By Jack Franks
New Year now felt a long time ago, and with that comes the ever-fading memory of the several resolutions you set for yourself.
Whether those resolutions were to run a certain number of miles a week, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol, or live a healthier lifestyle, they can be hard to maintain.
A 2020 New Plate/Ipsos survey found 55% of respondents kept their New Year’s resolution for less than a year, with 11% lasting less than a month.
The fact there are unofficial dates commemorating resolution abandonments – some sources cite “Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day” as January 17th, while others denote the second Friday in January as “Quitter’s Day” – says it all.
It’s clear why so many of us struggle to stick to the plan with the outlook drenched in negativity from the early stages.
With spring and summer imminently around the corner, politely ushering aside the cold snap of the dreary Winter days, now is the time to maintain your motivation and either keep up your goals or give them a reboot.
The most common reason we fail to stick to resolutions – the most significant proportion of those focusing on more regular exercise – is a lack of motivation.
35% of people attribute motivation as the top reason for giving up.
But why do we lose motivation, and how can we re-ignite the spark?
The psychology behind intrinsic motivation reveals the answer and how to seize your mojo back.
What is intrinsic motivation?
Intrinsic motivation is defined as doing an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards.
Have you ever picked up a book and felt compelled to read every inch because you are invested in the story and characters, not because you’re required to write an essay on it?
That’s intrinsic motivation.
It’s the idea of running 13 miles because you enjoy the ride. The feel of your trainers slapping the pavement, wind brushing your sweat-drenched skin and lactic acid building in your straining calves. No gold medal at the end, just the reward of running for enjoyment.
The most recognized theory of intrinsic motivation was first based on people’s needs and drives. Hunger, thirst, and sex are biological needs we’re driven to pursue to live and be healthy. Still, there are also psychological desires, such as competence and relatedness, that must be satisfied.
Ultimately, intrinsic motivation also heavily rests on seeking out and engaging in exciting and internally rewarding activities without the need or prospect of a potential external reward.
Intrinsic vs. extrinsic: what’s the difference?
Studies consistently show that intrinsic motivation leads to increased persistence, greater psychological well-being, and enhanced performance.
According to research conducted by Dr. Karyn Purvis:
“It takes about 400 repetitions to form new synapses in the brain that create new habit patterns. But if done playfully, it takes only 10-20 repetitions to form these improved circuits.”
This would suggest the key driver of the motivation wagon is the concept of partaking in an activity that brings joy.
It’s important to stress that the joy created from intrinsic motivation comes from within, unlike the more outside-influenced and reward-focused extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation offers someone a pot at the end of the rainbow, whether that’s financial gain, avoiding losing your job, receiving praise or winning a trophy.
Both intrinsic and extrinsic have strengths and weaknesses; however, some are more effective for some people than others.
For some, the benefits of external rewards are enough to motivate high-quality continuous work, while value-based benefits suit others.
Matt Johnson, Ph.D. says:
“If you’re not a fan of your job, you’re still a fan of getting paid, so the salary serves as extrinsic motivation. You’re trying to improve your speed and endurance if you’re training for a marathon. You could also be driven to maintain a personal streak of consecutive days running or trying to compete with your friends for the ‘most miles’ on a running app. Turns out, beyond an activity, motivation can also be a product.”
Research heavily suggests that there is some short-term value from extrinsic rewards for hitting goals, but they ultimately dissipate long-term.
Is intrinsic motivation better than extrinsic?
A now-famous landmark study conducted by Richard Ryan, Ph.D. and Edward Deci, Ph.D. – the pair responsible for developing the Self-Determination Theory of motivation – proved that outside influences could undermine intrinsic motivation.
Deci looked at college students who wrote headlines for the school newspaper, and there was an apparent drop-off in their internal motivation when students were paid for the job. This suggests that once you’ve been paid to do something, you only want to keep doing it if you are continually being paid.
Johnson believes extrinsic rewards “negatively impact our intrinsic drive” and are “fickle.”
At the other end of the scale, “the intrinsic motivation is like an endless wellspring. It drives behavior from within.
