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Couch potato or outdoor recreation? Motivation is the arbiter.

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 4, 2016

Motivation is a weird thing.

For me, when it strikes it's full-throttle, 100 percent, go-big-or-go-home. When absent, it's like a once-beautiful and ornate ice sculpture that has turned into a puddle. Or, more to the point, it's me on the couch at 5:30 p.m.

Unfortunately, speaking as a supposedly full-grown adult, the expectation is that even when motivation doesn't come naturally, I should find it. At the very least, I need to motivate myself to "go to work" because there are real consequences if I don't.

For something more along the lines of getting outdoors, it can be easy to just let it go in the face of all the other things requiring energy. My question is: When is it important to motivate versus letting the sloth set in for a little while? And when it is time to drag myself into doing something, can I make it easier?

Having the hard talk

An after-work hike. Ultimate Frisbee. Parasailing. A weekend at a cabin. Stair running. A bike ride.

All are outdoor activities I've been invited to participate in recently. Part of me wanted to jump in — the part that likes fresh air on my face, exercise, and great memories. Another part resisted. Doing any of these things requires work, and work is hard.

This isn't unfamiliar territory. I have a little mental checklist I go through when I feel myself lacking motivation to take part in an activity, especially a new one.

Question One: What else have I been up to recently and could I reasonably be expected to simply need of time off? Did I already do three out of six of those activities, and I am putting undo pressure on myself to do it all because life is short and I somehow feel that saying no would be refusing a lovely gift?

Question Two: Am I scared? Is it the run's terrain? Or is it meeting new people, which can also be scary? Are there any questions I could ask to know more about the situation?

Question Three: Does this activity butt up against my own limitations? Would paragliding trigger my fear of heights and cause me to hyperventilate, perhaps interfering with the judgment needed to give it a whirl? Or, for Ultimate Frisbee, would my lack of coordination and dislike of competition make this unpleasant for me and my teammates? This question, of course, is closely related to Question Two.

Sometimes after having the hard talk with myself I realize I just need a day off. Other times I decide to push myself.

Launching back in

The problem with not feeling motivated is that it can be a cycle, often due to things I can't control. (I'm looking at you, sun … well, I would look but I can't see it very well under all these clouds.)

A lack of motivation can mean heavy eyelids and lethargy. Overcoming it is tough, especially since my brain is hard-wired to save energy. My mind yells at me that the couch is really good for me. Tomorrow is the day for motivating. Beer is the best for hydrating now, and a little carbo-loading can't hurt. Let this Netflix series run its course.

Last week though, I peeled myself off the couch, mostly because I saw my husband getting ready to go for a bike ride and I was jealous, thinking about him coming back home in an hour having gotten fresh air. So I went too, and the first (tiny) hill we rode up was the worst. After that, it became easy.

The worst part about getting out of a bad cycle is that first part — just getting out. After that, small successes build upon one another. New experiences seem worth every effort. Usually, even if something goes wrong, there's a payout to having put in the effort. That cycle, like the cycle of de-motivation, is also self-reinforcing.

If all this sounds lofty, consider old-fashioned bribery. Just like I have hard talks with myself, I also bait myself along like the 8-year-old I secretly am. I end a bike ride at New Sagaya's to pick up chocolate. I read; I watch the rest of the Netflix marathon. Baths are the best. So are beers and bonfires.

Over the years, I've become used to training schedules with time for working out and time for rest clearly mapped out on a calendar. This culminated in last year's Iron Man, which followed such an intense schedule that I promised myself 2016 would be the year of no races. I want to learn how my intrinsic motivation works again, without having to rely on a schedule to tell me when to be "on" and when it's OK to chill.

Finding this new normal has been tricky. Without a goal in mind, being outside is simply play — which on one hand is awesome but on the other is confusing. I want to spend a lot of time outside. My body craves it. I just haven't figured out what will consistently motivate me to get out there, without having a set plan and race to work toward.

Motivation is here and then it isn't. For me, it's a constant negotiation.

Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.

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