Harnessing Extrinsic Motivation
When you look at people who are successful, you will find that they aren’t the people who are motivated, but have consistency in their motivation.
Working in a commercial gym, I have the opportunity to talk about fitness with individuals from all walks of life. When I ask how their training is going, the number one obstacle they bring up is the big bad M-word: motivation.
In fact, many of them hire a personal trainer just to have someone to push them to exercise and eat in a different way.
But what is motivation? And how can you manipulate it to succeed in your fitness journey?
In this article, I will examine different types of motivation and how to harness the most common one to achieve your fitness goals.
What is motivation?
The word “motivation” finds its roots into the Latin term motus, which means “movement.” According to the Oxford Dictionary, motivation is “the reason why somebody does something or behaves in a particular way.”
Motivation is what spurs us into action. This is usually a desire or a need: for example, we want to “look better naked” or we need to be fitter for work- or health-related reasons.
Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation comes from the outcome of the action we are driven to undertake. Both the examples I mentioned previously are of extrinsic motivation: improvements in appearance and in general fitness are the results of an effective exercise program and approach to nutrition.
Intrinsic motivation comes from the enjoyment of an activity for its own sake. For instance, you might feel motivated to go for a run in the late afternoon because you enjoy the breeze, the silence, and the sunset.
When the two types are compared, extrinsic motivation is often considered negative, whereas intrinsic motivation is purported to be the only one that yields long-term success.
However, in many life situations, including fitness and nutrition, we may find ourselves more often extrinsically than intrinsically motivated.
For instance, a 2017 study on 306 participants found that the main reasons why people exercise are the competitive aspect for males, and the psychological and physique-related benefits for females.
In other words, many people exercise to be better than somebody else, to reduce stress and relieve anxiety, and to look good. These are all examples of extrinsic motivation.
Furthermore, it may take years for an exerciser to develop intrinsic motivation. Some might never do it. What do we do then? Do we just accept that a healthy lifestyle “is not for us”? Of course not.
How to harness extrinsic motivation
As this paper points out, extrinsic motivation can result in two vastly different attitudes.
In one case, you could push through a task because “you have to” and hate every minute of it. In fitness, an example I hear often is someone doing cardio for the purpose of fat loss.
They dread the time of their session, drag themselves to the gym, and “embrace the suck,” waiting for the end of the workout with baited breath (or without breath)… only to start the cycle all over again the moment they step off the treadmill.
Make no mistake: this was me, too.
You could also approach the same task with a positive attitude, for example reminding yourself that your cardio sessions will help you reach that long-awaited “after” picture you are putting so much effort into achieving.
Focusing on this outcome may even drive you to exercise harder, thus burning more calories, as opposed to doing the bare minimum you need to in order to complete the session.
So the best way to harness extrinsic motivation is to keep your desired rewards in mind. For this reason, choosing the right rewards will set you up for success.
How to choose the “right” rewards
Simply put, the right rewards will help you develop the big-picture-benefits attitude instead of the have-to attitude.
First, the decision to pursue something shouldn’t be forced.
People often take up exercise because their doctor, their family, or their friends told them to, but they soon give up because the mantra “it’s good for you” will only take you so far if you don’t truly believe in it.
When the initial decision is forced on you, ask yourself, “This person wants me to do this. What makes me agree with them?”
Write down as many answers as you can. These will be rewards you care about rather than rewards that you are required to care about (and don’t). Some of the former will match the latter, but the process of writing them down will engrain into your brain that it is your choice, not somebody else’s, thus making it all the more powerful.
The second step is to review your rewards to make sure they are realistic. For instance, if you are trying to motivate yourself to diet for fat loss, “Lose 50 lbs in two weeks” wouldn’t be a great choice.
Not only is it unrealistic; it is also such a demanding objective that it will loom over you for the next two weeks like a death sentence, scaring you away from fitness rather than pushing you towards it. “Lose 2 to 4 lbs in two weeks” would be much more sensible.
Lastly, store the list somewhere you can see it. Stick it on the fridge or bedroom door, on the bathroom mirror, make a note on your phone, and so on.
In addition, follow motivational social media accounts. You can even create a fitness account where you follow only relevant people, so that, when you open the app, all that shows up on your dashboard is motivational captions and pictures.
When you’re feeling like skipping the gym, the rewards list and a quick scroll through your fitness account dashboard will help you steady your course.
Over time, revise the list and change any rewards that don’t apply anymore, or add others that now do. Give yourself a reminder to update the list at least once every four or six weeks. Keeping it fresh and relevant will preserve its efficacy over time.
In Future Episodes:
In the next article, I will examine a number of reasons why you might not be losing fat, even if you think you’re doing everything right.
How do you motivate yourself?
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An online fitness coach who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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