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February’s almost over. Chances are that by now, if you made any fitness resolutions at the start of the year, the fire that first fuelled this impulse has fizzled and faded. The fact is, most resolutions – my own included – don’t amount to much.

Now before you start berating yourself for being a miserable failure, I want you to consider what might at first seem like a radical notion. The problem here isn’t with you, it’s with your plan … or, what’s more likely the case, your lack of a plan. Rather than plotting out the process for this journey with precise points of action, you’re relying on motivation and willpower to carry you across the finish line.

Motivation can indeed be a powerful accelerant, but only when it’s sourced properly. The worst kind, the nearly useless stuff that gets us nowhere, comes from external sources. Books, memes, podcasts, trainers shouting in your face – these things can be helpful at times, but none lead to lasting change.

The most potent form of motivation, the kind that’s truly transformative, comes from within. That internal wellspring doesn’t just appear out of nowhere, though, and it doesn’t last forever. We need to top it up on a daily basis. Here are the tactics I rely on to fill my bucket, that when combined, provide for unstoppable motivation.

Follow a program

Progress is the ultimate motivator. Unfortunately, progress takes a lot of time. Because the physical changes so many of us seek come slowly, we need to track other factors in order to stay zeroed-in on our goals. This is just one reason why following a program is so essential.

Good programs come in many guises, but one thing they all have in common is a focus on “linear progression.” All this means is that every workout, we advance a specific metric or two. It could be adding more weight, more reps, more sets, resting less, finishing faster – there are a bunch of ways to demonstrate progress that have nothing to do with six-pack abs.

Random workouts produce random results. Of course when it comes to exercise, something is better than nothing. But if you’re serious about fitness and have a clear goal in mind, following a periodized program created by a skilled professional makes all the difference in the world.

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Keep a training journal

Training programs are so important because they tell us what to do and remind us of what we’ve accomplished. Training journals differ slightly in that they allow us to connect our thoughts, feelings and emotions to the process. This sort of active engagement creates a deep, meaningful connection to a pursuit that can oftentimes feel like a drudge.

In this age of digital-everything, training programs are typically delivered through apps. The best of these fitness apps tend to offer something like a journal or a feedback field so you can reflect upon how you feel at the end of each session. What went well? What challenges did you overcome? What was your mindset like during the workout? Were you distracted or fully focused? If you were distracted, what was on your mind?

If all of this sounds like self-help or DIY psychotherapy, well, it is. People typically start working out to improve their physical health, but anyone who has made fitness a mandatory component of their life has likely done so because of the massive mental health benefits, too.

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Slow down and enjoy the ride

I recently read a quote by author and blogger Shane Parrish that describes the ideal mindset for achieving goals in every field, fitness included: “What looks like success is often just patience.” Read that again and commit the sentiment to memory, because without patience this whole fitness thing can be a very frustrating endeavour indeed.

As I’ve already said, aesthetic changes take time. Those extra pounds you’re trying to drop didn’t appear overnight – they gradually settled into place over the course of years, if not decades. And while it won’t take quite that long to reach your desired goal, it’s important to remember this is more of a marathon than a sprint.

An intelligently designed program will have already taken this fact into consideration. Good coaches and trainers know to ramp things up slowly, starting with basic movement patterns that gradually become more intense as your skills and strength improve. Focusing on these sorts of small baby steps helps to stave off frustration and discouragement because you’re always moving forward, always improving, and always getting better.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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