Motivation is fantastic… when it shows up. It can feel like a tailwind at your back, pushing you almost effortlessly towards your goal. Unfortunately, motivation is also a fickle beast, and if you wait for it in order to get going, you might be waiting forever. But what is motivation, exactly? Is there a way to harness its power to accomplish our goals? And, perhaps most importantly, how do we keep moving forward, even when our motivation goes MIA?
What Is Motivation?
Motivation can be defined as the general willingness to do something. It’s a psychological state in which you desire a change in either yourself or your environment and are willing to take action to make it happen. For example, when your desire to get fitter becomes strong enough, you may start hearing your oft-ignored treadmill calling your name, nudging you to lace up your shoes. Or, when that staggeringly tall pile of laundry you’ve been side-eyeing all week finally grows large enough, it may prompt a cleaning frenzy. Author Steven Pressfiend defines motivation as “what happens when the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it.” Be it a lack of fitness, unfinished laundry, or something else entirely, you’ve likely hit this “pain threshold” at some point in your life.
However, all motivation is not created equal. Researchers broadly categorize motivation as either intrinsic — something that is inherently satisfying — or extrinsic — something that is satisfying due to external rewards. You may be intrinsically motivated to hit the gym because you love how energized you feel after a great workout, or you may be extrinsically motivated by the promise you made to your workout partner to show up every Monday and Wednesday. While both types of motivation can lead to action, intrinsic motivation is more effective and durable when it comes to making a sustained lifestyle change. For example, studies have shown that individuals who are more intrinsically motivated to lose weight are more successful at maintaining their weight loss over the long term as well as sticking to other health-oriented behaviors such as food logging and exercise.
Why Motivation Is Not the Key to Long-Term Success
Contrary to popular belief, motivation is not the only driver of voluntary actions. Societal norms, consequences, biological drive, and habits also influence human behavior. In fact, it’s unwise to rely on motivation alone to achieve any lasting behavior change. The reason is because motivation is unreliable. It’s like that life-of-the-party friend who also append to be very flaky: lots of fun, but often completely lacking just when you need it the most.
Motivation’s unreliability has to do with dopamine. Sometimes referred to as the “happiness hormone,” dopamine is a neurotransmitter that your brain releases to prompt you to take action that will result in reward. However, if rewards are delayed, inconsistent, or not as large as expected, your body releases less dopamine or even none at all. Unfortunately, the rewards of many health behaviors are, by nature, delayed, inconsistent, and smaller than expected. The result? Low levels of dopamine and that “meh, I think I’ll skip for today” feeling you’ve probably felt at some point (say, when debating between the instant gratification of “one more TV episode” or the long-term gratification of getting a full 8 hours of sleep).
Research shows that relying solely on motivation to take action in the face of temptation will result in inconsistent behavior at best and failure to begin at worst. When motivation flags — from lack of sleep, hunger, or any number of other stressors — you’re less likely to make the healthier choice.
But don’t fret! Motivation isn’t your only option when it comes to making healthy choices. Turning healthy actions into habits is the best way to short-circuit the decision-making process, thereby reducing the need for motivation. This is especially true when you stack habits, i.e., join them so one closely follows another. A morning ritual that includes drinking coffee, followed by dressing in the workout clothes you laid out the night before, followed by driving to the gym and completing the same warm-up is an example of a series of stacked habits. If you always put on your gym clothes after you drink