To achieve anything in life, we need a degree of motivation to get it done. Even seemingly small, simple tasks, such as housework or addressing a pile of paperwork, can be pushed to the side for lack of motivation. For goals that require long-term commitment, repetition or radical lifestyle changes, a huge amount of motivation is needed.
When it comes to the most common goals people set, whether it’s weight loss, stopping smoking or training for a marathon, why is it many people fail to achieve them? I’m going to dig down into the world of motivation to help you understand how it works and what you can do to achieve your goals.
Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
To understand how to stay motivated, you need to understand the intricacies of motivation as a whole. By definition, motivation is the desire or willingness to do something. Sounds simple, but there’s a lot more to it. The first thing you need to know is that there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
As the name suggests, intrinsic motivation comes from within. When you’re intrinsically motivated to do something, you’re happy to take part voluntarily, in your free time, without any influence from your external surroundings. Finding something fun, enjoyable or satisfying are all examples of intrinsic factors that can help to keep you motivated, like eating something tasty or spending time with friends.
When you’re extrinsically motivated, you’re driven to do things by external pressures or the incentive of external rewards. For example, this could be something like studying to get good marks in an exam or exercising to lose weight for an occasion like getting married.
Generally speaking, most goals we set are driven by extrinsic motivation, because we don’t usually have to prompt ourselves to do the things we already find fun. Unfortunately, however, you’re more likely to stick at something if you find it intrinsically motivating.
The good news is, for most behaviours, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators play a role. For example, when it comes to physical activity, extrinsic motivation can inspire you to get going — such as to lose weight or reduce blood pressure. But intrinsic motivation helps you to stick with it, particularly if you find a type of exercise you enjoy. Working to improve your technique is also likely to help you sustain your motivation, rather than just focusing on the outcome you’re hoping for.
Automatic and reflective (or fast and slow thinking)
The problem with motivation is that it’s fleeting. One day you might feel really excited about your new exercise regime and head to the gym in high spirits. The next day, you might not even want to get off the sofa. It’s unrealistic to expect to feel motivated all the time, but if you build a new behaviour into your routine, it will be easier to keep going even if you don’t feel like it.
This is where habits come in — and it might be helpful at this point to understand a bit more about how your brain works. There are two systems in your brain: automatic and reflective, also known as fast and slow thinking. The automatic part controls your unconscious responses, drives and habits, while the reflective part is responsible for your conscious beliefs, intentions and plans.
When you start a new behaviour for the first time, you’re relying entirely on your reflective system, which is much more work for your brain. However, once you repeat it enough, your new behaviour can become more automatic.
This means you won’t need to rely so much on remembering to do it and keeping your motivation levels high. It works like a cognitive cruise control — you don’t have to think about it as much.
How to stay motivated
There are some golden rules to help turn a new behaviour into a habit. Think of it as training your brain — or even tricking your brain — to help keep motivation levels up and increase the likelihood of reaching your goals. Here are my seven top tips to help you get going and, most importantly, keep going.
1. Keep it simple
It can be tempting to make a whole host of changes all at once. But that puts a lot of pressure on the reflective part of your brain. This means you’re more likely to give into temptation and slip back into your automatic habits. Instead, try to make just one change at a time, and make that as small as possible. So small, in fact, that it hardly requires motivation at all.
Want to write a book? Set yourself an initial goal of just a paragraph or two a day.
Want to cut out meat from your diet? Start by having just one vegetarian dinner a week.
Haven’t exercised in a while? Gradually build up how often and for how long you exercise for — you could even start with just one press-up.
Approaching things in this way makes it much easier to adjust to the change, and as that becomes second nature, you can build upon it. Plus, the simpler a behaviour is, the more likely it will become automatic.
2. Make a plan
It’s important to have a clear idea of how you’re going to achieve your goal. Think about the individual steps that will be required and decide what you’ll do — when, where and with whom. Making specific, concrete plans means you're much more likely to stick to them.
Life is likely to get in the way of even the best laid plans, but you can prepare for that too. ‘If-then’ planning is a technique for anticipating potential barriers and making contingency plans. Pick specific cues, times or places in your environment (the ‘if’) and work out how you will fit your new behaviour in (the ‘then’). For example, ‘If I’m at a restaurant on a weeknight, then I will order a hot drink instead of a dessert,’ or, ‘If I’m going on a long journey, then I will make a healthy snack pot, and not buy convenience food at the petrol station.’
3. Repeat, repeat, repeat
The only way to make a behaviour automatic is to repeat it — a lot. The best way to do this is to link your new behaviour with an existing habit. For example, one study found that people who flossed consistently after brushing their teeth were much more likely to report that flossing felt habitual than those who flossed at any time.
The first time you do something, you’re creating new connections in your brain, which — to your brain — is an effort. But if you repeat it enough, your brain will start automatically taking you down this pathway. For example, have you ever found yourself driving a familiar route, when you meant to go a different way? This is that system in action and repetition can help make your new behaviour that familiar route.
People who enjoy exercise do it a lot — they’ve built physical activity into their lives and it’s become a habit. Once habits are ingrained, they’re easier to continue. This is because your brain gets used to the activity and it becomes automatic.
