-John Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer