Motivation to Succeed

Whether you’re an herbalist or a parent (or a teacher, or anyone who works to educate and motivate people!), motivating the people you work with to succeed is often the hardest part. You can research all the best answers, you can compile great masses of data, you can even get your client to agree that it would probably work. But getting them to take the step of trying it for themselves: that’s the tricky part!

This is often referred to as “client compliance” – I don’t really like the word compliance: to me it implies obedience, and I never, ever want obedience. What I want is to educate the people I work with so that they are self-motivated to take their own action for self care – that’s far more powerful than if they are simply “following orders”. Obedience does not imply self-empowerment, and self-empowerment is in fact absolutely requisite in getting people to care for themselves.

A lot of folks – friends of mine even – when they teach, they’ll mention this or that as a useful strategy, let’s say giving up sugar, and follow it up with “good luck with compliance”. Well, it’s true: getting people to give up sugar is really tough. But it’s not impossible – in fact, I’ve found there are some very handy tricks for pushing it from “probably hopeless” to “entirely likely”.

First, some data: The majority of my clients, and all of our students, willingly eliminate gluten, dairy, sugar, or all three. About half of my clients in the last couple years have done at least one “Whole 30” – a 30-day elimination of foods that commonly cause inflammation: gluten, dairy, sugar, legumes, and alcohol (many add nightshades to this list). Most of our clients do take action to sleep at least one more hour a night, and to incorporate more movement in their day. Finally, I don’t really hesitate to suggest this stuff – at this point, I pretty much expect folks to decide to try it. I remember when I used to be excited when someone finally agreed to try something difficult, but these days it’s extremely rare that someone isn’t willing to at least try.

So what happened? How can we move from “oh, he’s never going to go for this” to “let’s give this a go!” – here are my tricks:

First, you have to be recommending things from your own integrity: you have to Do It Yourself. If you are addicted to ice cream, if you think cheese is a food group, if you can’t imagine life without staying up late – well, good luck getting someone else to try giving those things up. Why should they? The person they came to for advice doesn’t even follow the advice, so why should they do it? Whatever you’re going to recommend, you’ve got to have at least tried first, and tried for a good while – I’d say at least a season. This is seriously the most critical part of the entire plan, because all of the rest of the tricks will come from this step.

IMG_6439 by Miikka H, on flickr

In the event of an emergency, please put on your own oxygen mask first, before assisting others.

Trying it yourself isn’t enough on its own – there’s more that needs to be done. But trying something yourself gives you the ability to see first hand where the trouble comes in. It’s true that the same elimination will be difficult for different people in different ways, but if you’ve gone through it, you will have at least experienced enough of the difficulties that you’ll be able to work through theirs together with them, using your own experience as your guide. And that’s the next trick: Document your Difficulties!

One of the most glorious examples of this is a day-by-day timeline on the Whole 30 website. But you don’t have to be quite that thorough. What’s important is that you keep track of the things that come up, your feelings about them, and how you handled them. Later you can reflect on other ways you could have handled it – this is a great exercise because it allows you to turn one experience into a lot of different possible suggestions you can make for your clients.

An example might be: you gave up gluten, and 9 days later you meet up with your best friend from school. Your best friend remembers your favorite cookies and brings a big fresh batch of them to celebrate your reunion. What do you do? Should you risk offending your friend and decline to eat them? For some people that answer is yes.

For me absolutely it is: diet is the primary method I use to control MS, so for me the answer is always “don’t eat the cookie”. But there are of course many ways I can do that, and reflecting on the ways that felt more or less comfortable to me is useful when I talk to clients. If you’re doing this just as an experiment, then try both answers – both will teach you something! Your clients are going to have these experiences, and the emotions around them are really difficult. If you’ve worked through them, you’ll be so much better suited to help them think of creative ways they can work through them, too.

Another fantastic reason to Do It Yourself – and to do it for an extended period of time – is that you’ll come up with all kinds of Tips and Tricks that you can share with your clients. If you just try it for a month, or a couple weeks, you can just “power through” and do without. But doing it yourself for a longer period of time means that you’re going to need to start finding some creative coping mechanisms.

In my experience, this includes a whole boxful of recipes I share with clients – everything from cooking meat in a hurry (especially for folks who are coming out of vegetarianism and are not really sure how to cook meat), to birthday cake without compromising your goals, to sit-down dinner in 20 minutes or less. When you’ve gone through all this yourself, you have to work through the challenges: learning to cook new and possibly unfamiliar things (when you’re already tired from a long work day), learning to shop for new and possibly unfamiliar things (when the oh-so-delicious comfort foods are staring at you in every isle), learning how to get through parties and how to entertain without compromising your goals.

