Motivation – Why it doesn’t work and why it’s not our fault.

Motivation – Why it doesn’t work and why it’s not our fault.

Have you ever found the perfect diet, workout routine, self-care plan, sleep routine in a book or on a podcast and thought, “This is perfect for me! This will change my life! This is everything!”

And then you research and get more excited, and then you make a plan and can hardly wait to start… And then you start and at first it’s amazing, and then it gets difficult, and then something changes in your life… and then all of a sudden, you ‘fall off the wagon’.

I’m sure all of us have done this… I certainly have, more times that I can count. I usually start off feeling good and excited, and then something happens and I don’t continue.

Have you ever wondered why this happens? Well, I can be pretty hard on myself so in the past when this happened to me, I would assume ‘I’ was the problem which would lead to negative self-talk, and just feeling bad about myself.

But you know what… it wasn’t me at all and it’s not you either.

Motivation is to blame. See that excited feeling we get when we read about the perfect plan… motivation. The drive during the planning phase… motivation. That energetic, “I can do anything” feeling when we initially start… motivation.

But motivation doesn’t last forever and although it can help us in some circumstances, it lets us down in many, many more. And what about motivation’s evil cousin willpower?

Well this is often when we think “if I can just white knuckle it through this challenge everything will be okay.But often it is not okay because willpower doesn’t last forever either, and again, it’s not my fault or your fault, it’s willpower’s fault.

The reason motivation and willpower don’t work in helping us with the newest exercise plan, diet or sleep routine is because motivation and willpower in this context are using just the conscious mind.

Our conscious mind is our rational mind- the thoughts, feelings and memories we are aware of and in control of at any given moment. Our conscious mind makes up about 5% of our thoughts (yes, only 5%).

We read about a new diet and think, “yes, this will work for me” and we make a plan to start- all very rational. But then our subconscious mind kicks in.

Our subconscious mind is our store house for feelings, thoughts, urges and desires that are outside of our awareness. These stored thoughts, urges and feelings are influenced by our past experiences, sometimes distant past, like childhood trauma.

We are not in active control of our subconscious mind and shockingly, it is actually responsible for about 95% of our thoughts and therefore drives many of our actions by making our current behavior fit our ‘ingrained/old’ pattern of behaving.

These reactions are so natural and habitual that we may not even realize what’s happening until it is too late. For example, let’s say when I’m upset due to a stressful day at work, a fight with my spouse, or even when I was upset as a child- my parents and/or myself tried to “cheer me up” with comfort food.

My subconscious mind stores this information as “if Holly is stressed or upset- give her comfort food”. This likely means throughout my life I have used comfort food to cope with negative emotions. Generally, I would not be aware that this is a pattern in my life, but my subconsciousness knows this.

And because our subconscious mind is not rational, that means it does not consider the negative consequences of eating chocolate every time something slightly stressful happens.

So, back to motivation- our rational mind is ready for this diet and excited for this new way of eatingbut then we have a stressful day at work and our subconscious mind is like, “okay time for chocolate and potato chips”.

Our motivation tries to be like “no wait”, but our subconscious mind is strong and really likes to keep everything in a ‘normal’ pattern- so we end up arguing with ourselves and often “giving in” to our subconscious mind. And worst of all, we don’t even realize what we are doing until the chips are already in our hand.

So what does work?

Well, often we think if we put more into our conscious mind, work harder, and push ourselves more we can “overpower” the subconscious mind. But this is often counterproductive. If we instead try to connect to our subconscious mind and slowly change some of the ingrained patterns, we can actually make meaningful changes in our life without feeling like we are fighting ourselves every step of the way.

How do we do this? By tapping into the subconscious mind and changing the beliefs and thoughts of our identity– which makes it easy to start and actually stick with it. Ultimately with this, we can begin to make lifestyle changes effortless moving forward.


Let’s dive in.


Consider Our Beliefs & Identity

Oftentimes when we want to make a change in our lives, we begin by thinking about the behavior we want to change. For example, say I have a goal to be fit and healthy by the time I’m 40 years old- and that date is a year away.

I’m first going to think about strategies for changing my behaviour: eating better, increasing physical activity, getting enough rest and sleep, managing stress, etc. I’m also going to try and set up my environment for successlay out my workout clothes, prepare my healthy food for the next day, try to get to bed early, etc.

But subconsciously I am likely still thinking of myself as an unhealthy, unfit almost 40 year old that wants to get fit. And my subconscious mind is going to gravitate towards any previous patterns which have gotten me to where I am right now.

So even though I am trying to change my environment and behaviours, I’m still stuck in my previous beliefs and my current identity. Which means, eventually when motivation wanes, I am going to go back to my previous behaviours because I haven’t actually changed my identity at the core.

If I instead work at changing my identity, and begin embodying a new healthy identity- I can use my subconscious mind to help my current self (conscious mind) in challenging situations.

For example, say I’ve had a stressful day at work- instead of heading straight for the chocolate or ice cream, changing my identity would allow me to take a pause and ask myself “what would a healthy person do?”.

This simple questions gives my conscious mind a reminder that we are now a healthy person, and the more often we take this pause- the more often this ‘new habit’ would happen naturally.

This is because a beautiful thing about our mind is that it is always strengthening and weakening different neural connections, actively changing our brain, our beliefs and our thinking patterns for good.

Now one way we can begin to change our mind and our thought patterns in this way, is with affirmations.



Affirmations are positive statements you can use to help improve your mindset, overcome limiting beliefs and actually start to change your thinking. Ideally you say them out loud- and they must be relevant to you and your goals.

