When I was a dieter I had a mindbogglingly long list of things I “should” do to reach my goals.
- I should go for a run every morning.
- I should do 100 crunches per day.
- I should be a size 2.
- I should not drink calories.
- I should never eat ice cream.
It makes me exhausted just thinking about it.
Amazingly I was able to do many of these things (I’ve written before how I actually have pretty strong willpower). But it was a constant battle and it still never felt like I was doing enough. No matter how hard I tried, I was never happy.
It took me years to understand that it was in fact all these shoulds that were holding me back. That I had externalized my motivation, letting it be dictated by goals outside my true feelings, and by doing so sold myself short.
Motivating yourself is tricky business, and most of us go about it in completely the wrong way. We think we need more discipline, when what we actually need is more self-compassion.
But even self-compassion is less important than tapping into a strong source of internal motivation.
If you’re telling yourself you should do something, but aren’t doing it, the chances are pretty high that you don’t actually want to do it. You might want the results and benefits of whatever it is, but find the action itself to be a chore or punishment.
In other words, you are relying on external motivation.
Internal motivation is the opposite of external motivation and is much more effective for maintaining long-term behaviors, especially those related to health. When you’re motivated by your own needs and desires, you stop thinking “I really should do this today” and start thinking “How am I going to make this happen?”
Your thoughts move from hope to action.
What’s interesting is that shifting your source of motivation has little to do with the task itself, and more to do with how you look at it. That means you can choose to see a “healthy” behavior in a new light by thinking about it in a new way.
But this can also work in the reverse direction. If something you once enjoyed suddenly becomes a requirement or a chore, you won’t be as motivated to do it.
Being physically active, for example, is innately rewarding. Children run, skip and jump for fun. Dogs fetch, chase and wrestle whenever they are allowed. If you know anyone who plays sports or exercises regularly at wee hours in the morning, they are probably motivated by something other than health or weight loss.
On the other hand, when exercise is a prescription for weight loss, a punishment for overeating, or forced upon you for some other external reason, your internal motivation gets replaced with external motivation, and your desire to do it plummets.
This means external motivation isn’t just inferior to internal motivation for achieving your goals, it actually acts as a force of demotivation.
In psychology, this is referred to as the Overjustification Effect, and it is the reason that focusing on your internal motivation at an emotional (not rational) level is necessary to become a healthy person.
The single most profound thing that happened to me when I decided to stop dieting and started focusing on my own well-being was that I rediscovered the innate joy that comes from eating fresh, seasonal real food. Shopping at the farmers market and teaching myself to cook was so rewarding and incredibly different from my past life—forcing myself to eat protein bars and making excuses to not join my friends for dinner parties—that I abandoned my chosen career in academics and launched a website called Summer Tomato. When you think about it, that’s nuts. And that is the power of internal motivation.
Today I never think about what I should do to lose weight or be healthier, except in a very abstract sense. Instead I make sure that I regularly do the things that support my quality of life—my home court habits—and these are some of the best parts of my day. I find it beautiful and ironic that this shift in perspective is what helped me keep 25 lbs off for nearly 10 years.
If you’re still struggling to build the habits of eating better or being active, start by focusing on the things you love. Let go of the external motivations of looking good, pleasing your doctor or being “healthy,” and tune in to your desires to feel energized, eat delicious foods that help you thrive, and giving your body what it needs.
Start on the inside if you want change on the outside.