The science of motivation – how to get back on track

Senior Public Health & Behaviour Change Advisor at Bupa UK
04 April 2017

Taking steps towards a new goal – writing a novel, taking up running, learning to meditate or whatever – fills us with determination, excitement and enthusiasm. We start out well and then something happens – usually within a few months – we feel our motivation fade and we may start to give up.

A young boy dressed as a superhero, on a skateboard

This happens to the best of us and it’s not because you haven’t got the strength of mind. The fact is that our brains need more time than we would like in order to turn a new behaviour into something we do automatically.

If you’re feeling a bit jaded about a goal you’ve been working towards and you’re starting to stall, here’s a tip. Changing your behaviour and starting new habits is a process. Yes, you need to want the change, and willpower is a great place to start. But that alone won’t get you there – the following tips will.

Know your brain – fast and slow thinking

We have two different types of motivation: automatic and reflective, also known as fast and slow thinking. Automatic motivation is our unconscious responses, drives and habits; reflective motivation is our conscious beliefs, intentions and plans.  

This is important to understand because you’re more likely to maintain your new behaviour if it becomes an automatic response. And to make a new behaviour into a habit, consistency is the key. If you can create effective habits, you’ll do things automatically, unconsciously prompted by cues that you have attached to that behaviour. This means you won’t need to rely on conscious attention to the behaviour and motivation. It works like a cognitive cruise control – you don’t have to think about doing it.

Repetition versus willpower – what works?

Repetition creates shortcuts in your brain. These forge new pathways until they become your default response and way of doing things. Furthermore, these shortcuts are directly connected to a reward, which is why you feel so great after you’ve completed the task. So while willpower is great, it’s consistency that will get you where you want to be. You can read more about willpower in our blog, Six ways to grow your willpower.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

To begin with, changes in behaviour are often motivated by extrinsic motivation (external rewards). However, intrinsic motivation (your own desire to maintain the new behaviour) is thought to have a stronger influence on keeping up your new behaviour in the long term. 

If your new behaviour aligns with your values and is relevant to you, this can form a powerful intrinsic motivation for you. It’s essential that your goal, behaviour and habit match what’s important to you. Then, once you’ve identified this, repetition is the key to make the change from the initial extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. This blog about motivation and exercise explains in more detail if you’d like to find out more.

Be compassionate with yourself

Are you kind to yourself? Do you give yourself a break if you mess up? Do you have an encouraging and gentle inner voice? If you do, that’s great because those who are more self-compassionate are more likely to be intrinsically motivated. Self-compassion is extending kindness towards yourself in the face of failure. If you are less self-critical, you’re more likely to bounce back after a slip up.

To find out more about how to pick yourself up after a setback – have a look at how Andy Murray does it in our blog about resilience.

Value the change you’re making

You’re more likely to stick with your new behaviour if it’s reinforced with rewards that make you feel good, rather than relying on the long-term goal. For example, it’s just too hard to keep up your motivation by the desire to avoid negative health consequences. This is especially true for behaviour that requires a lot of effort.

This means soon after you’ve started your new habit or behaviour, you’ll begin to weigh up the results from an emotional point of view. If you focus on the enjoyment and satisfaction you’re getting rather than your long-term outcomes, you’re more likely to keep up your motivation. Think about the benefits of each time you practise the behaviour; don’t just focus on the long-term goal.  

Align to your identity

You can get pleasure from completing your new behaviour if it lines up with your beliefs about yourself. Aristotle said: ‘We are what we repeatedly do’. By seeing yourself as the kind of person who does your new behaviour, it becomes your identity. You’re therefore reluctant to act in ways that go against that.

So, if you start to run and recognise yourself as a runner, this change in self-identity becomes really positive for keeping up your running routine. Equally, if a life event triggers your change in behaviour, you’re more likely to keep it up if it fits within your new self-identity.

In summary

  • Repeat your new behaviour enough times and it will become automatic. Stick with it, it will happen.
  • Be your own cheerleader – if you mess up, dust yourself off and begin again. Be kind to yourself and try not to criticise yourself.
  • You may well be heading for a long-term goal, but focus on the act of the behaviour to keep you motivated. Concentrate on the enjoyment and satisfaction you get every time you go for that run or make a healthy meal.
  • Think of yourself as the type of person who does your new behaviour. So what if you’ve never been a runner before – you are now; think of yourself as one!

Fiona Tuttlebee
Senior Public Health & Behaviour Change Advisor at Bupa UK

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