“Why do I have such a hard time staying motivated? I know I need to…. (stop smoking, lose weight, eat better…. you fill in the blank). I started out well but I just can’t seem to stick with it…. “
Have you ever been there? So many of us have felt like failures when we weren’t able to change our wellness behaviors. Even more of us have beaten ourselves up because we thought we just weren’t motivated enough.
There are things we can do to increase our motivation, but sometimes, motivation just isn’t enough.
Today we’re going to take a look at what motivation is and its impact on behavior change. Next week, we’ll talk about what to do when motivation just isn’t enough.
What is motivation?
Dictionary.com (1) defines motivation as “the state or condition of being motivated or having a strong reason to act or accomplish something.” Psychology Today (2) defines it as “the desire to act in service of a goal.” As Beata Souders says in her article What Is Motivation? A Psychologist Explains, “motivation is a condition inside us that desires a change, either in the self or the environment.”
So if we want to change so badly, you’d think it would be easy to stay motivated, wouldn’t you?
The problem is, motivation is unreliable. We can start out feeling highly motivated, ready to take on the world, but motivation can wax and wane.
What can impact motivation?
There are quite a few things that can impact our motivation, but here are a few of the most common culprits:
- The goal or task is not specific enough. Sometimes we set goals we think are meaningful, but later realize that they don’t really outline exactly what we need to do, when we need to do it, or how we measure whether we’ve been successful. Setting SMART goals can help us avoid this particular roadblock.
- The task is too difficult or too easy. If we don’t challenge ourselves enough, or if we challenge ourselves too much, we can quickly lose motivation to continue. In his book Atomic Habits (4), James Clear talks about the Goldilocks Rule. This rule “states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.” Sometimes we have to do tasks that are, well, frankly, boring (usually the easier things). When that’s the case, tackling those things first can help us go ahead and get them done and out of the way.
- A lack of confidence. If we don’t feel confident in our abilities, it can seem easier to just give up rather than press on when we encounter difficulties. We may feel motivated, but get stuck when it comes to taking action. Sometimes, the best cure for that is to just go ahead and take the first step.
- Perfectionism. So many of us feel we have to do things perfectly, but that can quickly derail us. As we talked about in Managing Expectations When It Comes to Wellness Changes, nobody can do everything perfectly all the time. We don’t expect perfection from others, and we shouldn’t expect it from ourselves. Sometimes we have to get into the mindset that ‘good enough is good enough.’
- Depression. Because it’s sometimes hard to sustain interest over any length of time when we’re depressed, we may feel unmotivated. Obviously, if we’re dealing with depression, we need to seek help in dealing with the depression itself. When it comes to our wellness goals, this might be one of those times when motivation just isn’t enough. We may feel motivated to make changes, but feel incapable of actually taking any action.
Why Can’t We Stay Motivated to Get Healthy?
With so many variables that can affect motivation, is it any wonder we have a hard time getting and staying motivated?
Although motivation is vital to helping us take steps toward a healthier, more fulfilling life, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. In his book Tiny Habits (5), BJ Fogg says,
Here’s the unfortunate thing — most people believe motivation is the true engine of behavior change. Words like ‘rewards’ and ‘incentives’ get thrown around with such regularity that most people think you can create whatever habits you want if you find the right carrot to dangle in front of yourself. This kind of thinking is understandable, but it also happens to be wrong.BJ Fogg, PhD
Motivation can get us moving in the right direction, but it isn’t always something that can be sustained over time. If you ask any top level athlete, they’ll tell you motivation doesn’t stick around, but habits do.
So if you’re one of the many people who have been beating yourself up because you just ‘didn’t have enough motivation’ to make changes to improve your wellness, it’s time to stop it! Sometimes motivation just isn’t enough.
Next week, we’ll take a look at what we can do to increase our chances of being successful with wellness changes without depending solely on motivation.
Have you ever wrestled with a lack of motivation? What are the things that seem to affect your motivation the most? Please share!
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(4) Atomic Habits; 2018; James Clear; Penguin Random House UK; London
(5) Tiny Habits, 2020; BJ Fogg, PhD; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing; New York