In order to change a behavior, a person must ultimately be motivated to do so. Think about it, a child is motivated to be good at the grocery store knowing they will be rewarded with a cookie. The question is, what motivates adults to get (and stay) healthy?
Although extrinsic motivators often start the behavior change process, intrinsic motivations are the real key to lasting change.
What is the difference?
In my job, often times my client's goal is to lose weight. What is important to understand is why my client wants to lose weight. Once we understand then we can drill down to the motivators.
What we know is in order to lose weight one must change the way they eat and increase his or her physical activity. But, again, why do they want to lose weight? Is it because she wants to fit into a dress for a special occasion or is it because he just wants to feel better? Someone motivated by extrinsic reasons may eat foods or do exercises they do not particularly like in order to fit into that dress. The dress being the extrinsic motivator. But let's look deeper into this concept. How long will someone continue eating foods they dislike and doing exercises they don't enjoy? Once they fit into that dress what do you think they will do? Probably go back to what they were eating and likely stop exercising. On the flip side, if someone who tries a new exercise feels energetic and cheerful afterward and therefore looks forward to doing this exercise again they are being intrinsically motivated. The increased energy and joyful mood being the intrinsic motivator. This person will likely continue exercising even after they lose weight.
The truth is, many of my clients start their wellness journey using extrinsic motivation; however, end up cultivating intrinsic motivation through the process. They may start off wanting to change their behaviors because they want to look more attractive to their spouse but then realize that they are sleeping better, are less stressed, less winded, and have more energy. This is what ultimately keeps them on track and creates lifelong behavior change.
Finding your intrinsic motivation is easy, it just takes a bit of detective work. You have to look below the surface. The trick is to keep asking yourself the question "why" until you drill down to the root reason for wanting change. For instance:
"I want to lose weight." Why?
"Because I want to feel better." Why?
"Because if I feel better I can do more." Why?
"Because right now I can't keep up with my kids and I feel like I am missing out on valuable time with them." Why?
"Because I get winded too fast, I can't get up and down from the floor quickly because of my knee pain, and I tire quickly".
Ah ha!- so you want to lose weight to improve your cardiovascular strength, lessen your knee pain, and have more energy? Now, you have intrinsic reasons for wanting to lose weight.
If you can channel your intrinsic motivation you are much more likely to make lasting sustainable change. You may find that along your journey you encounter extrinsic motivators that give you added energy toward your goals. Someone may notice you have lost weight and comment on how good you look. That feels good! Use this motivation as a bonus to your increased energy and increased cardiovascular endurance.
There is a healthy balance of motivators needed to change a behavior. Simply knowing what they are and understanding why and how they motivate you will keep your behaviors in check and change moving in the right direction.