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Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivators

Staying Motivated When the Going Gets Tough

One of the main predictors of success when it comes to achieving our health and fitness goals is the ability to create, sustain and renew motivation. So, basically the ability to stay inspired. Often we have our ‘eye on the prize’ around what it is we want to achieve, but this goal may feel very far away from where we are now, which can be overwhelming or create a sense of urgency and/or impatience around the process for getting from point A to point B. The key to staying motivated, and for staying on track with healthier behaviors is to acknowledge what it is that you want to achieve, but more importantly, to understand and focus on WHY you want to create a change now.


Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivators

Often people can easily identify their extrinsic motivators for wanting to create change. For example, many guests who come to H3 have a goal of losing weight while visiting, and then continuing that trend when they return home by implementing what they’ve learned. While learning the ‘how to’ is an important first step – what sustains motivation is identifying and reminding themselves of the intrinsic motivator(s) for wanting to shift behavior. Meaning, what is motivating you from the inside-out?


Extrinsic motivators are typically future-oriented and are outside of ourselves. So, going back to the weight loss example it may sound like: “I want to exercise so that I will lose weight”. While this extrinsic motivator may motivate someone to learn a new exercise program to achieve that goal, research shows it’s not enough to help people to sustain the motivation to stick to the plan. This is where intrinsic motivation comes in. Intrinsic motivators apply a sense of meaning to why the goal is important to achieve in the first place. Intrinsic motivation sounds like: “I want to exercise because it makes me feel strong, more alive and less depressed.” 


It’s okay to have extrinsic motivators, and it’s even helpful, but it’s just as important to ensure that there is at least one intrinsic motivator that is top of mind to help remind you of WHY it’s important to you to hang in there if reaching your goal is taking longer than you hoped.


Measuring Success

Another key strategy for staying motivated is to evaluate how you are measuring success, which is related to our intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Let’s use the weight loss example again. If someone is measuring their success only by what the scale says, and not by the other indicators that prove they are moving the needle in the direction toward better health and well-being (feeling strong, less depressed) this tends to be de-motivating for someone who is used to losing weight fast (think: fad diets) or has a sense of urgency around wanting to lose weight yesterday. Healthy weight loss takes a little more time than unhealthy weight loss, but the good news is that it’s sustainable and there are typically many other rewards along the way, we just need to learn to focus on them as much or more than the extrinsic motivators. For example, one may experience an increase in mobility, enhanced mood, less aches and pains, better digestion, a feeling of empowerment, etc. Evaluating how you are measuring success along the way and acknowledging the subtle (or not so subtle) ways in which your change in behaviors is impacting your body and mind are crucial for staying motivated and on track toward better health and wellbeing.