Why the Answer to Motivation Is You

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This post was written by Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D., the Senior Fitness Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise, Chief Behavioral Scientist for Anytime Fitness, faculty member at Equinox Fitness Training Institute, and Psych Coach. The views expressed herein are his and his alone. 

When it comes to belly buttons, having an “inny” or an “outy” has no real effect on health.  When it comes to motivation — especially for health and fitness goals — being an inny or an outy can make all the difference.

Photo: Publix Georgia Marathon & Half Marathon

The “inny” I’m talking about is “intrinsic motivation,” or a drive to achieve that comes from inside a person and isn’t motivated by external rewards. This is the kind of motivation that can lead to life-changing improvements and well-being. External rewards (like compliments, fitting into a smaller size, or winning a race) might get a person started but long-term motivation depends on a person’s values and processes for achieving goals.

When it comes to health and wellness, internal motivation involves emphasizing current health and happiness instead of ideas about future health, fitness, and positive body image. In order to be sustained, exercise and healthy habits need to be relevant to a person’s life today, not “off in the distance” goals. Vague warnings about future health are less motivating than the tangible, post-workout feeling of “Ahhh, I’m so relaxed right now. I need to do this again!”

This kind of current, internal drive might not come naturally to all of us, but the good news is it can be learned.

Self-Sabotaging Beliefs — The Challenge

Many people who don’t work out regularly can rattle off a list of reasons why they’re not motivated to exercise, from not understanding the benefits of activity to thoughts like “I’m too busy,” “I’m embarrassed by how I look,” “exercise is boring," and so on.

The folks who hold these (false) self-sabotaging beliefs often believe exercise doesn’t matter; they don't enjoy it, or they simply have no interest in doing it. And, really, who could blame them? Who would be inspired to start a physical activity with negative thoughts running through their head? A person has to believe exercise is of value in order to build motivation to do it.

Building Sustainable Motivation — Four Strategies

In my experience working with families, athletes, fitness professionals and enthusiasts, and corporate executives and teams, I’ve learned there are four strategies people can use to create sustainable motivation: Self-Efficacy, FIT/Rational Thinking, SMARTER Goals, and Commitment Contracts. Let’s walk through them one by one.

Self-Efficacy

A person with high self-efficacy believes in their ability to perform a task and achieve goals. Such a person might have thought patterns that look like this: “I’m sure of my ability to achieve the goals I set for myself;” “I believe that if I work hard, I’ll be successful;” and “I can move in another direction to achieve my goal, if an obstacle blocks my my path." These beliefs are the strongest and most consistent predictors of exercise behavior. A person won’t pick up a 35-pound dumbbell — or even a five-pound one —as long as they believe they can’t. In contrast, the greater a person’s self-efficacy, the more likely they are to stick with an exercise program and make it a habit for life. There are three ways to build self-efficacy:

  • Ensure early success. When first starting out, choose activities you’re certain you can do successfully. If new to exercise, start with a fifteen-minute walk, one set of strength training exercises with a weight you can lift comfortably eight to ten times, or some gentle stretching. Similarly, if you’re looking to take an exercise routine to the next level, start small — say, by adding three more reps to a lifting routine or a few minutes of high intensity interval training to a cardio session. Gradually up the intensity level as you’re able, achieving more and more.
  • Watch others succeed in the activity you want to try. This is particularly effective if the person you’re observing is similar to you — neighbors, friends, co-workers, and gym mates are all good options. Witnessing their successes can boost your own self-efficacy level.
  • Find a supportive voice. Personal trainers and coaches are skilled in giving appropriate encouragement, as are good friends (usually). Just be sure the feedback is realistic and focused on the progress you’re making instead of comparing you to others.
Fundamentally Independent Thinking (FIT)/Rational Thinking

A fundamentally independent thinker understands that nothing makes a person upset, angry, or depressed; rather, what a person thinks about things determines how they feel. As Henry Ford once said, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” There is no motivation without this important “inner game.”

But people aren’t necessarily born FIT thinkers. Instead, we have to learn to be rational even in the face of negative beliefs. Internal negative messages, or “Automatic Negative Thoughts”, can act as obstacles to motivation and goal setting. Examples of destructive thinking include:

  • Feelings of inadequacy. “Emotional reasoning” means if a person feels something, they automatically assume it must be fact (“I feel like a loser, so I must be one”).
  • Predictions of failure. “Fortune telling” means a person makes predictions using FEAR, or False Evidence Accepted as Real (“I know I’ll make a fool of myself in front of everyone in the gym when I try to lift weights, and I’ll fail”).
  • Mind-reading. A person assumes people are reacting negatively to them when there’s no evidence for this assumption.

To oust these negative thoughts, ask the following types of questions:

  • What’s the evidence for and against what I'm thinking?
  • What would I tell a friend in the same situation? If I wouldn’t tell them what I’ve been telling myself, then why am I saying it to myself?
  • If a thought makes me feel bad or abandon a healthy lifestyle, then why don’t I stop thinking it?
SMARTER Goal Setting

We can eliminate inconsistency from our health and wellness plans by making goals that are SMARTER (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely, developed Enthusiastically, and attached to Rewards). Waking up in the morning and thinking, “I’m going to work out today,” is less effective than coming up with a specific and actionable plan (“I’m going to the gym at 8:30, do 15 minutes on the treadmill at 4 mph at an incline of 10 percent, then do three sets of eight reps of barbell bench presses... etc. SMARTER goals take the guesswork out of health and wellness routines, so we’re more likely to stick to them.

Commitment Contracts

It can be particularly difficult to sustain nutrition or exercise routines around the holidays. The field of Behavioral Economics offers some strategies to help harness both internal and external motivation. The idea is grounded in “commitment contracts,” which are exactly what they sound like: A person commits to a behavioral change and then establishes a “contract” (with a partner, a friend, or through a website like Stikk.com) whereby some consequence (usually a monetary one) results from the person failing to achieve their goal. The idea is that the desire to avoid the consequence helps keep people more committed to success.

The Final Takeaway

Without an “inny,” it’s difficult — if not impossible — to develop lasting motivation. By believing in yourself, thinking rationally, setting SMARTER goals, and using commitment contracts, you’re sure to cross into 2013 with enough motivation to tackle your New Year’s resolutions with long-term success.

What are your best tips for achieving goals? Share 'em in comments below, or get in touch with the author on Twitter @FitnessPsych.

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About the Author
Michael Mantell
Dr. Michael Mantell earned his Ph.D. degree at the University of Pennsylvania after completing his M.S. degree in clinical psychology at the...

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