4. Redesign your environment
You may be thinking that following these tips will require a lot of willpower. But research has shown that people who have the most self-control choose their environment, so they don’t rely on willpower alone. In other words, they deliberately avoid temptation to make it easier to make the right choice. Think about changes you can make to your environment to prompt your new behaviour. For example, why not try:
putting a glass of water next to your bed every night to help you drink more water
finding new activities to do with your friends, rather than ending up at the pub or eating rich food
pre-packing your gym bag or even sleep in your kit to make it easier to exercise first thing in the morning
5. Try ‘temptation bundling’
As we’ve seen, there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. A lot of goals we set are extrinsically motivated, with the hope of achieving a certain outcome through activities we don’t necessarily enjoy. If you were intrinsically motivated to do it, you’d be much more likely to stick with it.
One thing you can try, to make that new behaviour more appealing, is temptation bundling. This is when you combine things you love doing with the things you know you ought to. Here are some examples.
Only listen to your favourite podcast at the gym or when out walking.
Treat yourself to your favourite coffee when you sit down to do work that you’ve been avoiding.
Only watch your favourite TV show while completing household chores.
Schedule meeting a friend after an exercise class, or even better, organise to do it together.
Not sure where to start? Try this…
Take a piece of paper and make two columns, one titled ‘Want’ and one titled ‘Should’.
In the ‘Want’ column, write down the things you enjoy doing, including foods and drinks you like, and places you like to go.
In the ‘Should’ column, write down the tasks you often avoid or don’t enjoy doing.
Look over your two columns and try to link a ‘Want’ behaviour with a ‘Should’ task.
6. Be kind to yourself
It can be tempting to beat ourselves up when we steer off-track or things don’t go to plan, but it’s important to give yourself a break. Research shows that people who are self-compassionate are more likely to keep going and achieve their goals in the long term.
Self-compassion is extending kindness towards yourself in the face of failure, making sure your inner voice is gentle and encouraging. If you’re less self-critical, you’re more likely to pick yourself up and carry on after a slip up.
Setbacks can leave you feeling disappointed, low and deflated, but dwelling on them won’t do you any favours. This blog on bouncing back from a setback explains how to get back on track after something goes wrong.
7. Embrace your new identity
One thing that can hold us back from lasting behaviour change is how we identify ourselves. It can be difficult to see yourself as a committed gym-goer when you’ve always insisted exercise wasn’t ‘your thing’. However, it’s important to embrace a change in your identity if you want your new behaviour to stick.
Studies have shown that those attempting to quit smoking are more likely to be successful when they start to see themselves as an ex- or non-smoker. You will feel more pleasure from your new behaviour if it lines up with what you believe about yourself.
As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.” By seeing yourself as the kind of person who does your new behaviour, it becomes part of your identity. That makes you more reluctant to give it up.
As an example, if you take up running, recognise yourself as a runner — not someone trying to start running. This change in self-identity becomes key to keeping up your running routine.
Putting it into practice: motivation to exercise
Exercise is probably the thing most people struggle to start and stick at. But also, being more active and losing weight are popular long-term goals. Tricky one!
Everything we’ve discussed so far will help you get going and stay motivated if exercising more is your main goal. But there are also some specific things you can focus on when it comes to getting active.
Pick the right activity
Let’s say you have a few friends who regularly go running and are always saying things like: “Wow, my morning run was so great this morning,” and “I feel so great after my runs. You should join me.” So, you choose to start running in a bid to get fit and healthy, and shed a few pounds. But the truth is, you hate running and every jog feels like a never-ending slog to complete.
As you now know, it’s important that you find something intrinsically motivating about your new behaviour. Let yourself off the hook, because if running (or any other type of activity) isn’t for you, that’s okay. Pick something that suits you and that you enjoy — even look forward to. You’re far more likely to carry it on and create a behaviour change.
Some people are a fan of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) because it’s intense but doesn’t take long. Or you might prefer a long bike ride at the weekend. Maybe a dance class is more up your street, or a brisk walk in your favourite park a couple of times a week.
As already mentioned, you’re more likely to stick with your new behaviour if you put a specific plan together. You can start by working out the best time of day for you to exercise.
Morning. Lots of people like to work out first thing in the morning — it gets it out of the way and you start the day on a positive note. Your willpower is also likely to be at its strongest first thing in the morning. Willpower and energy often fade after a day filled with work challenges, childcare or household chores.
Lunchtime. If you’re not a morning person, then you might want to make the most of your lunch break. A 30-minute walk or gym class at lunch is a great way to slot activity into your day, without taking up too much leisure time.
Evening. Exercising after work or in the evening might be the best time for you — an evening swim, for example, can be a relaxing way to unwind as well as burn some calories. But be careful not to exercise too late or you might have trouble sleeping.
Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something you can keep up consistently — the more you repeat it, the more automatic it will become. Trust me!
Use your mind to get into the zone
We’ve seen how the way you treat yourself — with self-compassion or otherwise — can impact on your motivation. Another thing you can try is mindfulness: simply paying attention to the present moment without judgement.
Studies suggest that mindfulness has a positive impact on everything from physical health to emotional wellbeing, and can help you get the most out of exercise. This technique has also been shown to improve willpower, so it might make it easier to get those trainers on in the first place.
Check out this video from Dr Meera Joshi, talking about how mindfulness can help improve sport performance.
Video: motivation and exercise
Ryan King, Senior Strength & Conditioning Coach at English Institute of Sport, explains how you can keep momentum in your exercise routine.
In summary, we all need motivation to get the important things done in life. Unfortunately, over time, motivation can wane, making everyday tasks feel much harder. Often, all you need to get back on track is a realistic look at your goals and how you’re going about them.
Taking some time off to re-evaluate is never a bad thing. The motivation to achieve what you want is there; it’s learning how to harness it and approach your goals correctly that’s key.
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