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Six Ways to Stay Motivated to Manage Your Diabetes Well

Six Ways to Stay Motivated to Manage Your Diabetes Well

by Adam Brown

twitter summary: Staying motivated w/diabetes: reframe your perspective on BGs, enlist loved ones, commit 2 something, think intrinsic, remember that you are lucky!

short summary: This piece shares six tips that can help you stay motivated to manage your diabetes well – and you know, hearing it from Adam is fantastic as he’s so motivational and keeps Kelly and all of us hugely inspired at the diaTribe office. Here’s some brainpower from him: 1) Instead of “avoiding complications,” think about how better blood sugars can benefit you now, right this second; 2) Remember that blood glucose numbers are information and not a grade on how well you are doing; 3) Think about how people in your life can help – loved ones, family, and friends can be close allies in your diabetes management; 4) Commit yourself to something that will benefit your diabetes management, and make it public! 5) Foster intrinsic motivation (autonomy, mastery, and purpose); and 6) Remember how lucky you are.

“Okay, I quit this whole diabetes thing!”

Have you ever said that? I certainly have, especially on those days where I just want to throw my hands in the air and give up. Diabetes requires managing something that is invisible (blood sugar), and you never get a break – it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re supposed to exercise and watch what you eat in a food environment that encourages unhealthy choices. Sprinkle in the demands of taking medications, frequently testing your blood sugar, going to see doctors, AND trying to live a normal life, and it’s a lot for anyone to cope with. Plus, the most successful you can be is getting back to “normal.” Whew.

But even with those challenges, there are so many reasons to work towards good diabetes management! Here are six tips to remember on those days when nothing seems to be going right:

  1. Instead of “avoiding complications,” think about how better blood sugars can benefit you now. Diabetes complications like blindness, amputation, and kidney disease are unquestionably scary, but they are also NOT a very good motivator in the present (Should I eat that? What’s the harm in skipping my medication just this once?). Instead, think about what makes you happy in the present and how better diabetes management impacts those activities. For me, it’s things like time with friends and family, riding my bike, and writing about things I care about. Out of control blood sugars make all of these activities so much harder and less enjoyable – when my glucose is out of range, I’m tired, grumpy, lightheaded, a worse sleeper, an impaired thinker, and a host of other negative qualities. I deserve better – and so do the people around me!

  2. Remember that blood glucose numbers are for information and not a grade on how well you are doing. We’ve all experienced that moment, perhaps more often than we’d like to admit – when your meter blinks a 282 mg/dl or a 43 mg/dl. It can feel like you’re getting a “bad grade”, and it’s particularly demotivating when you feel like you’re trying hard and doing your best. Instead of blaming yourself, use the information to be solutions-oriented and proactive. “Okay, so I’m at 185 mg/dl. I can go for a walk” or “Yikes, 43 mg/dl – best to sit down and eat something.” As Dr. Howard Wolpert said in diaTribe #50, “When your glucoses are in target, take credit. When your glucoses are out of range, blame the diabetes and vow to make better choices tomorrow.”

  3. Think about how people in your life can help – loved ones, family, and friends can be close allies in your diabetes management. These people can motivate you in so many ways: cheering you on and celebrating successes, exercising with you, helping you make good food choices, providing a sounding board to vent frustrations, and even gently reminding you to take your medication and test your blood sugar. These relationships can be tremendously helpful, but they can also turn into “Diabetes police” quite easily (“What’s your number?! Did you go for a walk?!”). The important thing is to have open communication, shared goals, and a clear understanding of what living with diabetes is like. For instance, my girlfriend loves to bake, but she also knows that I try to stay away from sugary desserts. The brilliant solution she came up with is baking with almond flour, which has a very limited impact on blood glucose. It’s a classic win-win – she doesn’t need to feel guilty about baking, while I don’t have to compromise my eating choices.

  4. Commit yourself to something that will benefit your diabetes management, and make it public! It’s amazing how pledging yourself to do something – be it a charity cycling event, a 30-day healthy-eating challenge, testing your blood glucose after every meal, or even walking 20 minutes before breakfast every day – can boost your motivation. You’ll also be more effective in sticking to your goal if you make it public: tell your friends and family about it (or enlist them to join you!), post your goal on your bedroom mirror, or mark it on your calendar. This approach is rooted in psychological science, which has proven that humans are naturally swayed by the “consistency principle.” As Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book Influence notes, “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.” You can use this principle in a positive way by committing to something that will benefit your diabetes management.

  5. Foster intrinsic motivation. One of my favorite authors, Dan Pink, wrote a terrific book on motivation called Drive (see a TED talk on it here). The idea is that outside rewards (e.g., cash prizes) are often not very good motivators, particularly for complex tasks that aren’t so straightforward. In these cases, it’s key to foster internal motivation, which means having autonomy (having control), mastery (improving at something over time), and purpose (doing something larger than yourself). These principles are also critical for managing diabetes. For example, if you’re a parent, you might consider giving your son or daughter more autonomy to manage his or her diabetes. If you’re an adult with diabetes, you can promote mastery by celebrating small wins and gradual improvement over time – e.g., testing your blood glucose more often than last week, a better A1c or more time-in-zone than three months ago, eating more fruits and vegetables than yesterday, etc. And to encourage purpose, remember all the people in your life that will benefit from you managing your diabetes better.

  6. Remember how lucky you are. When I’m feeling particularly down on diabetes, I think about places in the world where type 1 diabetes is a death sentence, or when people live for years with type 2 diabetes not even knowing they have it. I have so much to be thankful for – insurance, access to insulin, strips, CGM, a pump, healthy food, a city with parks and sidewalks, friends and family to support me – that it would be selfish NOT to manage my diabetes well. I find that thought alone quite motivational! As Dr. David Kendall said in diaTribe #50, “…the tools and resources available for you to care for your diabetes in the midst of a busy, productive and fulfilling life are better today than at any time in the modern history of diabetes care.”

I hope you find these tips useful – please email me if I missed any!

[Editor’s Note: Adam is a patient with diabetes and not a healthcare provider. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet, insulin, or medication regimen.]

Adam is the co-managing editor of diaTribe and Chief of Staff at Close Concerns. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and serves on the board of Insulindependence and the San Francisco branch of JDRF. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12 and has worn an insulin pump for the last 11 years and a CGM for the past three years. Most of Adam's writing for diaTribe focuses on diabetes technology, including blood glucose meters, CGMs, insulin pumps, and the artificial pancreas. Adam is passionate about exercise, nutrition, and wellness and spends his free time outdoors and staying active. He can be contacted at adam.brown(at)diatribe.org or @asbrown1 on twitter.

Interested in learning more about tips for people with diabetes? Please read previous adam’s corners on simple tips for better blood sugars, eating, and health, whether all carbohydrates are created equal, and ten tips for changing habits, adopting new behaviors, and achieving your goals.

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