Kristen Carter MS | Online Fitness and Nutrition Coach

Motivation. Friend or Foe?

In my business, as in the weight loss business, you often hear that people struggle with their motivation.

Ever wonder what it IS anyway? And how come some people have it and others don’t?

Before I start, let me put this out there. I came across an example of a continuum that people fall upon with regards to their motivation to lose weight. It goes something like this:

  1. Intrinsic/internal: “I am losing weight because it’s important to me and my values”.
  2. Partially Internal: “I am losing weight because I see the value of being healthy”.
  3. Partially External: “I am losing weight because I feel bad about myself.”
  4. External: “I want to compete in the company challenge or to get a break on my life insurance”.
  5. No feelings of motivation: “There is no point in trying because my success is unlikely or impossible.”

The above breakdown really points to what we all know. Motivation is all over the map. The solutions for it tend to be all over the map as well.

Here’s another problem. A lot of times we think of motivation as something that you either have or you don’t (aka, a personality trait), or (worse), that it is somehow an indicator of your inherent moral fiber. Gross! Both of those automatically set you up for feeling bad about yourself, and/or judging others.

According to many, including Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology and author of the book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, willpower is something we all have. It is a brain function. Here’s the thing. It gets depleted easily (duh, you might say). As we go about our day, it gets depleted by having to make decisions, dealing with difficult situations or people, getting drained emotionally, or having to resist temptation. On top of that, if you are hungry your brain is not getting the fuel it needs. That can lead to candy bars, chips, throwing in the towel and sitting on the couch with a glass of wine, or overeating at dinner.

What to do?

As I said, the solutions are all over the map. There’s the theoretical (stages-of-change model; self determination theory; health belief model; and things like operant conditioning or cognitive restructuring). Then there are the ones who say that it’s all about proper goal setting. You may have heard or read about the SMART system. In this system goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Bound.

I don’t know about you, but I find these constructs to be a bit lofty. What does that mean when it comes down to the nitty gritty? For those of us that struggle to keep moving, lose weight, or start any other good-for-you habit, it is not about theory or abstract thought.

I like what the Heath brothers (Dan and Chip) have suggested (you can check them out on their website and in the several books they have written on habit change). A few of their top suggestions are these:

  • Look for the bright spots. In other words, find a day when you got the most done towards your goal and ask yourself what it was you did differently that day to enable it.
  • Make one change at a time. In line with the evidence about willpower, research has shown that your self-control gets depleted. Too many changes at once will make things a lot more difficult to pull off.
  • Get the desired behavior on your schedule so that it becomes a habit. Once something is a habit, it doesn’t take as much self-control to continue it.
  • And, this one is perhaps my favorite. Link the desired behavior to something else. For instance, “After I drop the kids off at school, I will exercise.” Or, “I will do the exercises my physical therapist gave me after my morning coffee.” Linking it to something that you normally do helps to make it a habit, and keeps some of the self-control out of it.

Here’s where I would like to add my two cents.

Combining all the books and research I have read with what I have actually seen when working with people as a trainer and Certified Health Coach, I have come to a few conclusions.

  1. This really is #1. Going back to the continuum that I shared in the beginning of this blog, I would like to point out that when something is part of your value system, it is INTRINSIC to your being. When that happens, it is more likely to become something that you always try to do. As Tony Horton, creator of the wildly popular P90X exercise system says, “Whatever you do, make sure you are doing it for the RIGHT REASON” (emphasis is mine).
  2. Things that are not intrinsic fall by the wayside. You can set up a reward system for achieving your goal (like a new outfit or a “cheat day”), but these things have a way of fading after awhile. External rewards can be fleeting or too superficial to keep you going into a lifestyle change.
  3. When we are accountable to others, or the action is public, it really helps. We are all social beings and care what others think of us. In addition, we like to feel like we are part of a group that shares the same purpose and goals. That’s why going to a meeting to help you lose weight, being part of a class, or having a friend to exercise with can be useful. BUT, at the end of the day, it is still about you and what is important to you, i.e., the INTRINSIC part.
  4. Making sure you eat regular, healthy meals will help your resolve. Also, knowing that you will probably be depleted at the end of the day can help too. Awareness of this can help you either plan your exercise for the morning, or get it in while taking your feelings into account.
  5. Lastly, staying curious and open to learning new things can be a game changer. After all, starting a new habit or having a goal to improve your health requires some learning in order to make it intrinsic for you. We can all stay in ruts unless we start investigating what it would take to learn the new thing, and then be discerning about the new information. It requires some energy, which IS what drives motivation.

Mo-ti-va-tion; move-ment; mo-tor. These words all share the same Latin root, movere. It means “to move’.

All the best for whatever health goal you have been doing or would like to start.


© 2018-2020 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.
Photo Credit: BrianAJackson/iStock

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