Marshmallow Motivation

Have you ever felt dread at the prospect of exercising?! You are not alone. Most people experience some degree of dread to begin… BUT, many of us will also relate to the fact that once we have committed to doing it and have started the process, the ball starts rolling. We start to feel energised, invigorated and proud, and this positively reinforces us to continue on. Herein lies one of the biggest secrets about motivation…Motivation to do something, more often than not, only kicks in AFTER we have started doing it, rather than before.

Understanding that…


…is the first important step to mastering motivation, when the urge to avoid is strong.

As therapists, we often draw upon the analogy of a broken-down car. To get the car started, we have to first get it moving. The first push is the hardest! But, once we get the wheels turning it starts to get easier and builds momentum. When it comes to motivation therefore, if we sit and debate about how hard it is going to be, our motivation to take the first step starts to diminish. It can therefore help to temporarily act robotically – robots just do, they do not stop to consider and debate their actions. This will help to get the wheels turning.

Next, break the task at hand down into small chunks of time. You only need to commit to the first five minutes of the ‘dreaded’ activity/exercise.  If after five minutes you are not enjoying yourself or your motivation hasn’t kicked into gear, then remind yourself that you have the choice and autonomy to stop. Just knowing that you have this option will make it feel less daunting to get started, and in reality, by that point it is likely that your motivation will have showed up.

In Walter Mischel’s famous Marshmallow Experiment at Stanford University, participants were offered two choices. To receive one marshmallow immediately, or to receive two marshmallows if they waited patiently for a defined period of time. Mischel found that when people were presented with this latter choice, or could recognise the positive rewards of delaying instant gratification (i.e. the image of receiving two marshmallows), they were able to make more effective decisions that overrode their initial emotional urges (i.e. to eat the first single marshmallow). This same principle can be applied across contexts, such as motivating us to exercise, when the temptation to remain snuggled up on the sofa is oh so tempting!

Try these steps to boost your motivation:

  • Conjure up an image in your mind’s eye of the greater reward (i.e. to feel more energised, healthy, fit). Picture what this would look and feel like to achieve. By doing this, you are more likely to action the longer-term effective behaviour (e.g. exercising), than giving in to the short-term urge to receive instant gratification (e.g. staying in bed/lying on the sofa).
  • Draw upon a recent example of when you pushed yourself to action a behaviour which led to greater positive rewards (e.g. think about those post-workout endorphins you experienced when you last exercised, and the feeling of pride your experienced in yourself as a result of this accomplishment).
  • To get started, temporarily act like a robot. Just do…don’t think! Get the wheels turning.
  • Break it down into small chunks of time, and remind yourself that you can stop once you have started if you really want to. The likelihood is that by this point, your motivation will have already been activated and you will be experiencing the positive rewards of exercising.
  • Remind yourself that YOU CAN DO IT and IT IS WORTH IT! You will never regret taking the long-term, harder option in the end when the reward is greater and better for you long-term…whereas many of us regret giving into short-term gratification after the initial, short-term feeling of relief wears off. It may be helpful to say cheerleading comments like this out loud to reinforce this message to yourself.
  • Set yourself specific and regular times that you will exercise. Routine helps us to acclimatise to developing new habits of behaviour. You can also set SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-limited) to make your goal more achievable and to avoid setting yourself up for failure.
  • Give yourself the best chance of success by preparing in advance, to remove additional barriers and to make the first steps as easy as possible. For example, book your exercise class/plan your route in advance, lay out or pre-pack your workout gear, arrange a time to exercise with a friend, and have your meals or snacks ready in preparation for before/after.

Broken-down cars no longer… YOU CAN DO IT with a little Marshmallow Motivation!

Written by Dr Lycia Forde, Associate Clinical Psychologist in FPC’s General Adult Mental Health Team