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How Motivation Really Works

Motivation is a common word in the wellness industry. Fitness celebrities and diet gurus talk about motivation as an equivalent to willpower. They seem to suggest that if you follow enough of their social media accounts and read as many of their posts as you can, you can tap into some hidden reserve of willpower that will make it easier for you to wake up early to go to the gym or to conquer that craving for sweet foods when you have had a bad day at work.

In the Habits of Health System, we look at motivation differently. For starters, we know that relying on willpower is not an effective way to transform our lives. Anyone who has tried a diet program and failed knows this firsthand: The start feels easy, but eventually, your willpower-momentum runs dry, and that moment of surrender often comes as a result of a big obstacle.

Motivation matters, but we have to understand how motivation really works if we want it to work in our favor. In the simplest terms possible, motivation is the desire to do things.

However, there are two types of motivation, and if we approach them the right way, we can consistently use our desire to drive action, making the healthy choices that move us closer to our health goals.

The two types of motivation are:

  1. External Motivation: This is often when someone other than ourselves—such as our spouse, our boss or our parent—tells us what to do. Our spouse demands that we lose weight, and to avoid conflict, you say, “I am on a diet because my wife will get upset if I eat that fast food.” In this case, you are being compliant to avoid conflict. You are trying to solve a problem. We internalize the external pressure without really wanting to make the change or aligning it with our personal values and desires. It sounds like “I ought to” or “I should start to watch my weight.” This external pressure may work in the short-term, but it will not last.

  2. Autonomous Motivation: This source of motivation is sustainable and therefore good for our future. We voluntarily decide our path because we want the energy to make a difference in our lives. We want to live longer in a healthy state because we want to play with our grandchildren. We want to become good at making healthy choices, and we want to share this change with and be supported by others. This self-motivation is a powerful source of energy that is aligned with both our biology and also our deep desire to survive, belong, connect, and make a difference.

Autonomous motivation, because of its deeply internal implications, is the most effective motivation to build on your health journey. External motivation can still be important and can even facilitate stronger autonomous motivation—for example, a coach who helps you to understand the deep rewards of optimal health and gives you extra pushes of external motivation when you need them—can be incredibly powerful. But autonomous motivation is key.

To make autonomous motivation work, you have to ask yourself, why do you want to change?

The answer might seem obvious—so obvious in fact that we don’t often think to ask the question or to properly consider the answer. If you’re overweight, have health issues, feel tired, and lack energy, the obvious answer is that you want to change in order to solve those problems.

That’s true of most changes we try to adopt—they’re based on solving a problem or trying to get rid of an unwanted situation. For autonomous motivation to work, you need to go beyond solving problems and orient your life around what you stand to gain. Living longer to spend more time with your children is more motivating than how you look in the mirror (and when you weigh having more Christmases with your family against the gratification of a donut, the right choice becomes easier to make).

Your why should be your own. We often find that family is a common motivational theme in our community, but you can have multiple layers to your why as well. Perhaps you desire to be a positive force in the world. Perhaps you want to set an example for the people you care about. Perhaps you have dreamed of travel experiences and adventure.

If you know your why, your motivation will be more reliable, making your daily choices more consistent. Those daily choices, over time, will bring your current reality into alignment with the why that energized you to change.

Start with why if you want the next chapter of your life to be the story of your transformation.

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