Each one of these things isn’t just about the menu! It’s also about how to talk to your friends about what you’re doing and how they can accommodate it, it’s how to manage the fact that birthday cake just got a lot more expensive, it’s how to incorporate real food every day into a tight budget. Each time you try your experiments, you can broaden your experience: reset your parameters so that you can have new challenges. If you have the luxury of being able to afford good food, restrict your budget and try eating that way for a month. If you have the luxury of time to prepare all your own foods, restrict your time and try cooking that way for a month. In this way, your collection of Tips and Tricks grows, and you know that they are effective because you lived them.


Maybe the most important reason to Do It Yourself, though, is Solidarity. It’s not easy for anyone to go it alone. Knowing that there are allies in this exercise makes an enormous difference. And frankly, the more real you are about it, the better! I never hide from my clients my now-recovered addiction to Cheese Pringles. I’m way upfront about my previous tendency to eat a box of Cocoa Pebbles for dinner. And when I tell folks that if I thought I could get away with it, I would absolutely eat a dozen Dunkin Donuts…every day – I’m not kidding. It’s important for me to share this with my clients for two reasons: one, so that they don’t think that I’m some kind of naturally-good-eater they can’t relate to, and two, if I can be honest and compassionate with myself about my feelings around food, I can help someone else learn to accept their feelings around food with compassion, without being controlled by those feelings.

All of these things together allow you to present dietary or other significant changes in a completely different light. Right off the bat, even your tone of voice says “this is hard, but I’ve been there and I know the secrets!” Clients can recognize that from the tone of “there’s no way you’re actually going to do this”. But more than just the tone is different: immediately as I suggest these big, emotional changes, I also start explaining exactly how we’re going to make it less big and less emotional. I already have a list of no-compromise comfort foods, I’ve already figured out how to talk to family members and friends. I already have a whole gaggle of snappy comebacks for when coworkers are criticizing around the water cooler. Throwing someone into a huge life change is hard, but if you throw them in with inflatable life-saving device already deployed, they feel a lot more able to succeed.

And I guess really, that’s just one trick – Do It Yourself – with a bunch of outcomes, but it works. I have an endless list of creative strategies for specific situations, but every single one of them has come from self-experimentation. I’ll share some of that list here below, but I assure you, your own self-experimentation is worth much more than my list!

  • If you’re making changes to your diet, don’t ever, ever, go anywhere hungry. Also never go anywhere without food stashed in your bag. When you’re hungry, you’ll eat the french fries, or the candy, or the donuts – so in the beginning, that’s the enemy to avoid. Make a list of safe places to get good food all around your usual parts of town, and make sure you get food before you get so hungry that you can’t make good choices.
    Later, we can work on learning to make friends with being hungry sometimes, if that’s an appropriate thing in this situation, but in the beginning, the best way to succeed is just never be hungry.

  • Whatever kind of changes you’re making – be it diet, sleep, movement through your day – whatever: get some accountability. Make your changes really public. Your friends will be wonderful – or terrible – allies in this project. Some of them will support you, some of them will be watching for you to fail, and although we would hope for support, frankly both of those are useful. Best if you can get a friend who’s willing to actually make these changes with you in partnership – better yet if your partner will do it with you! But however you do it, some accountability will really help in those moments when you want to cheat.

  • Set yourself up for success! Take some time to re-arrange your home and your workspace in ways that will help you meet your goals. In my case, that has meant, at various times: selling my couch, setting up a standing workstation, getting a chin-up bar, re-configuring my standing workstation, getting a crock pot, changing my schedule, changing it again a lot, committing to walking to my work, committing with my husband to a specific bedtime, limiting media consumption, and lots of other things.
    This is where you get rid of things that you can’t eat instead of letting them stare you in the face. Don’t let people bring things into your home that you are restricting. If you live with people who don’t share your goals, at least declare one cabinet and one shelf in the fridge to be your space, free from the things that you are choosing to avoid.
    Physically re-arrange your space to support your goals of moving more or being sedentary less. And what about putting all electrical devices in your home on a timer, so that they all shut off at 8:30, ensuring you have time to read quietly with a cup of tea and candlelight for an hour before you begin your bedtime routine? (such timers can be found cheaply in after-holiday sales at hardware stores!) That’s a way to get accountability even if you live by yourself!

These strategies are the same whether you’re convincing a client to go to bed at 8pm or convincing a four-year-old to eat vegetables. Do It Yourself, figure out how to make yourself succeed, and then you’ll be able to help figure it out for those around you. And if your client is making a change that isn’t challenging for you? Choose some other change that would be challenging for you, and try that! You can apply what you learn from the difficulty towards creative solutions for your client.

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