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How to HACK your Motivation and reap the BENEFITS

By Dr. Scott E. Rosenthal

We’ve all heard plenty about computer hacking intended to sway your thoughts, opinions, and actions. But, what if hackers could penetrate farther than your hard drive and enter your brain? What if the hackers were doctors, exercise and nutritional gurus, and psychologists? The good news is that‘s not actually possible, because it sounds super creepy. But this article will teach you how to self-hack your own brain and take hold of the reins that steer your motivation and willpower.

As you likely have heard many times before, the majority of disease-related deaths are preventable. Every choice you make either prevents death or contributes to its likelihood. Although warnings and fear tactics are not particularly effective in producing lifestyle changes, bear with me while I share a few chilling facts. This will set the stage for why hacking your motivation is so important.

  1. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “at least 200,000 deaths from heart disease and stroke each year are preventable.” (1)
  2. Poor diet is a major contributor to the leading causes of chronic disease and death in the United States, including heart disease, diabetes, increased fat in the blood, and stroke. (2)
  3. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey revealed that less than 25% of Americans consumed the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables and equally few were as physically active as recommended. (3)
  4. As revealed by CNN, “Harvard researchers say, inactivity caused an increase in deaths from coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancers caused more than 5.3 million deaths in 2008 worldwide.” (4)

The secret to hacking your motivation is to create behaviors and ways of thinking that produce the desired action and outcome without focusing on what you need to do or have been failing to do. Please do not be fooled by the simplicity of the below tactics. They do not represent a complete list, but can get you started and prime your creative pump to add more of your own later. Adopt them without judgement or overthinking. Start today with at least one and add another in a day or two. Keep this article handy and visible where it will be seen as a daily reminder.

Brush and floss your teeth soon after dinner

This hack utilizes the power of your laziness. In order to resist the hassle of redoing this tedious nightly activity, you will avoid that late night calorie-ridden snack.

Make this your exercise mantra: “I am good at driving to the gym.”

Don’t think about exercising regularly, but just think about the activity that sets it up. Once you arrive at the gym, the rest is easy. Just grab your sneaks and keys and go!

Make this your dietary mantra: “I am really a great grocery shopper”

It doesn’t matter if you are a horrible eater, if you are an excellent shopper. After all, if it’s not in your house, how will you eat it?

Breathe deeply and let it out slowly

Before facing any stressful situation (work meeting, important talk with your partner, debate team, etc.), tell yourself that at the first sign of getting roused  you will take a deep breath in and slowly let it out before doing anything. Then you can continue.


Like the earlier example about brushing your teeth, the timing of when you plan to do something determines if you actually do it. This is particularly important when it comes to exercising. Put it in your schedule either before you start the day or before you get home from work or school. Once you are home after a long day, laziness hacks your brain… and, we all know what happens (or doesn’t) then.

Do it for him, her or them

Considering what your health and vitality means to a partner, child or good friend, motivation comes much easier. You are loved and one of the best ways to show your love back is to take care of yourself. I have a Father’s Day card hanging in my closet that my youngest daughter gave me years ago. It has colorfully written on it, “Eat less sugar, you are sweet enough already.” Although she was not concerned that I had an overactive sweet tooth, I liked the unintended message and continually use it for motivation.

The buddy system

The power of having a friend or family member teaming up with you to perform health-promoting activities such as eating well or exercising is one of the best hacks! Partners keep you on course and off the couch. Your motivation also exponentially increases when you have to play the role of drill sergeant.

Take your dog’s advice

Before making any food choice (within reason), ask, “Would I feed this to my dog?” The next question should be, “Why won’t I feed it to my dog?” I once heard a doctor say, “If your dog is fat, you are not exercising enough.” Dogs want to get outside and walk no matter what the weather is, what’s on TV, or how lazy you feel. Listen to Fido and get some exercise, sunshine and fresh air.

Just ask yourself

Ask if it supports your health and happiness or leads to misery? Simple but direct questions of yourself can break the trance that guides you into dark alleys. Don’t sugar-coat it. Be tough and hold yourself accountable.

Lack of motivation is like a wild horse that needs to be tamed. Take the reins by using the above hacks and a few of your own. If you are still feeling doubts and your pony is running rampant, keep reading this article from the start (over and over again) until you’ve been hacked.


2. Ann Intern Med. 2010;153:736-750