Hoping to Get & Stay Motivated? Why More Willpower is Not the AnswerMarch 28, 2018
How To Get & Stay Motivated!
“I can follow a plan to a T in the beginning, but after a while, I just lose motivation.”
Jane’s story was like so many others. For individuals I work with, it’s rarely a matter of lack of knowledge or ability to follow an eating and/or exercise plan. In fact, many could list the nutritional content of foods in their sleep. Many have tried every diet plan out there, and they probably had success, for a while at least. It is common for people to cite their “motivation” as the problem, or not having enough “willpower.”
The reality is that the amount of motivation is less important than the type, and understanding this is key for long-term change.
Self-determination theory has been developed over decades and explains that the types of motivation can range from external to internal (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
5 Types of Motivation
Extrinsic Motivation: The most external motivation (extrinsic) means you do something to avoid punishment or gain an external reward. When it comes to weight loss, it is common to have the external motivation (e.g., you want to lose weight to fit in a certain outfit, win a contest at work, or avoid negative comments from your doctor).
Introjected Motivation: You could also have introjected motivation, meaning you are motivated by an internal sense of needing to use “self-control.” This is often driven by guilt or shame (e.g., “I am not ok at this weight”) or not being confident you will follow your weight loss plan, and is also very common.
Identified Motivation: When you have identified motivation, it means you do something because you consciously value it (e.g., “I want to stay motivated and exercise to set a good example for my kids”).
Integrated Motivation: When you have integrated motivation, it refers to doing something because you are consciously aware that it makes you better (e.g., “I am a more engaged parent when I eat higher quality foods”).
Intrinsic Motivation: Finally, the type of motivation most associated with long-term behavior change is intrinsic motivation, where you do a behavior because you find something about the behavior itself rewarding (you might go on a walk outside because you find it enjoyable, or prepare a healthy meal because you like trying new recipes).
While two people can appear very “motivated,” and do the exact same behavior, their underlying reasons for this behavior (the type of motivation) can be very different.
How Different Types of Motivation Work
Take Rosa and Jane. They both started a group exercise program and were going to the class 4 times per week to stay motivated. They went regularly for about five months, but then Jane “lost her motivation,” started going sporadically, and then stopped going altogether. For five months, their behavior looked exactly the same and you might have assumed they were equally motivated. But their underlying reasons were different.
Rosa started the exercise program because she had been struggling with managing her stress level, and she remembered that exercise improves her mood. She started to really enjoy how the exercise made her feel, and also liked meeting others in the group and began to look forward to going to class.
Jane also liked how she felt exercising and enjoyed the socializing with the group; however, Jane’s initial motivation was based on wanting to lose weight after her doctor told her she was in the overweight range. Jane felt down on herself after this visit, and even though she liked exercising, she always felt an internal pressure that she “should” go to work on losing weight (external and introjected motivation).
The differences in motivation between these two women are subtle, but key.
Rosa had an initial reason to exercise that was internal (manage stress). Jane’s initial reasons were very external and even somewhat shame-based (“I should exercise, as I’m not okay at this weight”) even though she also had some internal motivation.
Even if some of the shame-based feelings are more subtle and not always 100% conscious, they can cause the behavior of getting up and going to the class feel more like a chore versus something she wants to fit into her life. This can become mentally tiring, and especially if life gets more stressful, people with more external reasons are much more likely to eventually stop exercising.
Isn’t More Motivation Better?
I used to tell patients about the types of motivation above and say “there is no bad form of motivation, but internal motivation is good for long-term behavior change.” However, we now know that there is more to the story.
Research suggests that external motivation actually can dilute or lessen our internal motivation (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999) as it did for Jane, making us less likely to keep the behavior going.
When preschoolers were told that a food was “yummy” or “yummy and will make you strong,” they rated the food as less tasty and ate less when told the food would also make them strong, a more external motivator (Maimaran & Fishbach, 2014).
