Numbers and Motivation

“From the day we are born, we are defined by a number. But is a number inspiring? We believe in a more powerful motivation. Not a number, but the way we want to feel.”

Numbers. Numbers play a large role in everyone’s lives. Time, money, weight, grades, rankings, health indicators (cholesterol, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.), distance, speed, these are all numbers. For some, these numbers are what determine their level of happiness, fulfillment, self-esteem, and worth. They are driven by these numbers, to work harder, to eat less, to prioritize, to sacrifice. The number on their paycheck or the number on the scale are a means to an end. What do they hope these numbers will help them achieve? Success, recognition, esteem, praise, happiness? Perhaps.

I like this commercial and campaign by Kellogg because it makes me think. It made me stop and consider how much of my own life is, on the surface, being motivated by numbers. The answer is a lot. This commercial made me ask myself, “but why do I care about that number?” I wanted a 90% on my test. Why? Because I wanted good grades. Why? Because I wanted to get a good job when I graduated. Why? Because I want to be able to make money doing something I enjoy. Why? Because I want to be happy. I started to ask myself why for a lot of the numbers in my life. I want to lose 5 pounds. Why? Because I want to look thinner and feel stronger. Why? Because it will help my self-esteem. Why? Because it will give me more confidence. Why? Well you get the idea.

Every time I asked myself why? I was getting to a motivation that was beyond just the number. The true motivator are those end feelings, it’s the numbers that help verify that you are reaching your goal. It is these motivations that Kellogg is trying to tap into in their commercial. But are they right? Are numbers themselves uninspiring?

I started to think about my diabetes. The day-to-day management of my diabetes completely revolves around numbers. Blood sugars, carbohydrates, units of insulin and ultimately my A1c number. From the moment I wake up to when I fall asleep (and even while I’m sleeping), my goal is to keep my blood sugar numbers within range so that ultimately my A1c number is low. Why? Well I want to avoid future complications and live a long and healthy life. I want the sense of accomplishment of knowing that I am finally “under control” after 10 years and I want the peace of mind that my future won’t be filled with negative consequences. These are all important motivators, but there is a fundamental difference between these types of “gains” versus the types of “gains” when you lose weight.

When you lose weight, there are tangible positive results. You physically look different. Your body shape changes, you may fit into smaller sized clothes, you have more energy, and you generally feel better. All of these physical changes can lead to positive emotional changes. More confidence, sense of accomplishment, higher self-esteem, etc. You truly are “gaining” a positive in the process of losing weight. Contrast that to my diabetes. Right now at this very moment I have no complications from my diabetes, I am at a healthy weight, my diabetes has not affected my eye sight, nerves, kidneys, circulation, feet, or any of the other potential negative effects it can have. I am at the “gain” from the beginning. I am working to maintain the absence of a negative, not towards the presence of a positive. I am in good health working to avoid complications as opposed to someone who may be overweight and is working towards better health. It is the epitome of prevention.

But prevention is a hard sell, especially to someone who is considered “healthy” in the beginning. It requires you to imagine yourself in the future, to imagine that your health has deteriorated. This is not a pleasant task and not something people want to think about. With so much to think about and do in the present, it can be hard to devote yourself to preventing something from happening in the future. As someone in the public health field, I know how essential prevention is, but the key is finding the right motivator.

So let me bring this back to numbers and what motivates me for my diabetes. There is no end to diabetes. When I reach my ideal A1c it doesn’t mean I’m cured and my diabetes disappears, it means that I now have to work and maintain it for the rest of my life. Although I am ultimately motivated by the thought of living a long, complications-free life, I have to take my diabetes day by day. And for me, this means that I am motivated by those numbers. Every day trying to ensure that they fall within my designated range. Am I defined by those numbers? Of course not. Are they the most inspiring? No. But they are what keep me on track everyday, they are necessary to my focus and to my health, they are my daily motivation.

But perhaps I can still take a page from Kellogg. Maybe I don’t need to wait 3 months until I see my A1c or the years that it may take me to reach my goal to start to feel that sense of accomplishment. Perhaps I can find motivation in the daily or weekly successes and in how I feel today. But more than that, maybe it’s reminding myself periodically that it isn’t just about the numbers on the screen, it’s about the purpose behind those numbers. It’s about staying healthy and living long enough to get married, raise my own family, and being able to some day play with my own grandchildren.

So take a moment to think about the numbers in your life and ask yourself, why? Perhaps you will uncover some deeper motivations to help you on your own journey.

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