Everything You Know About Motivation is Wrong & Here’s Why

Time.

It’s one of the most common obstacles for people when they’re struggling to get into a fitness routine and start taking care of their health. Now that most people are at home, many with an overabundance of time, it’s obvious that time isn’t the real issue. From the countless conversations I’ve had with people during quarantine, it seems that motivation is the largest issue when it comes to starting or maintaining a fitness and nutrition regiment.

Learning to motivate ourselves and others has long been a point of focus as we’ve tried to grow as both individuals and societies. Questions like, “how can I motivate myself to start working out?” or “how can I motivate my coworkers/employees to complete a task?” are commonplace and have shown up throughout history in various ways. Because of this, a large focus of scientific study has turned to motivation and how to use it to harness human potential both on the individual and group scale.

Why then, with it being woven into societies throughout history and given ample attention in scientific communities, is motivation so difficult for people to come by?

In large part, it’s because the majority of us don’t truly understand what motivation is, how to properly use it to achieve our goals, and are stuck using outdated, self-sabotaging methods. Luckily, you’re in the right place. I’m here to show you exactly how you can avoid the common motivation pitfalls and harness the power of motivation so you can start making progress, continuously check off your to do list and never feel run down again.

What is motivation?

Motivation is the general desire or willingness to do something. It’s the drive for taking action, performing a duty or completing a task. Many believe action is the product of motivation, that without motivation your vehicle for action won’t budge.

This is the first and most fatal mistake when it comes to motivation: believing that motivation precedes action, when in reality there is no true motivation without action.

If you wait for motivation to take action, you’ll be waiting for a while and many opportunities will pass you by as you wait. It’s like waiting for a bus in a foreign, third world country; you don’t know if the bus will actually show up, and when it does it may take you to a completely different destination (this actually happened to me while traveling solo in Costa Rica). Stop believing that you need to be motivated to get started and you’ll avoid the largest pitfall when it comes to motivation.

How do you build motivation?

Motivation is a product of momentum built from action, and the belief in the possibility of a better future because of your actions. In other words, you must take action to build motivation and build belief in that action as having the power to change your situation. Otherwise you will eventually burn out on the feelings of pointless action.

Someone looking to lose weight needs to believe in their ability to lose weight and the actions they’re taking toward it, otherwise when they hit a plateau, or if the weight doesn’t come off quickly and early, they’ll give up because they don’t have the deep belief in what they’re doing and why.

The 3 Levels of Human Motivation

To dive deeper into understanding and using motivation, it’s important to discuss the 3 levels of motivation that drive all of human behavior. Gaining a deeper understanding of the different motivation levels will allow you to harness the ability to self-motivate and become the absolute best version of yourself.

First Level Motivation: Primal Motivators

The first level of motivation is the most basic of the 3. It’s built around our most basic biological needs like food, water, shelter, sleep, reproduction, etc. These are primal motivators that are the foundation for much of what we do. For many of us these needs are largely taken care of and almost an afterthought, so motivation from this first level is low. Ensure that your basic needs are met and you won’t need to worry about level 1 motivation.

Second Level Motivation: Carrot & Stick Rewards/Punishment

The second level of motivation is the carrot and stick, reward and punishment style of motivation. It’s what the majority of the 20th century was built upon and the way that many businesses, parents, teachers, and society members focus on as a way of motivating themselves and others. Punish the bad behavior, reward the good behavior, and over time you’ll prune your behavior garden so that only the good behaviors grow, and all unnecessary behaviors are weeded out. This is great in theory, and for certain situations it works wonderfully, but in many instances this sort of motivation is severely lacking and can even negatively affect motivation, especially over the long haul.

The Problem with Reward-Based Motivation

External, reward-based motivators, like overtime pay and are carrot and stick style motivation. They dumb people down to basic beings who wouldn’t accomplish much without the threat of punishment or the allure of reward. They can be extremely useful in certain situations and for specific types of motivation needed, but they can also destroy the intrinsic motivation and derail your progress long term if used inappropriately.

External rewards are great when used for a task or habit that you haven’t started and/or aren’t interested in or excited about starting. By rewarding yourself at the beginning, you can make the process of starting easier, hopefully build interest and help solidify the habits that you may not enjoy. This will work effectively in the initial stages, but over time you’ll need to move those rewards internally as rewards lose their power and effect over time and exposure.

External rewards have a negative, motivation draining effect in situations where you enjoy the tasks. This is because of something called the overjustification effect where instead of focusing on the task itself, we focus on the reward and almost detach from the task. If you’ve ever enjoyed something and then moved into a position where it became your job and you were paid for it, over time the joy you found in that activity likely faded until you lost all joy entirely. This is the overjustification effect in action and can destroy the internal joy and motivation that is necessary for long term success.

External rewards also have a negative effect if used too frequently or for too long. Rewards are most effective when they’re sporadic and randomized, as this works on a process called reward prediction error. We receive a bigger bolster of motivation and feedback from unexpected or unpredictable rewards rather than those that we know are coming. Receiving an unexpected cash bonus at work has a more powerful effect on your motivation than the annual bonus you receive at Christmas. One is unexpected and reinforces the hard work you’ve done, while the other is expected and taken for granted.

Use external rewards to build initial interest in a task to help you get started and sporadically during the beginning phases of building a habit or changing behaviors. Over time move those motivators internally and focus on intrinsic factors, like the grand purpose of your goals, the impact your actions have and the control you have over them, and working towards daily mastery, to ensure that motivation doesn’t wane and progress continues.