So the fact that Jane was motivated to go for external reasons (I need to lose weight because my doctor said) and internal and shame-based reasons (I’m not ok at this weight) overpowered the fact that she actually did enjoy the exercise. People I talk to are often baffled at themselves for this reason. They might say “I really like it once I get there, I don’t know why I don’t just go.” Well given the many external and shame-based reasons to exercise in our culture, it really isn’t that surprising that some of that is impacting our ability to stay motivated and keep it up.
The Impact Of The Social Environment
Our social environment is also important to consider. If we are around people and communities that support our sense of competence (i.e., feeling effective in one’s actions), relatedness (i.e., feeling connected with and valued by others) and autonomy (i.e., freedom for excessive external pressure to be a certain way), we are much more likely to find our own individual path to what healthy behaviors work well for us (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
Unfortunately, when it comes to weight loss, we are constantly bombarded by messages that tell us we are not okay unless we look a certain way. Additionally, despite the evidence that the interaction between environment and biology accounts for a major component of our country’s weight problem (Llewellyn & Wardle, 2015), prejudice and negative judgment towards those who are overweight is still very high (Diedrichs & Puhl, 2016). Unfortunately, this can lead to people internalizing negative thoughts about themselves, which can make it harder to stay motivated.
If Jane felt fully supported in discovering ways of moving that worked best for her and her life, she might have kept exercising at the group class or found another way to fit it in. Even a very well-intentioned loved one or health professional can instill a sense of shame or “should”-based motivation that can make discovering what will work for you a harder task.
So What Can Be Done To Stay Motivated?
Pay attention to the types of motivation you have for a behavior you want to do more of (e.g., exercise, eating nutritious foods). Is it external only? External and internal? Try, for a moment, to take away all the “shoulds” and ask “what would work best for me and my life?” “What change could I make that would help me fulfill the roles that are important to me?” “If I weren’t worried about my weight or my health, what movement would I do?” “What foods would I eat?”
Your answers may surprise you.
Be flexible in your thinking, and know that this is a process. Try out different options for exercise and healthy eating, and observe how you feel. If it doesn’t work, try something else. Don’t give up. Ask for support from friends, family, or a professional who will help you brainstorm and go over your choices, instead of imposing goals on to you.
Take a look at your environment. Are you around people who help you feel supported and allow you to have choices? Does your support network ever make hurtful comments about your weight or your eating, even if they think they are helping? If so, share this article, or start a conversation with them about how they can support you in changing your “should” thinking and reduce external reasons for a change.
If after trying to start a dialogue, people aren’t receptive, try to set a boundary (e.g., calmly state “When you say comments like that, I am going to hang up the phone”) or spend less time with that person.
Evaluate your sources. There is a TON of health advice available, some of it evidence-based, and much of it not. Look for resources backed by credible sources and citing appropriate research. False claims can reduce your confidence and harm your long-term motivation. When in doubt, ask a health professional with expertise in that area. To read more about specific ways to apply self-determination theory to physical activity, check out the book No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring you a Lifetime of Fitness, by Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH.
Note: Examples used are compilations of different individual experiences and not representative of any one person.
- Deci, E., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.
- Diedrichs, P. C. and Puhl, R. (2016) Weight bias: Prejudice and discrimination toward overweight and obese people. In: Sibley, C. and Barlow, F. K., eds. (2016) The Cambridge Handbook of the Psychology of Prejudice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 392-412.
- Maimaran, M., & Fishbach, A. (2014). If its useful and you know it, do you eat?” Preschoolers refrain from instrumental food. Journal of Consumer Research, 3, 642-655.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
ABOUT THE AUTHORShawn Hondorp, PhD, ABPP, is a board certified clinical health psychologist who works in private practice in Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Hondorp earned her doctorate in clinical psychology from Drexel University and completed her fellowship at Rush University Medical Center. Her passion is translating science-based information about eating behavior, weight management, and wellness into actionable steps people can use to improve their life. Her website The Psychology of Wellness is dedicated to this mission. Read more articles by Dr. Hondorp!