People often talk about motivation as if it’s something they have no control over, like a flaky house guest who might steal away in the dead of night: “my motivation is completely out the window,” or “I wish I could find my motivation again!” We act like motivation is either there or not, and if it’s not, we’re out of luck until it decides to return.
Actually, motivation is something that successful people create, and continue to re-create. Self-determination theory, a hallmark of motivation research, makes a distinction between intrinsic motivation– i.e. having a sense that you’re choosing the behavior, that it’s personally satisfying, and you’re doing it because you enjoy it, and extrinsic motivation – i.e. being motivated by external rewards or to influence what other people think about you. Most research indicates that the more intrinsic your motivation, the more likely you are to keep performing that behavior.
It’s possible that you’re exercising to get back into your wedding dress, or to look good for a high school reunion. That’s fine for now, but it won’t last unless you find other, more internal rewards for exercising, such as improved health, increased energy, a sense of accomplishment, ideally even an activity you find fun. External rewards and praise from others is definitely nice, but the research suggests that it won’t help you keep up the exercise routine for long.
It’s a fairly simple theory – think about it in terms of the behaviors you have to use rewards to get your kids to do and those they do themselves without rewards. Who’s more likely to keep their rooms clean if the reward is stopped? The child who gets $5 each week for tidying up but hates doing it, or the child who was born orderly and genuinely values an organized space? Who will more easily keep up a running program – the woman who loves the feeling of being outside and feeling her heart beat and her legs pump, or the woman who hates exercise, but was warned by her doctor to increase her activity for health reasons? People who perform behaviors for external rewards are the least likely to stick with the behavior (which explains why monetary rewards for losing weight tend to backfire).
So, if you’re the woman who loves the feeling of running, you’re probably not reading this article. More likely, you’re like me – if exercise was found to take years off your life and should be avoided at all costs, but sitting down with a good book was the new health craze, we’d have no trouble at all maintaining the new lifestyle. But in order to keep our motivation to be active alive, we have to create our own intrinsic motivations.
How do you create motivation when it’s not automatically intrinsic? Ask yourself these questions; for added benefit, write the answers down.
- What do you get from exercise?
- How do you think your life will be (or is) different when you exercise regularly?
- What are you willing to give up for these things (because, if you’re truly going to make it an important part of your life, you WILL have to give up something)
- Does exercise have a value all its own, or is it more about the results over time?
There is also some evidence that those who exercise for mental health benefits fare better in the long run than those who exercise for physical health benefits. We also see a trend that what motivates people to begin an exercise plan is not what motivates them to continue. Maybe this is why so many of us fizzle out after a few months. We need to create new motivation. What this means is that you’ll have to revisit your list a few weeks into your program, and maybe change your answers. If you find yourself in this dilemma, try answering the following questions (again, write it down!):
- How do you feel after you exercise?
- What will you lose if you stop exercising?
Think hard about what you will lose if you stop exercising. There will always be some days when it’s harder to talk yourself into lacing up your shoes than others. Put the answers on an index card and post it somewhere you can go see it when your motivation is slacking. Remember what your greater purpose is. If your original answers were in line with your purpose and your values, and if you really believe exercise is important to you, you’ll find your motivation there.
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