Initially it may seem weird to start saying statements like this out loud, especially when it’s not something you would normally do. But there is magic in it for your subconscious mind!

For example, everyday when I first wake up I say, “today’s going to be a great day.” And if I haven’t slept well or I’ve woken up feeling groggy, I might not completely be committed to thinking it’s going to be a great day.

But, I have taken one small step towards it becoming a great day- without even realizing it. And this ‘shift’ in identity, is precisely what helps create new neural connections in my brain.

When initially thinking about affirmations and ones that might be applicable to you, consider where the majority of your negative self-talk comes from or the aspects of your life where your biggest goals lie.

For example, I have a lot of negative self-talk toward my body and how I look. Some of my affirmations help me to reframe my thoughts about my body, such as: “I love the shape of my body.”

I also have many health and fitness related goals, so another affirmation I use often is “I am healthy, fit and strong.” 

Though it may seem backwards, affirmations are meant to be said as if you have already achieved themmeaning, they should reflect your end goal; where you WANT to be.

It is recommended to say your affirmations at least once (but you can say them as many times as you like) per day.

For more information on affirmations and examples of the 75 affirmations Brianne uses, see her previous blog post on affirmations here- Affirmations: what are they and why do they matter?


Habits & Repetition 

Habits “live” in the subconscious mind and many of the things we do are out of habit- we do them without really even thinking about it.

The great news is, we can use this to our advantage! We can actually crowd out other unhealthy habits we may want to get rid of by introducing new habits that will contribute to our health and wellness.

There are four main principles we should aim for when introducing new habits:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

When we develop habits, considering the 4 things above, we can begin to work with our subconscious mind instead of trying to use motivation and willpower to fight against it.

For example, let’s say I always reach for potato chips if I’m having a bad day- this would be a habit that I barely even think about. So, I can instead try introducing a positive habit, like going for a walk, drinking a large glass of water, or doing meditationand I would make it a goal to do that habit every day whether I have a good day or a bad day at work.

My subconscious mind would then slowly reprogram itself so that instead of saying ‘bad day at work = eat potato chips’, it would say, ‘any day at work = go for a walk’.

This is because our new habit created a new neural connection in our brain that isn’t influenced by a temporary state of emotions- it happens regardless of how our day went.

Ultimately, thinking about how we can introduce new habits that support our health, can help us let go of the old ones that aren’t in alignment with our goals.

For more information about habits, see my Holly’s Habits section in The Holistic RN & Co Monthly Download email. Sign up here to receive this email in your inbox every month.


Starting Rituals

Starting rituals can be a cure for unproductive procrastination. 

A starting ritual is a practice that will serve as a trigger to get you going on whatever task you want to focus on. Starting rituals can be anything you want them to be and they should be something positive- like making your favorite cup of tea before you sit down to respond to emails you have been avoiding.

It’s essentially creating an “if, then” rule for your life.

For example, maybe you are really not feeling motivated to go to the gym, you can thus begin to develop a starting ritual, like listening to your favorite upbeat song and then committing to ‘after the song is over you get in the car and drive to the gym or start your home workout’.

Eventually these starting rituals can become habits and you may find yourself with the urge to workout any time you hear your starting song on the radio.

Thus, instead of getting stuck in a negative thought loop of ‘why we’re procrastinating’ we shift the focus to a ritual, which helps us access a more productive state.


The 5 Second Rule

The 5 second rule is a type of starting ritual discovered by Mel Robbins in her book The 5 Second Rule which has been previously reviewed in a Holistic RN & Co Download Email.

Now this 5 Second Rule is not the one where something drops on the floor and if you pick it up in under 5 seconds you can eat it. It is meant to be a starting ritual that spurs you into action.

It’s kind of like a countdown, 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – Go!

It is super simple to use and can be used in many contexts. Do you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning? Stop hitting snooze and countdown, 5-4-3-2-1-Go and you get out of bed.

Know you should do your workout but your favorite chair is just so comfy? 5-4-3-2-1-Go – get up and head to the gym.

Sitting at your desk working late into the evening but knowing you should stop working to go home and relax? 5-4-3-2-1-Go and turn off the computer!

Now I just learned about this rule last week and I was somewhat skeptical. I’ve set time limits on social media so I would stop mindlessly scrolling only to ignore them and keep going, and I’ve said just one more show only to realize that 3 hours has gone by.

But for some reason this countdown is different for me. The act of counting down just seems to give me the push I need to get going and do what I need to do to prioritize my health. Try it for any task that you tend to put off, see how this simple countdown can change your mindset.



So there you have it- why motivation and willpower don’t work and some things that you can try that will actually work. Our mind is a beautiful and wonderful thing, but sometimes we need to learn to work with both our conscious and subconscious minds instead of fighting against them.

Pick one of these strategies to try and see if you can say goodbye to motivation and willpower for good. I’ll catch you next month for my next post!



Holly Killeen, RN

Registered Nurse

I am a registered nurse, educator of nursing students and aspiring holistic health coach.

I have worked in the healthcare and post secondary education system for over 15 years and have come to realize that there was something missing in these areas for me… a true focus on health and wellness of the individual.

As I learn more about holistic health and focus on my own health and wellness, I aim to share this knowledge and empower others to start or continue their own health and wellness journeys.

I am also a lover of dogs, nature, exercise and food and believe all these things can have a positive impact on our health.


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Hi, I’m Brianne

Here at The Holistic RN & Co. you’ll find a place where holistic healing and western medicine come together to create a brand new way of looking at your health- including real food recipes, easy to understand information and overflowing inspiration. Let’s get started!

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