Motivation is complicated. One moment I can hardly wait to get home to try out a new pair of yoga pants with a free online workout video. And in the next moment, I’m over it.
The honeymoon phase of a new exercise routine can be short lived. It’s like all of a sudden we’re saying, “I just don’t have the time.”
What’s the deal? How can motivation waiver in such a dramatic fashion? And how do we get it to stick?
While I don’t have all the answers, and I’m far from perfect myself, I have figured out a thing or two from looking at the science of motivation that I think might help us all out this year.
Not to get all science-nerdy on you, but researchers have actually found there are two distinct types of motivation – autonomous and controlled.* I promise, I’ll keep it short and sweet.
Controlled motivation comes into play when we’re making health changes based primarily on extrinsic motivators. Here are a few examples:
Do some “abs of steel” exercises to change the shape of your mid-section
Exercise to burn off a certain number of calories of a donut, or to battle feelings of guilt
Cut out dessert to lose weight
Add fruits and vegetables to lower blood pressure
With autonomous motivation, the “reasons why” are more intrinsic. Here are a few examples:
Walking with a friend to feel less sluggish
Hitting the gym to decrease stress
Cutting back on sugar-sweetened beverages to avoid sugar crashes (energy lows)
Adding nuts as a snack to improve energy levels mid-afternoon
Making a dietary change to reduce GI distress
Here’s the reason I’ve bored you with this motivation mumbo-jumbo: Researchers have found that autonomous motivation is associated with sustained behavior change. What I’m saying is this: You’re more likely to stick with a new behavior if you’re doing that behavior because of the way it makes you feel during or after.
This new understanding of motivation can be a game-changer.
In the past, you’ve likely made a change such as cutting back on sweets, exercising, or cooking more at home because you’re trying to lose weight, or because of some health concern. Here’s the thing – that source of motivation (controlled motivation) won’t sustain you. It might get you started on a new health pattern, but motivation usually fizzles if there isn’t a heaping dose of autonomous motivation in the mix.
How do you shift your focus to the autonomous stuff?
I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Here’s the key – FIND YOUR FUN.
That’s right! The secret to starting a behavior change in the new year, and actually sticking with it, is to make sure you select changes that make you feel good.
You will make time for that which brings you joy.
Let’s say you make a change like adding more veggies at dinner. First of all, they’re going to need to taste good for this change to stick, so season them well. Second, you’ll need to find some super easy ways to cook them (think broccoli steamed in the microwave). And third, the new change will stick if eating those vegetables makes you feel good. And when I say feel good, I don’t mean that by eating the vegetable you feel less guilty. I’m talking about how your body feels.
If you start adding more veggies and you notice you have more energy and less strain on the toilet (sorry, I had to go there), then you’ll probably stick with the change. Now don’t do anything extreme like replace French fries with broccoli – you can have both. Extreme changes usually don’t work out so well, especially when deprivation is involved.
Here’s another one. Exercise. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard people say, “I should run.” Well, first of all, if you put the word “should” in a sentence, then you’re doomed to fail because controlled motivation is kicking in. And second – do you LIKE running? Some people love it, and that’s great. And others of us (me!) are fish-like and meant more for water and less for slapping pavement. Try to find an activity that is truly FUN to do. You’ve probably noticed that what you find fun one day, may not seem fun on another day, so mix it up.
What really keeps you going though is when you notice the emotional benefits of moving your body. If the activity is fun, AND you notice that you feel less anxious afterwards, less depressed, and generally in a more positive mood…guess what? You’re going to consistently make time for regular movement in your life.
Notice how you feel as you attempt new health-supporting patterns. Conduct little experiments on yourself and ask yourself these questions after attempting a change for the first time:
1) Was it enjoyable?
2) Did I feel good during the new behavior?
3) Did I feel good after the new behavior?
If you answer yes to all three questions, you are on your way. Health-enhancing patterns don’t have to be miserable or restrictive. In fact, if there’s a hint of misery or restriction, the behavior could be having a negative effect on your emotional well-being, which means it’s back to the drawing board to try out something new.
*If you nerd-out on social sciences, then you might enjoy cruising around the Self Determination Theory website, where you’ll find more about these two types of motivation.
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Dawn is an Associate Professor of Nutrition and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is a wife and a mother to an amazing 11-year old boy. Dawn enjoys finding creative ways to spread the word that God’s unconditional love can bring healing to every broken relationship, including one with food.