Motivation is the reason one acts a certain way and does certain things. It’s the foundation of every behaviour. While it’s often considered the same as a goal, it’s really the drive and desire to reach that goal. At the most basic level, is the motivation for the necessities of life such as food and water. But motivation also plays a key role in lifestyle behaviours, and therefore your physical and mental wellbeing. In addition, motivation is something that can be changed and developed. The key is in finding what’s your particular motivation.
Of course, motivation isn’t the only thing needed to start and maintain a behaviour. You’ll also need opportunity. If you want to maintain a healthy diet, you’ll need to have access to healthy foods. Similarly, if I want to go swimming, I’ll need access to a pool and money to pay for it.
In addition, you’ll need discipline to maintain your lifestyle behaviours. Motivation can change from day to day, and even throughout the same day. It’s probably easy to be motivated to go for a walk on a warm sunny day. But what happens when it’s cold and rainy out? Will you be motivated the same way? That’s when discipline kicks in. However, motivation is usually what starts you off in the first place.
Health May Not be the Best Motivator
As a health professional, my job is to work with people to maintain, or change, their behaviour in order to improve their health. This might be starting up an exercise program, stopping smoking or altering their diet. However, while I’m motivated to help people improve their health, this may not be the motivation for the person I’m working with. Indeed, health isn’t always a great motivator.
Let’s consider exercise and all its health benefits. For a generally healthy 20-year-old, the notion of exercising to prevent getting diabetes, heart disease or cancer 40 years later isn’t likely to provide much motivation. Even someone who just had a heart attack may find health a poor motivator. Having had a near-death experience, one would think this person would be extremely motivated. And many people do begin exercising following a heart attack. But months later, it’s not uncommon for many of them to stop their exercise program.
It doesn’t mean these people want to be unhealthy. Or they don’t realize the benefits of exercise, as most of us know it’s good for us. Of course, behaviour change, and maintaining that change, isn’t always easy. But one essential part to maintaining a behaviour is to be motivated in a way that’s personally meaningful to you.
Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation
There are two main types of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards, for example, winning a trophy or getting a raise at work. These rewards tend to be tangible and given to you by someone else. But less tangible things such as praise from others are also a form of extrinsic rewards.
Extrinsic rewards can be useful when the activity being performed is unenjoyable. The extrinsic reward can provide the motivation to get it done. However, the feeling of satisfaction from an extrinsic reward is fleeting. And receiving extrinsic rewards is usually in the control of others, which can become deflating if that’s your main motivation and you don’t receive the reward.
Intrinsic rewards, on the other hand, come from within you. Things such as eating and drinking are activities we’re intrinsically driven to do to avoid hunger and thirst. When it comes to lifestyle behaviours, much of the intrinsic motivation is psychological. Or rather, how it makes you feel. We do something because we enjoy it. For some people it could be because of the challenge, or it may be the interest in learning, or there may be enjoyment from just doing the task at the time.
Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful for sustaining behaviours than extrinsic motivation. The heart patient above may start exercising because they were told to, and perhaps because they don’t want to disappoint their doctor. But if that’s the only, or main reason to exercise, it will be hard to continue doing it. However, it’s possible an extrinsic reward may provide the initial motivation to get started and later the person begins to enjoy the feeling of exercise, thus, providing intrinsic motivation.
Motivation depends on a number of things. This includes your personal circumstances, values and needs. Therefore your motivation is unique to you. And just as your values, needs and circumstances change, so too can your motivation. It’s also something you can grow yourself.
When looking for motivation to do a certain behaviour, or stop an existing one, aim for intrinsic motivators. Ask yourself what are things you value? Why might you want to change a behaviour? Focus on things that make you happy. While some people enjoy going for long bike rides, if that isn’t for you, look to try something else. Recognize your motivation is different from someone else’s.
Starting off with an extrinsic reward may be helpful, but be mindful of relying on them too much. Relying on external rewards may actually reduce intrinsic motivation. Particularly for those behaviours you already enjoy. While extrinsic rewards may be useful to get people starting an activity, they’re not good for sustaining long-term behaviour change.
Goal setting can also help with motivation. Build in both long-term and short-term goals. Long-term goals can be great, but if they’re too far in the future, they may not be motivating enough. However, you can break long-term goals into a few short-term goals. As you progress, you may find your motivation does as well. And if you find your motivation waning, don’t be afraid to mix things up. For example, if you’re used to walking alone, try walking with a friend, or a different activity.
Motivation isn’t something that’s pre-determined. It’s something you’re able to find and create on your own. And in doing so, you lay the foundation for whatever behaviours you wish to do.
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