Why do you want to be healthy? What’s your motivation?
Is it to show off your body at the beach next Summer? Impress others? Or do you just, quite simply, love the feeling?
In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, he draws on the research from ‘Self-Determination Theory’, and the evidence is weird.
We all know we perform better when there’s a reward to be gained from doing well. But evidence suggests this ‘reward model’ of motivation doesn’t work as well as we once thought...
A study done by M.I.T found that for any tasks that involve the most basic challenge, ‘carrot and stick’ motivation does work. But, once a task gets more complex, rewards can fail to improve your motivation, and may even damage it.
And what can be more complex than trying to get fit?
Research on what motivates us has moved onto the third stage. It’s an upgrade from primitive survival and from the idea of reward and punishment. These two don’t cut it anymore in an era of instant gratification, we need a stronger construct.
Enter Motivation 3.0.
“Humans want to engage in interesting activities, to exercise capacities, to pursue connectedness in social groups, and integrate experiences into a relative unity”
- Edward Deci & Richard Ryan, 2000
The very basics of human motivation come from our innate psychological needs. Or as Daniel Pink says,
“The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive—our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose.”
These are our intrinsic drivers which motivate us to do certain things, rather than doing them for external reasons like impressing someone else or doing it for money. He names these drivers of motivation Autonomy, Mastery and
We want to be the captain’s of our own ship - we desire to direct our own lives. Autonomy is the need to engage in interesting activities with a full sense of choice. However, much of our everyday life is not autonomous at all. We do things because we think we ‘should’ or because we’ll get praise or avoid some type of guilt.
We want to continuously improve at things. We just love to ‘get better at stuff’. It’s the personal satisfaction of achievement, even if it means nothing to others. Often, we seek to improve our own skills for the sake of it. For example, a sprinter being motivated to run as fast as he possibly can. The medals he receives are less important than the process of self-improvement.
A lack of opportunity to improve or develop leaves us unmotivated and bored.
We want to do things in service to something larger than ourselves. We need to see the bigger picture. We want to do things that matter. For example, entrepreneurs are often intrinsically motivated to ‘make a difference’ rather than simply making money.
If we can see that our actions are working towards a greater purpose, we are the hardest-working, productive, disciplined person in the room. If we can’t connect the dots to this purpose, we can’t see the point, so what’s the harm in taking a day off...
How to Become More Intrinsically Motivated
So how can you get more autonomy, mastery and purpose into your health goals and stay motivated?
1. Assess your motivation
External motivation can get you going, but it’s unstable. If you’re going for results which last a lifetime, that motivation will have to come from inside you.
Try these 4 strategies to enhance your internal motivation.
Own the goal: During times of difficulty think back to the core values that your goal expresses.
Make it fun: Think about times or environments which might make the goal more enjoyable or challenging.
Remember the big picture: Reflect upon the longer-term goals that your current goal serves.
Keep a balance: Spend time doing other things you enjoy to avoid burnout.
2. Take ownership of the process
Something everyone must do to achieve anything is to take responsibility for their actions and the outcomes of those actions. Do you work hard and admit where you failed? Or is it always someone or something else’s fault? These are examples of ‘perceived areas of causality’, or where we believe the cause of things come from - ourselves or others.
An internal focus is much more likely to lead to you achieving your goal. With this, you can control the things within your control, and accept when things are beyond control and move past them without getting stuck.
3. Goals as MAPS
Set out your own health goals in a way that meets your internal needs. To what extent does your goal provide you with:
Mastery: The goal should help you be better and give you the chance to learn.
Autonomy: You need to feel like you have a choice.
Purpose: Your goal should be meaningful to you and relate to your other goals.
Support: You should be able to get sufficient support and resources to help you achieve your goal.
“Go to the gym” isn’t a very motivating goal. Is there a way you can make your goals more effective by using this framework?
4. Strategically express your goal
After you’ve thought about your goal as MAPS, you can get more strategic about how you express your goal. What's the ‘doing’? What’s the ‘outcome’? What are your values? How does this align with your values? How can your needs and values be expressed with your goal?
We can do this through:
“A strategy to do XXX which will be evidenced by YYY”
Go to the gym
Uncover Your Needs and values:
So what…? What do you really want? Why does this matter?
Expand and Reframe the Goal:
Getting fit, have more energy, able to play with kids, enjoy exercise, live longer
Crystalise the Goal: “A strategy to do XXX which will be evidenced by YYY”
“A strategy to increase my fitness and wellbeing in an enjoyable, sustainable manner, and the success of this will be evidenced by my having increased levels of energy, being able to enjoy playing with my kids when I get home after work, sleep right through the night and forget about work over the weekend.”
5. Self-reflection leads to commitment
Often, we can lose motivation when we don’t see any progress. But progress comes in many forms. Taking time often to reflect on what’s changed, what went well and what you’ve learned so far can lead to an improved perception of how far you’ve come, relating to both Mastery and Purpose. This is why people are so fond of journaling and coaching, as both give you the chance to reflect and get feedback.
I’m sure there’s one thing in your life you love doing.
It could be anything - writing, cooking, designing, playing guitar, marketing. Others may find it boring but you can’t imagine life without it.
What’s the difference?
The difference is that when you begin to intrinsically start to enjoy something, it becomes easy for you to keep doing it. You don’t have to use willpower to keep doing something you like doing.
Initially, you can use a reward (carrot) or stick (punishment) to maintain discipline but you can’t rely on these systems forever. Intrinsic motivation is the lifeblood of sustainable behaviour change. It’s time to find yours.
Ariely, D., Gneezy, U., Loewenstein, G., & Mazar, N. (2009). Large Stakes and Big Mistakes. Review of Economic Studies, 76(2), 451-469.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The "What" and "Why" of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4). 227-268. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15327965PLI1104_01
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.