Five Steps to Becoming a Productive Couch Potato

How to motivate yourself without using guilt, shame or deprivation

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I haven’t always been a couch sloth. I was raised by conservative West Texans who regarded TV with suspicion and rarely let me watch it. I was the child who never knew understood Saturday Night Lights jokes. Now I’m an adult who doesn’t know how to turn on the TV. (In my defense, it’s complicated. Three remotes?)

But everything changed when I became ill with COVID-19. Overnight, life became unrecognizable. Yet almost as strangely, I fell deeply in love with Netflix. In the glow of its flickering embrace, I forgot about my relentless cough, until I finally, irrevocably, understood the term “binging.” (I admit I felt strangely thrilled after watching three consecutive episodes as if I’d been ushered into a secret society that had once eschewed me.) 

I just finished season two of Ozark, an exceptionally well-acted, breathtakingly violent series. In my former life, I rarely watched grisly shows, proof that I’m behaving strangely. It’s not just Netflix. I haven’t consumed this much sugar and carbs since college. Open my pantry, and you’ll find seventeen bags of chips, peanut butter M-n-M’s, and a feed-bag of Werther’s caramels. Our house looks like a grandmother’s when the grandkids are visiting. 

I quite like having mid-afternoon chip breaks. Yet, I have questions.  Do my clothes still fit? I haven’t put on a pair of pants with a waistband in over two months. Equally concerning, if I spend evenings on the couch, how can I get anything done?

 I need a plan. One that feels doable and doesn’t involve deprivation – we’ve all had enough of that. I want to allow myself comforts during this unprecedented time and nudge myself to do something productive.

Motivation for the unmotivated

Motivational theory tells us that:

  1. Change happens in stages. The first stage is contemplation. So, heads up, if you judge yourself for thinking about things you never do, can the criticism. Thinking is the first step toward change, so you’re already in motion.
  2. Behavior that’s rewarded gets repeated.
  3. Small steps lead to success. Though not Instagram worthy, they’re where the action is. Check out James Clear’s book Atomic Habits on the power of incremental changes.
  4. Talking to yourself encouragingly increases your success. Stuart Smalley was on to something.

Putting it into practice

Step One: Find desire

Desire fuels motivation. The problem is, when you’re unmotivated, you don’t want to do anything. Yet dig a little, and you can find a kernel of desire.

Example: You don’t want to exercise, but you do want to feel better.

Example: I didn’t want to write, but I wanted to finish this article.

Step Two: Start small

Goals often fail because we don’t break them down into manageable steps.

Example:  Start by walking around the block for 10 minutes. Important: Notice how you feel before and after you walk. Why? Feeling better is its own reward, but you need to notice it to get the full benefit.

Example: I set a timer to write for 30 minutes. I focused on the behavior, not the outcome — my writing could be terrible as long as I did it.

Step Three: Reward yourself.

Pick something you want and make it a reward you receive only after completing a desirable task. Important: decide on your reward before you start.

Example: After you walk for 10 minutes, you get to check Facebook.

Example: TV and comfort foods are now rewards I can have after doing something productive. I wanted to make my famous chocolate chip cookies, but not until I wrote for 30 minutes. (The cookies were delicious).

Step Four: Talk to yourself like your closest friend would

Use your best cheerleader voice. It may feel silly, but encouragement reinforces your behavior and makes you feel better.

            Example: After you walk every day: You nailed it! Woohoo!

Step Five: Repeat

Focus on small steps followed by rewards, until you’ve reached your goal or developed a new habit.

            Example: Keep rewarding yourself for short walks, and chances are you’ll venture farther as you feel more energized.

Proof this plan works? You’re reading this article. Good job, Alyson, way to go!

My reward? Season three of Ozark. That is, as soon as my husband turns on the tv.

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