“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”
― Daniel H. Pink
What drives you to exercise and eat healthily?
Is it to lose weight, to look better or to feel better?
To be a better parent, partner or to excel at your sport?
Whatever the reason is, do you feel it motivates you in your day-to-day struggles with getting to the gym or avoiding tempting foods?
Do you enjoy the process and feel it comes intrinsically or is the whole thing a uphill struggle?
Using the traditional carrot and stick method of promising yourself extrinsic rewards IF you complete a workout can work in the short term but your setting yourself up for failure in the long term.
Author of “Drive” Daniel Pink has found autonomy, mastery and purpose to be the three most important factors involved in sustained motivation.
One of the studies outlined in the book was on preschool kids. After observing kids in a day care centre the researchers found the most artistic kids. They split these kids into three groups.
They told the first group that they would receive a reward after finishing their drawing. They praised the second group after finishing and did nothing to the third group.
Three weeks later they observed the kids again.
They found no change in the behaviour of the kids in the second and third groups. But, the kids in group one showed a decrease in motivation. They only worked when they had to. The activity which they were doing out of love and exploration turned into an extrinsic transaction.
We see this all the time in our on lives. This blog is a perfect example. I don’t make any money from it and I don’t think I would like it as much if somebody else was calling the shots.
I like that I can decide what I want to write about. The writing (along with the tech stuff) is something that I need to keep practicing to achieve mastery.
I feel purpose in what I am doing and have received some nice emails of thanks from readers who made a positive change after reading an article.
Lets look at how we can apply these principles to exercise and nutrition.
A lot of traditional approaches to weight-loss give you a black and white program that doesn’t take real life into account. This is why getting an individualized program can be so powerful. One that you and your trainer decide on based on your physical and lifestyle limitations. Using autonomy you can pick habits you feel are most important for you at that moment.
Ask yourself what you like to do. If the gym is a place you dread find an alternative source of physical exercise. It should be something that you look forward to doing.
This can be dance, Yoga, Zumba, walking, kettlebells, climbing or hiking. It really doesn’t matter, the important is it is something you yourself choose.
Next, choose what is possible to do based on your current situation. Knowing that you have the power to make the decisions will help keep you intrinsically motivated.
This leads onto the second leg; mastery. Instead of focusing on weight loss as your main goal and motivator focus on mastery of a skill or activity. If you like the gym, a strength goal like a double bodyweight deadlift for guys or a bodyweight squat for girls works well.
If it is an alternative activity, focus on mastering parts of it. If bouldering is your choice focus on getting to a certain level of route difficulty. If it’s yoga focus on being able to do a certain asana.
For food related mastery improving your cooking skills is an excellent idea. Tim Ferriss’ book ‘The 4 Hour Chef‘ is a great resource full of hacks to improve your cooking skills.
Having something to master will lead to much more intrinsic motivation and a lower chance of giving up because you didn’t reach a weight loss goal.
Why are you going through painful workouts and avoiding foods you enjoy? Understanding the why behind your actions will allow you to find this purpose (I spoke about the importance of “the 5 whys” in this article). Maybe it’s knowing that the workouts make your body stronger and more injury resistant.
While you do miss a lot of your comfort foods, you feel much more alive and energetic without them. The comfort foods might give you pleasure while eating them but you always feel terrible afterwards. You know the longterm benefits far outweighs the immediate reward.
You may also want to be a more reliable friend or partner or parent. One that people look to for help, not someone who burdens others with your ill health.
Since moving to Thailand I have met quite a few digital nomads. Along with working online the other trait they all shared is a love for what they do. I always ask them same question; “Do you find it hard to motivate yourself everyday?”. The answer is always a resounding “no”. For them motivation isn’t an issue for the reasons outlined above.
Goals set by yourself that give you a sense of purpose and are aimed at achieving mastery is the only path to longterm success.