• Help Me Learn: Motivation and Aging

    I am imitating Aaron and asking you to help me learn about motivation. I am taking on a long, challenging project that will compete with other (long, challenging) projects I’m already doing. So I want to learn about the science of motivation. Specifically, how does an aging man sustain goal-directed behaviours over extended periods? (Tweet me @Bill_Gardner, or leave a comment—they’ll be open for a week on this post.)

    Here’s the project: I want to complete a long SwimCycle race in September 2018. SwimCycle is the first two legs of a triathlon. The event I’ve targeted is a 1.9km open water swim followed by a 90km bike ride.*

    Why do this? Because I am almost 64, I’ve put on weight, and I’ve lost a lot of cardiovascular fitness. The official story is that I got out of shape because I was partially disabled for several years by an arthritic hip. That story implies that in the counterfactual world in which I had no arthritis, I’d still be fit. That’s my self-image and TBH, in a certain way the goal of this project is to defend that view.**

    More importantly, in the last twenty years I have been with my parents, aunts, and uncles as they have aged and died. These admirable people managed their late lives and their deaths responsibly and with great dignity. Still, at about my age they all experienced an acceleration of their physiological declines. This loss of vitality undermined their abilities to maintain physical and sometimes task disciplines, feeding vicious cycles that accelerated their declines. Mind and body are tightly bound. To preserve one, you need to preserve the other.

    So I’m at that inflection point and I’ve got to change. But why such an excessive goal? I get it that exercise in moderation would take much less time and might give me all the health benefits. But I’ve tried ‘exercise’. I hate it as much as you do and I always quit. What has gotten me up from my keyboard has been the challenge of something I couldn’t do: a marathon, a black belt, big wall rock climbs, century bike rides, and triathlons.

    I want your help because this time it looks a lot harder. The decline in vitality is here and he isn’t listening when I hint that he’s overstayed his welcome. The challenge is not the event itself. If you have prepared competently, you can complete the distance. The challenge is the preparation — the getting into the pool at 6:00 AM in February.

    The internet is 40% pornography, 30% motivational self-help tracts, and 20% endurance training advice. (The rest is writings and videos by Aaron E. Carroll, MD.) I don’t need motivation porn about Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, or the Navy SEALS. I am not above that stuff, but like other species of porn, it’s easy to find. What I want is the science underlying self-control, and how it applies to sports and aging. There is a nearly-infinite psychology literature on motivation, but who has summarized it best? What’s good in gerontology, exercise physiology, and so on?

    *I’m skipping the run to avoid damaging my new titanium hip and to preserve the one that still works.

    **Arguably, self-control as an end-in-itself is insane. But here’s Rilke‘s view:

    Archaic Torso of Apollo

    We cannot know his legendary head
    with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
    is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
    like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

    gleams in all its power. Otherwise
    the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
    a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
    to that dark center where procreation flared.

    Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
    beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
    and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

    would not, from all the borders of itself,
    burst like a star: for here there is no place
    that does not see you. You must change your life.


    • Ed Deci and Richard Ryan at U of Rochester are the key researchers on motivation to start with. You may also be interested in theories of flow and initiative.

      Deci and Ryan’s work on self-determination: http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/ links to everything they’ve done, including tons of links to exercise-related stuff at http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/domains/sport-exercise-and-physical-education-domain/

      And be sure to read their overview of the types of motivation (it’s much deeper than just intrinsic vs extrinsic) at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0361476X99910202

      Csikszentmihalyi on flow – much of his foundational research was related to physical activity of one type or another. Check out “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”

      Reed Larson’s work on initiative is youth-focused, but you may find it relevant and of interest. Check out http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

    • I hear you! Also 64, female and fit most of my life ..dancer yoga but it’s not cracking it now…
      Joined a gym! Hate gyms! Into my second month….. Tiny bits of improvement, but hard to do.
      Would love to hear more much more !!!!! K

    • I keep this bookmarked: http://www.stafforini.com/blog/summary-of-the-little-book-of-productivity-by-scott-young/

      The short answer is use goal-setting.

      I don’t trust Deci and Ryan’s work. More on that in the comments here: http://andrewgelman.com/2016/05/10/28890/

    • Bill – congratulations. I’m right there with you on every point except the titanium hip. I learned to swim and did my first triathlon @ age 58. Super slow but I finished. My only tip is to find a good trainer or coach.

      Will you collect and post the suggestions somewhere? I could use them!

      Good luck. I believe in you.

    • Things that helped me the most: learning the Motivation Cycle (recognizing a need, planning solution, implementing solution, successful progress, throwing in the towel) so recognizing that stopping any program is expected but not failure and I can jump back in right away; learning about normal aging, paying attention to my own body, and so being able to adjust my expectations; recognizing that exercise is “medicine” for my cardiac disease prevention program and has better side effects than any pharmaceutical. Good luck.

    • Somewhat along the same lines as David’s comment…there was a great article in Slate about how the idea of “willpower” is possibly not as backed up by research as we once thought (and quite a bit of psychological experiments aren’t reproduceable). http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/cover_story/2016/03/ego_depletion_an_influential_theory_in_psychology_may_have_just_been_debunked.html

      There is a Coursera course called “Learning How to Learn,” they do a great weekly newsletter with lots of book recommendations about various topics (all tied to learning in some way). You might find them useful. Latest recommendation is Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, might be worth checking out.

      Good luck, can’t wait to hear how it goes!

    • Get audited regularly. You do this by hiring a coach/trainer. Pay them for weekly appointments related to your project. When I retired, 5 years ago, I hired a piano teacher, so I practiced to avoid humiliation at the lessons and my once-a-week sessions with a personal trainer result in me exercising at least 300 days a year. I think people with a lot of formal education respond especially well to this method.

      Good luck!

    • Thanks to everyone for the support and references. I plan to do a follow-up on what I’ve learned sometime in May 2017, before I do my first SwimCycle event.

    • I take my dog training skills (Denise Fenzi and Ken Ramirez are both good sources for structuring reinforcement and creating motivation) and add in some research from the motivation research institute at James Madison http://mri.cisat.jmu.edu. I use their equation for behavior modification in my students, my pets and myself.

    • I find some useful tips on motivation and other neruoscience things in Eric Barker’s “Barking Up The Wrong Tree” blog and weekly emails: http://www.bakadesuyo.com/blog/ He summarizes and references a lot of research although the blog is written for the lay reader. \

      Commitment devices and support from other people both help so posts like this will help you too.

      Good luck!