Staying motivated to the finish line

One of the things I'm struggling with a bit right now is balancing how far I've come with how far I still need to go.  Thinking about how much more work still needs to be done is rather overwhelming--but that doesn't change the fact that it's ultimately still rather necessary.

I read an interesting blog post on Psychology Today titled How to Become a Great Finisher.

Some interesting bits of the post:

Koo and Fishbach's studies consistently show that when we are pursuing a goal and consider how far we've already come, we feel a premature sense of accomplishment and begin to slack off. For instance, in one study, college students studying for an exam in an important course were significantly more motivated to study after being told that they had 52% of the material left to cover, compared to being told that they had already completed 48%.

When we focus on progress made, we're also more likely to try to achieve a sense of "balance" by making progress on other important goals. This is classic Good Starter behavior - lots of pots on the stove, but nothing is ever ready to eat.

If, instead, we focus on how far we have left to go (to-go thinking), motivation is not only sustained, it's heightened. Fundamentally, this has to do with the way our brains are wired. We are tuned in (below our awareness) to the presence of a discrepancy between where we are now and where we want to be. When your brain detects a discrepancy, it reacts by throwing resources at it: attention, effort, deeper processing of information, and willpower.

In fact, it's the discrepancy that signals that an action is needed - to-date thinking masks that signal. You might feel good about the ground you've covered, but you probably won't cover much more.

I don't think the author is saying that a feeling of accomplishment is bad, but it can be premature. I've met many people who tell me how much more they're eating than before, or how much less they're purging. Which is all well and good (it really is), but when you're still regularly undereating or purging or engaging in any other ED behavior, there's still a massive problem. Yes, you've made progress and give yourself a pat on the back, but (and this is the hard part) don't stop there!

When you're doing something as intense and lengthy and grueling as ED recovery, it's easy to want a break and get complacent.  Taking a little time to breathe and regroup is one thing (my friend Charlotte reminds me, and everyone else, to breathe regularly); but you also can't stop forging ahead. 

A metaphor I love came from the preface to Laura Collins' Eating With Your Anorexic. Psychologist James Lock writes that recovery is like climbing a sand hill: if you stop, or don't get all the way to the top, then you'll slide back down to the bottom.  Although acknowledging how much progress you've made is wonderful, it's also important to consider what's still left to be done.

That's where it gets tricky.  I compare how I'm doing in recovery now to when I was at my sickest, and I just want to say "But look at how much work I've done! Look at how much better I'm doing! Can't I just stop here?"  The problem is that stopping "here" ultimately means a slide backward, and beginning that slog all over again. 

Like so many things in recovery, the answer isn't an either/or question.  It's figuring out to celebrate progress made while balancing that with continuing forward motion.  That being said, I can barely figure out how to walk and chew gum, so we'll see how this multitasking goes...

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hm said...

Thanks- I needed this- I just had a therapy session in which I broke down completely and begged for a break from this process. My RD told me a couple days ago that I'd be increasing portions again after our next appointment. So I've spent these last 2 days having multiple panic attacks, hyperventilating, bawling over my food like a stupid *****, and finally wrapped up the panic by telling my therapist emphatically today "I'M DONE."

Of course, in my black and white state of panic, I didn't see options- my therapist told me to call the RD and discuss how I was feeling and see if we could negotiate a more tolerable arrangement.

But first I had to try my damnedest to get her to say I've done enough. I pointed out how much weight I've gained- I compared how much food I eat now to what I used to eat- I begged her to see reason- I'VE ACCOMPLISHED ENOUGH.

Therapist won- I called the RD- and the RD agreed that we could discuss a number of days on which to increase portions and do it more slowly instead of making a blanket daily increase, so that I can function around the panic. Still a loooong way to go. Hard to feel like I've accomplished ANYTHING when it feels like every new rule my treatment team sets says, "Not enough. Not good enough." in my head.

I think that's black and white thinking too- it feels like if they're not saying "You're done! Great job!" then what they're REALLY saying is "You still suck." Yes, I need to find balance here, and a way to both acknowledge that I'm not at the top and at the same time not crash back to the bottom. Not easy.

trimomremade said...

Yup I have stopped short of the finish line more times than I can count. Reducing symptoms is great. Buys you time to get more of your crap together. But it always means the back slide is there.

I have taken a particular motivational focus to crossing the line this time. 1 year without symptoms. Not without struggle. Not without thoughts even. But no symptoms- no binge, no restrict. That is my finish line. Check back with me on March 25th.

Carrie Arnold said...


One of the tenets of DBT is this sort of paradoxical statement:

You are doing the best you can in this moment. And you can always learn how to do better.