“We engage in the behavior because of a love for it, irrespective of its instrumental value. In that sense, the behavior becomes integrated with our identity.”
A 2014 literature review based on the link between intrinsic motivation, extrinsic incentives and performance drew up some interesting conclusions.
Firstly, taking into account research studies conducted over the previous 40 years and including data from more than 200,000 participants from 183 indented samples, they concluded: “intrinsic motivation and performance are positively correlated.”
They also discovered that “the presence of extrinsic reward does not undermine intrinsic motivation but boosts it”; however, “the intrinsic motivation is a medium-to-strong predictor of performance, regardless of incentives.”
Finally, and most telling, was that “intrinsic motivation is a stronger predictor of quality of performance, whereas extrinsic rewards are a better predictor of the quantity of performance.”
What is clear is that intrinsic motivation is a powerful force, and some form of external reward may help drive and boost performance in the proper doses.
What intrinsic factors motivate us?
Research suggests that three fundamental psychological needs fuel intrinsic motivation.
Autonomy: Having control over one’s actions and decisions. This includes having the freedom to choose how to pursue fitness goals, such as choosing the type of workout or the time of day to exercise. When you can choose what type of exercise and why you exercise, your autonomy helps fuel motivation.
Competence: Feeling capable and confident in one’s abilities. This can be achieved by setting achievable goals, tracking progress, and celebrating small victories. The more competent you are in one area of activity, the better you feel about exercising this competence, and it’s more likely that you will go for a workout.
Relatedness: Feeling a sense of connection and belonging with others. This can be achieved by joining a fitness group or having a workout buddy. Make sure you always build your community and connect with others in the gym, if possible. The more community you have, the more likely you feel great in that space and want to go there, regardless of extrinsic motivation factors.
Samantha Numson, a therapist who uses motivation as a significant tool in treating her patients, believes the “key psychological factor that drives us intrinsically is staying mindful of our values.”
“Values tend to inspire and motivate us. We can develop those goals and action steps based on our values and carry on value for a lifetime. Those values can bring us the fulfillment we long for.
How do you maintain intrinsic motivation?
The ultimate question is how do we find and maintain motivation?
Two main points consistently spring up. Making the activity, exercise or task enjoyable and setting achievable and realistic goals.
Juliet Dreamhunter, the founder of Juliety, is a goals success coach and swears by the mantra of being clear about the “why” behind your goal.
“Understand the reason behind your goal and visualize yourself already having it in a super detailed way, ideally including all five senses in your visualization. This makes your brain “remember” it, similar to an experience you had, which motivates you to want to feel this way “again” and work towards making it happen.”
Goals must focus more on the concept of mastering the skill at hand as appose to the external gains that come with it; however, “we have to keep adjusting our goals, so they are progressively more challenging,” says Holly Traver, a lecturer in cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“Challenging goals direct our behaviors and energize us to keep working hard. When we reach plateaus, challenging goals help keep us focused on maintaining that progression toward our goals.
“We can also focus on the benefits of keeping active and fit, which may represent our ultimate purpose in maintaining a fit and active lifestyle. For many, it may be to stay fit and active so that we live longer. Whatever your long-term goal, remember why you are engaging in that activity.”
Conversely, it’s also vital not to become too focused and obsessed with the need to be constantly motivated, as this could affect other aspects of our lives.
Multi-New York Times Bestselling Author and relationship coach Laura Doyle believes that “neglecting yourself will wreak havoc on your motivation.
“After all, who can pour from an empty cup? Do three things daily that bring you joy and make you feel good.
“Maybe watching cat videos on TikTok is self-care for you. Or perhaps chatting on the phone with your sister. Whatever it is, prioritize self-care, and you will notice your desire to stay motivated in other areas of life.”
Need to reboot your resolutions?
Intrinsic motivation can be applied to all aspects of your life and effectively improves performance. By changing the focus to the internal rewards of a task, such as satisfaction and enjoyment, you can better motivate yourself and others.
Remember to be kind to yourself and watch the occasional cat video on TikTok, and you’ll get there.
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