[Editor’s note: Elevate Performance Group is the sponsor of VDOT Challenge 6 (June 12-14)]

By Adam Wright, Ph.D.

“On the roads, there is fitness and self-discovery, and the persons we were destined to be.” – George Sheehan.

Nike’s famous battle cry, “Just Do It,” has inspired runners since it debuted in 1988. The brand’s first commercial featured an 80-year-old runner, Walt Stack, who proclaims to the camera, mid-stride, that he runs 17 miles every day! The inspired viewer could not help but declare, “If Walt can do it, so can I.” The next morning, when the alarm pierces the silence and the new would-be runner decides that they will join Walt on the road… tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. Eventually, they bellow, “To hell with you, Walt! If you had to deal with the stressors of my life, you would not have the luxury of meandering through the streets for 17 miles every morning- get a life!”

As all serious – and not so serious- runners know, inspiration and motivation can be fleeting friends under the best of circumstances. Nike’s, “Just Do It” marketing campaign, while well-intentioned (i.e., don’t overthink it and look for inspiration, do the work and take action), is virtually useless, if not detrimental, as a motivational tool. Rarely does such an approach inspire long term behavioral change; more often, it drives one toward negative self-judgment, undermines confidence, and reduces enjoyment. Inspirational words quickly lose their power when life’s challenges drive one toward experiential avoidance, escapism, and attentional distraction. Moreover, in our current public health and sociopolitical climate, struggles with motivation have intensified to a level that few of us have previously encountered (I am not even addressing those of us who struggle with anxiety or mood disorders).

Leadership gurus like to describe the current state of affairs as VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). While this may accurately describe the external state of affairs, it fails to capture our subjective experience, both as human performers and human beings. The impact of a VUCA environment causes us to experience multiple layers of stress that place demands on us that far exceed the power of clever marketing memes or even our well-honed willpower. Now, more than ever, in such chaotic and unsettling times, where we feel we have little control and many more questions than answers, finding the motivation to exercise is essential to maintain our locus of control, well-being, and resiliency.

The secret to less thinking and more doing does not require an internal battle with our lesser selves or superhuman willpower. Instead, since we are wired to be goal-oriented, from the basic drives to live, eat, sleep and procreate, to the more advanced drives to find meaning, connection, mastery, and purpose, we can leverage our evolutionary programming by addressing the complex interaction between our limbic system (emotional brain) and the cortex (rational brain), which actually drives behavior. Thus, we must connect our long-term value-based goals, which bring us happiness, with our short-term behavioral goals that will move us toward that desired outcome.

In my work as a performance enhancement consultant, one of the first steps that I use with my clients is to introduce them to a form of behavior therapy that incorporates concepts of mindfulness, acceptance of thoughts and emotions, and value-driven behavior. Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999) is an evidence-based approach that can help to treat anxiety, fear of failure, self-doubt, and lack of motivation. Rather than engaging in an internal war with our negative or self-defeating thoughts and trying to control our internal experiences, ACT teaches us how to increase our psychological flexibility, or the skill of connecting to the present moment fully, freely focusing one’s attention to what matters most, so we can take actions that align with what we truly value in our lives.

Before you “just do it,” begin by taking some time to self reflect and consider your values and how they may be expressed through your sport or exercise participation. As the walking philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche, proclaimed (most likely during a daunting hill repeat), “He who has a why can endure any how.” Once you crystallize your values and establish your purpose, you can work on learning to accept those self-defeating and negative thoughts that will inevitably enter your mind, and rather than wasting precious energy getting pulled into another internal mental jousting session, you can stop and ask the simple question: “If I choose not to run today, will this move me closer to who I am and aspire to be? Then, you can choose to “just do it.”

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G., (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press

Adam Wright, Ph.D. is the Co-Founder & Director of Elevate Performance Group. Connect at dradamwright.com.