Winter: A Season to Get Motivated…Or Not


Mike Smith, OSI Executive Director

Growing up in northern Maine I never really gave much thought to the ebb and flow of my energy through the year. Recently, though, I’ve become more aware of it - the crazy amounts of energy I feel in the summer (Wait, the sun is going down?! Better get a quick lap on the river or another 20-mile bike ride!) and the struggle I feel come mid-winter to get out of my own way (Yes I should shower, but I’m on a Netflix binge I think I can ride til May).

Turns out this is pretty normal. By this time of the year in Maine, we’ve had more darkness than light for well over three months. Medical professionals that study Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) believe the lessening light can cause a disruption to our circadian rhythm (our body’s internal clock), and consequently increase the hormones that make us tired, and decrease the hormones that regulate our mood. This is great for hibernating, but bad for getting just about anything else done.

I’m guessing many of you knew all this already, but it’s worth acknowledging that, as they say, the struggle is real. The question is, what to do about it?

If you’ve been around this team for any length of time you’ve heard myself or the other coaches talk about the concept of motivation. It’s a tricky little notion that people love to throw around. Generally being motivated is considered a good character trait, especially in students and athletes. Being unmotivated is considered a weakness. From our viewpoint, though, being motivated doesn’t matter.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s awesome when our motivation shows up. When you feel motivated to do the thing you’re about to do, it doesn’t get much better. The problem is this, motivation is a tricky thing. It’s fragile, and can disappear easily. We can lose motivation when we’re tired, when we’re hungry, when we’re cold, or frustrated, or confronted with an obstacle, or perhaps just when our minds are burdened with other things going on in life. Honestly, who hasn’t experienced this? Oh and don’t forget that by this time of the winter for many people our biological systems have been slowly turning down the motivation dial for months (again, unless you consider a willingness to watch everything on Netflix as motivation). 

The point is, if we rely on motivation as a way of pursuing our goals and dreams, it’s unlikely that anything we undertake gets accomplished. Instead a much stronger tool is discipline. It doesn’t sound as enjoyable, I know. In fact, discipline doesn’t sound fun at all, but it’s the secret to doing anything that really matters in our lives. Think of motivation as an internal compass that shows us where we want to go, and discipline as the effort we’ll put in to get there. Motivated to paddle challenging rivers? Awesome, now we need the discipline to work on our skills constantly, keep ourselves healthy, set safety even when we don’t think we need to, and even take care of our equipment. Motivated to be as fast as possible on skis? Fantastic! Now we need the discipline to train, to learn how to listen to our body, to eat well, to recover well, and to refine technique over and over again.

These things take discipline because no matter how excited we are about the goal, our motivation will abandon us along the way. Our wet paddling gear will be cold, and it will be easy to forget safety since we forgot the throw bag at home. It will be sub-zero with wind-chill in February, we’ll have the wrong wax, and heck, it’ll just be dark outside. When these moments come, the difference will be made by having the discipline to honor the process we set out for ourselves.

Knowing this is great, but developing discipline can take time and like anything, we’ll stumble along the way. Here are some useful tips that we’ve found as coaches can help in developing your personal discipline:

  • Have a plan, write it down When you take the time to write down your intentions, whether in a training plan, or some other form, it makes the process more real, and gives you time to visualize the work you’re going to put in. You see how any one part connects to the bigger picture and this can be important when we start to falter or lose interest.

  • Start simple When you are feeling super motivated, it’s easy aim high and shoot for the moon.  Unfortunately, we “out-motivate” ourselves very quickly by starting off too big.  In meditation, you don’t start off meditating for an hour. That’s really just a great way to quit meditating.  Start off with just meditating for a minute; heck even 30 seconds if that is all you can manage.  The idea is to find a point where motivation doesn’t play a role in getting it done.

  • Get started, then see how you feel For me It’s a rare occasion that I’m really psyched to lace up my sneakers, or jump on my skis on a dark afternoon. 99.99% of the time, though, after about 15 or 20 minutes I’m so happy I’m there! So one of my rules is to get started, and then after 20 minutes if I’m truly not feeling it, I can call it a day. But at least I gave it 20 minutes and can say I put some effort in. This also helps me identify if there’s something else important going on in my life I need to address – illness, stress, etc. (By the way this works just as well for getting in a workout as it does for writing a paper or doing house chores)

  • Give yourself a cheat day All this talk of discipline is great, but it’s also good to build some pressure relief into the system. There can be a fine line between discipline and obsession, and this can lead to injury, illness, and burnout. It really is okay to have a day now and then when you put the focused dedication aside and just goof off. In fact, these days can be a necessity in keeping you focused, and it’s amazing the perspective we get when we just get away from things we care about for a bit. Some of our biggest breakthroughs come after times like this. So go ahead, see what’s on Netflix…just be sure your cheat days aren’t becoming cheat weeks, and months.

In the end the question isn’t “What are we motivated to do?” The question is what are we going to do even when we’re not motivated. That will tell us the most about what we’re really going to accomplish. Former Navy Seal Commander Jocko Willink puts it simply enough when he says, “Discipline equals freedom” (check out his book by this title if you want to see one no-nonsense approach to getting things done). One of my favorite quotes on this topic, though, is from the painter Chuck Close who said “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”

I’m happy to say that with February here, it’s getting easier to notice the days getting longer. With the best of winter yet to come I hope we see you out on the trails, and soon enough, out on the water.  

I’ll be out there too, just as soon as I finish this show on Netflix…

Team OSIAmy Falcione