Motivation 101 - Understanding the Basics

Renee C. Editor
  • Well, it’s late January, which means that around my house it’s time for the annual re-evaluation of those hasty and overly-optimistic New Year’s resolutions.

    Despite the fact that I’ve entered a new year 34 times, and despite the fact that I’m a goal setting kind of gal, I’ve found that my New Year’s resolutions often fall prey to the Perfect Me Syndrome. That’s the term I use to describe my own bizarre belief that tomorrow, or at some point in the near future, I will be a completely different person. That’s the only way I can explain my own persistently naïve belief that on Monday, or on January 1, or some arbitrary “beginning” date I will start getting up at 6 a.m. to go for a run, will never again eat sugar, will begin the process of organizing my entire house, and will do it all after having a yummy but healthy homemade breakfast.

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    You can see the problem. Monday comes (or January 1) and things immediately start falling apart, starting with the real me who hoots with laughter when the alarm goes off at Dark O’Clock.

    So what’s the problem? That’s a question I’ve asked myself and a fair number of friends, and according to them, the answer seems to lie somewhere in the hazy world of Motivation.

    Motivation – What is It?

    If you’ve been at a weight-loss goal for any period of time, motivation is probably a concept you’ve given a lot of thought to. At its most basic, motivation is the drive to perform a task—any task. Most researchers break motivation down into two types: intrinsic and extrinsic.

    Intrinsic motivation means the task carries its own reward—you do it because it’s enjoyable to you. For me, reading literature and writing are two activities that I will do regardless of whether they garner praise, awards, or money.

    Extrinsic motivation reflects the desire to do something based on external benefits, like praise, money, or awards. Threat of harm is also a powerful motivator, as you can see from our illustration below.

    Motivation is a complex topic, and it touches on a lot of other psychological factors, such as shame, self-discipline, willpower, goals, and countless other things. But for our purpose, let’s stick to these basic definitions.

    Resolutions – A Few Examples

    When you talk to anyone trying to lose weight you’ll probably find that extrinisic motivators play a big part. “I saw a photo of myself, honey, and I may never be able to go in public again if I don’t lose weight,” is an oft-cited motivator. A doctor’s visit or lab results can be profound motivators, too. I’ve had both of those reactions myself, and on the days when I made the Big Decision to overhaul my lifestyle I mean every word of it. I can make a plan that would make Patton proud, so why is weight loss, healthy eating, and regular exercise on my list of New Year’s resolutions again this year? What went wrong?


    Psychology experts would probably tell us that the big problem with extrinsic motivators is that they're not steady. Eventually, the memory of the bad photo will fade, and many obesity-related health problems don't make you feel too bad, so it's easy to be motivated, say, by a piece of cheesecake, or by the idea of staying inside instead of taking a walk in the snow. At least until the next photo or lab test comes back.


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    But weight loss, especially significant weight loss takes a lot of time, and therefore a lot more motivation. My own weight goal laughs in the face of articles about how to "get a bikini body before summer!" and I'm apt to walk away from ANYone who suggests that a soothing bubble bath is a good substitute for a cheeseburger.


    Intrinsic motivation may be best for those of us who are on a longer weight-loss journey. But that's a tough thing to dictate to ourselves.


    I'll be back next Monday to talk more about the topic, including sharing some of my own resolutions and de-motivators.


    In the meantime, do me a favor. This week, write down a few of your New Year’s resolutions, and list the reasons you’ve decided to tackle those parts of your life. What motivated you to add those to your list? If you’ve kept any of them for the past month, what have you learned from them? Feel free to share some in the comments on this post and I'll choose some to address next week.

    Until then, I hope you get as much of a laugh out of this t-shirt design as I did.



    Maybe the answer is dinosaurs. More dinosaurs!



Published On: January 25, 2010