I don't think your team is trying to say that you suck because you're not at the finish line yet, or that you're having difficulties along the way. I think they're pushing you onwards rather than saying not good enough. I know it's easy to think that way (I do it myself, frequently!) but when I read your summary of events, I get a different feeling.

Hang in there.


Thank you so much for this post. I really needed to hear / read this right now.

Thanks! :)

Tracey said...

I'm wondering what a finish line looks like in recovery -- from an ED or anything. Seems to me, we have to be constantly vigilant, and forever. In AA they say you don't graduate. This might be true for us, too. There's not a finish line, but perhaps, the journey gets easier?

Anonymous said...

Wow. This really resonates with me. Very often, I will use the "But I'm doing so much better than I was!" excuse to stay stagnant in recovery. I shouldn't have to do any more work because look at what I've already accomplished, right? I use this excuse a lot with my mom, too, whenever she brings up any sort of issue she's noticed. Definitely something to think about. Thanks for writing about this!

Katie said...

Tracey - I've been weight restored and behaviour free for eighteen months, and the eating disorder does not feature in my day to day life 99% of the time. I have to be careful when I have stomach viruses because not eating enough for a week or so can really bring those thoughts back, but that's not the same as living with it in my head all the time. I enjoy food, I'm okay with my body, I eat intuitively - I'm as recovered as I want to be, and I just have to make sure I don't unintentionally undereat if I'm stressed or sick. So that's my finishing line!

Carrie, I stopped short of the finishing line sooo many times. Even during my last attempt at recovery, actually - I quit 5-7lbs short of weight restoration reasoning that it was "good enough". Nope! Eventually I managed to get myself going again and gained the rest, but I was on dodgy ground for a while - that sandhill analogy is a very apt one. So I think this is a great post :)

Anonymous said...

I posted this question on Laura's blog, but I am really desperate for answers. THank you in advance:

I know that this question has nothing to do with your post today, but I am really desperate. I am 21 years old and still living at home after 10 years of struggling with anorexia (and more recently purging). I have been in and out of over 30 different hospitals and treatment centers across the country, with some stays lasting up to 9 months. I have tried all kinds of therapies and treatments and I have lost all hope about ever having a future. I would like to try the Maudsley approach, but since I am an adult, I don't want to try it in the traditional sense. My mom has agreed to serve out two plates and eat with me, which is the only reason I agreed to this in the first place (I find it extremely supportive). The problem is that I am continuing to purge and I am not sure how to stop (my mom tries to monitor me after meals but I can be very sneaky).

There are some other complications:

- I don't know if my meal plan is adequate both in terms of calories and nutrition and I am not sure how we are supposed to increase it.

- I struggle a great deal with behaviors at meals (smearing, hiding, etc). I also require lots of support and encouragement and praise during/ after meals and my parents find this really juvenile and it makes them frustrated.

- I have SEVERE gastroparesis. I don't digest things for HOURS. Have seen numerous GI docs and nothing seems to help. Any suggestions?

- I have terrible rumination syndrome. I regurgitate all the time and don't know how to stop.

So I saved the worst part for last:

My body weight is EXTREMELY low (BMI = 11). Do you think that this is possible to treat at home? I want to get better, but this has been entrenched for so long. Do you think that I should just try treatment again? The problem is that no program wants to accept me because of my low weight and I shudder at the thought of returning to a hospital. For that matter, I shudder at the thought of returning to treatment.

I was thinking about going to a program for ED stabilization like Torrance (in CA) and then transferring to a program like Oliver Pyatt or Castlewood. What do you think?

I am really blessed that my parents are willing to pay for treatment ANYWHERE (like even in another country if needed) and my insurance is also great.

I am sorry that this is such a long rant, but please help me.

I want to start college and go to grad school and have a family some day like my twin sister is doing. I want to fall in love, travel, run, hike, scuba dive, go out with friends...

Okay, I'll stop now.

Thank you so much for everything.

I love your blog and the work that you do.

Thank you.

hm said...

Anon- I'm so sorry for your struggles. Sounds to me like you could use the support of a full treatment program. I've heard good things about Castlewood.

Dunno if this will be helpful, but this is the stuff I use:

It's a combination probiotics and digestive enzymes. Helps to digest your food instead of it just sitting like a lump in your tummy. Also relieves heart burn, and strengthens the overall digestive system/tract.

I will send some prayers out towards you.

Lindsey said...

Carrie, I found this blog a few weeks ago and I am so grateful that you are sharing your recovery with the big ol' Internet. I've been lurking thus far so I wanted to come out into the light and let you know how much I appreciate this.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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