Level 3 Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose

The third level of motivation moves away from the externally motivating factors like rewards and punishments and turns motivation inward. It focuses entirely on intrinsic motivation, the internal drives for why you do something, and uses that to create lasting, overflowing motivation. It focuses on 3 primary areas that define and drive motivation: purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Understanding what these 3 areas encompass and learning how to use that information on yourself and the world around you will give you the ability to manifest motivation nearly at will.

Autonomy

Autonomy means self-government. It’s the idea that we are driven by a need to feel in control of ourselves and the choices that we make. It plays a major role in motivating individuals, but beyond just feeling like we’re in control of our lives and the choices therein, we must feel like the choices we make and actions we take have the power to make change. It’s this belief, this feeling of hope for a better future based off our actions that provides us with the motivation necessary to make change.

To use autonomy for yourself, it’s important that you decide what goals to pursue and how to pursue them. This doesn’t mean that you need to go at it alone, but rather that you should be the one guiding your journey. Realizing the control you have over your situation, coupled with the belief that you can make a change, is one of the most empowering and motivating feelings you will experience.

As a health and fitness coach I approach goal setting, as well as individualized fitness and nutrition components from this same perspective. I act as a guide to help people in achieving their goals, but ultimately the goals that they choose to pursue and the ways in which they pursue them come down to their own needs, wants and drives. I could outline exactly how to reach a goal for every client, but in doing so would remove a large degree of control they have in the process. The lack of control and personal input in the process would drain motivation and derail progress swiftly. Instead, I focus on ensuring that the client retains control, autonomy, over their health and fitness journey so that they stay engaged and motivated.

Mastery

Humans have a desire to work towards mastery of themselves, and their lives. This eagerness to work towards mastery provides us with a challenge and the feeling of “play” which can take mundane tasks from boring and uninteresting, to intriguing and enjoyable. Pursuit of mastery provides a video game-like experience that allows you to continuously face and overcome challenges, providing reoccurring motivation.

The key to using the component of mastery properly is to set up adequately matched challenges. Using the Goldilocks Paradox and finding a challenge or goal that’s not too hard (which feels overwhelming and pointless), or too easy (which gets boring and repetitive) builds engagement and energizes you toward your task. Figure out what you want to achieve over the long haul, take note of what you’re currently capable of, and then set goals that are just a step or two above where you currently are. This will allow you to feel empowered to succeed in achieving your goals without becoming overwhelmed or bored.

I know it’s not glamorous to take mini steps and make small progress towards your goals. It doesn’t garner the attention or excitement that a major life overhaul and grand goals might, but it leads to far more success. Anyone who seems to have achieved “overnight success” is actually the product of consistent, small achievements that culminated in a massive amount of success over time. Start with your overarching goal(s) as guidance, but then focus on breaking them down into manageable, bite-sized pieces that are appropriately challenging.

Purpose

Purpose is your “why”. It’s the reason that you ultimately do something. It’s at the deepest level, the “something bigger than you” level, where it connects us to the process in a way that goals themselves cannot do alone, especially ill-formed or misguided goals. When you start to figure out the goals you’d like to achieve, you need to dig deeper and figure out why you have a desire to achieve them.

Why do you want to achieve this goal? Why does it matter to you? What need does this goal satisfy for you and why is that important? How does this connect to a larger purpose than the goal itself?

In answering these questions you’ll gain a clearer picture about who you are and what drives you, and figure out if the goal you’ve set out is something that truly matters, or if it’s just another goal that you’ll pursue for a short period and eventually give up on. Figure out the purpose of your goal, build belief in the reason why you want to achieve that goal, and fuel your motivational fire from within.

If you want to lose weight, why? What purpose does it serve?

Maybe you want to feel more confident about yourself, improve your health, or be able to challenge yourself physically by running races. It’s important to dig deeper than simply wanting to lose weight, because at some point that alone won’t be enough to keep pushing you forward when the journey becomes difficult and your dedication wanes. Figure out why you want to achieve your goals, and focus on that purpose, especially when the process becomes difficult or progress becomes stagnant.

Motivation is Internally Driven

To truly motivate yourself, not just to get started but also to continue in pursuit of a goal, you need to move your focus away from external motivators, like rewards and punishments which can negatively affect motivation, and turn it towards internal motivators. You can use external motivators to begin a task and build interest, but eventually the power from those rewards and punishments will fade, so finding internal motivation, or a drive and reason within yourself for what you do, is the ultimate goal. Harness the power of internal motivation by finding purpose, retaining autonomy over the process, and creating challenge through mastery. In doing so you will find that you never have to wait for motivation to strike again and your ability to achieve goals will never be an issue.

Many of these ideas are based off the work of E.L. Deci and R.M. Ryan, the pioneers of Self-Determination Theory, and the book Drive by Daniel H. Pink. For more information, check out selfdeterminationtheory.org, or read Daniel Pink’s book. And if you need help implementing this new style of motivation into your life, so that you can live a happy and successful life, send me an email at achievefitllc@gmail.com to learn more about the coaching process I’ve used to help people turns dreams into reality and make life-altering changes.

Published by Adam Son

I'm a 28 year old fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle intervention coach. I give people the confidence and courage to change their lives and empower them to achieve anything they desire.

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