Motivation is fantastic… when it shows up. It can feel like a tailwind at your back, pushing you almost effortlessly towards your goal. Unfortunately, motivation is also a fickle beast, and if you wait for it in order to get going, you might be waiting forever. But what is motivation, exactly? Is there a way to harness its power to accomplish our goals? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we keep moving forward, even when our motivation goes MIA?
What Is Motivation?
Motivation can be defined as the general willingness to do something. It’s a psychological state in which you desire a change in either yourself or your environment and are willing to take action to make it happen. For example, when your desire to get fitter becomes strong enough, you may start hearing your oft-ignored treadmill calling your name, nudging you to lace up your shoes. Or, when that staggeringly tall pile of laundry you’ve been side-eyeing all week finally grows large enough, it may prompt a cleaning frenzy. Author Steven Pressfiend defines motivation as “what happens when the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it.” Be it a lack of fitness, unfinished laundry, or something else entirely, you’ve likely hit this “pain threshold” at some point in your life.
However, all motivation is not created equal. Researchers broadly categorize motivation as either intrinsic — something that is inherently satisfying — or extrinsic — something that is satisfying due to external rewards. You may be intrinsically motivated to hit the gym because you love how energized you feel after a great workout, or you may be extrinsically motivated by the promise you made to your workout partner to show up every Monday and Wednesday. While both types of motivation can lead to action, intrinsic motivation is more effective and durable when it comes to making a sustained lifestyle change. For example, studies have shown that individuals who are more intrinsically motivated to lose weight are more successful at maintaining their weight loss over the long term as well as sticking to other health-oriented behaviors such as food logging and exercise.
Why Motivation Is Not the Key to Long-Term Success
Contrary to popular belief, motivation is not the only driver of voluntary actions. Societal norms, consequences, biological drive, and habits also influence human behavior. In fact, it’s unwise to rely on motivation alone to achieve any lasting behavior change. The reason is because motivation is unreliable. It’s like that life-of-the-party friend who also append to be very flaky: lots of fun, but often completely lacking just when you need it the most.
Motivation’s unreliability has to do with dopamine. Sometimes referred to as the “happiness hormone,” dopamine is a neurotransmitter that your brain releases to prompt you to take action that will result in reward. However, if rewards are delayed, inconsistent, or not as large as expected, your body releases less dopamine or even none at all. Unfortunately, the rewards of many health behaviors are, by nature, delayed, inconsistent, and smaller than expected. The result? Low levels of dopamine and that “meh, I think I’ll skip for today” feeling you’ve probably felt at some point (say, when debating between the instant gratification of “one more TV episode” or the long-term gratification of getting a full 8 hours of sleep).
Research shows that relying solely on motivation to take action in the face of temptation will result in inconsistent behavior at best and failure to begin at worst. When motivation flags — from lack of sleep, hunger, or any number of other stressors — you’re less likely to make the healthier choice.
But don’t fret! Motivation isn’t your only option when it comes to making healthy choices. Turning healthy actions into habits is the best way to short-circuit the decision-making process, thereby reducing the need for motivation. This is especially true when you stack habits, i.e., join them so one closely follows another. A morning ritual that includes drinking coffee, followed by dressing in the workout clothes you laid out the night before, followed by driving to the gym and completing the same warm-up is an example of a series of stacked habits. If you always put on your gym clothes after you drink your coffee, you’re that much more likely to work out. After all, you’re not going to go back to bed with your gym clothes on, are you?!
7 Ways to Stay Motivated
There is a difference between the motivation of “liking” an activity and “wanting” to do it. For example, a professional tennis player may love the game of tennis, but that doesn’t mean she will always feel like practicing. No matter how devoted and motivated you feel when you start adopting a healthy behavior, there will be days when your motivation will wane. When that happens, try one of these tips to “keep going” until motivation kicks back in.
#1. Start Small
You’ve heard it before, but well-corroborated research shows that breaking a big task into smaller actions will help move you towards your goal. Not only will you avoid the fear-of-failure stalemate that can accompany daunting tasks, but you will also harness the power of dopamine (that “feel good” neurotransmitter) by triggering mini dopamine releases as you take each action. Trying to break a fast-food habit? Rather than aiming to cook your next week of meals from scratch, begin by simply looking up some recipes. Then, use that “I did it!” dopamine hit to make your grocery list for one or two meals and plan a trip to the store. You’ll be eating delicious home cooking in no time.
2. Schedule It
Create a time and place for your desired action to occur. For example, if you want to start a restorative habit like meditation, try allocating a small corner of your living room to lay out your mat so that it’s visible. Then, the same way you’d schedule a work call or doctor’s appointment, make a “meditation appointment” in your calendar so you know exactly when you’ll do it. The more consistent you can be, the better the habit will stick.
3. Set a Target That’s Within Reach (but Still Challenging)
When it comes to maintaining motivation, research shows there is a sweet spot. If you set a goal that is too overwhelming, your chances of reaching it are low. Conversely, if you set a goal that is too easy, it’s unlikely to motivate you. For example, if you are beginning a new intermittent fasting habit, don’t jump straight into a week of 16:8 (16 hours in the fasted state, 8 hours for your eating window). Instead, try starting your Fasting Timer an hour earlier than normal for a few nights, and gradually increase the length of your fasts from there. 16:8 is a great long-term goal, but you don’t have to get there overnight!
4. Trick Yourself
Some days, you’re just not going to feel like “doing the thing” — whether that’s going for a run, sitting down to meditate, or even just going to bed on time. When this happens, try playing a little trick on yourself. If you’re resisting going for a run, tell yourself that all you have to do is put on your shoes and walk out the door. If you get out there and still really don’t want to run, you don’t have to! While this sounds like an “easy out,” a lot of the time, once you’re outside, you’ll wind up going for that run; all it takes is that little bit of momentum.
5. Question It
At some point, you’ve probably tried talking yourself into making a healthy lifestyle choice (“I will make it to the gym today”). Positive self-talk is good, but it turns out that reframing your inner dialogue as a question (“Will I go to the gym today?”) may be even more effective. A study by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that using interrogative self-talk increases goal-directed behaviors. When asked about their exercise intentions, participants who were primed to use “Will I?” versus “I will” self-talk were more likely to carry out their planned sweat session.
6. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
When you’re short on sleep, your body resists expending extra energy, even if that energy will earn you long-term rewards. Put another way, sleep loss robs you of the energy needed to choose the long-term healthy option over the short-term reward. In one study, participants who were sleep deprived were more likely to choose fast food over preparing a meal at home, as compared to participants who had gotten a full night’s sleep. So, aim for 7–9 hours of sleep per night.
7. Make It Part of Who You Are
Do you “go to yoga” or are you a yogi? This seemingly simple difference in nomenclature can make a big difference in whether or not you maintain your desired habit. When a habit is part of your identity, as opposed to “something you do,” it becomes easier to overcome obstacles. To start forming your healthy habit identity, find ways to spend time with people whose regular actions mirror the one you want to take. Want to do more yoga? Make friends with people in your yoga class.
Most people think that to take action, you need motivation. You may have even uttered something like “I need to get motivated to start meditating/eating better/moving more.” However, this is one of the fallacies of motivation. To generate momentum towards your goal, you just need to take that first step — even a small one. So put on your workout clothes. Look up some healthy recipes. Download a meditation app. Your mojo will follow.