What motivates you?

I’ve been learning about motivation recently, and it got me thinking… Which one is better for weight loss: internal or external motivation?

Extrinsically motivated people do things for external reasons. Intrinsically motivated people will undertake a task for it’s own sake, without any sort of external reward. 

Surely it’s better to be internally motivated? Especially if you want to achieve life-changing, long-lasting results. Right? 

That definitely sounds right. 

OK, asked and answered. That was quick.  See you next time, folks!

Photo credit: Team Maestroo

OK, wait. 

Now that I think about it, it’s more complicated than that.  For instance, does it matter whether your motivation is positive or not?  I guess what I am trying to say is…

Which is better: the carrot or the stick? 

Positive Versus Negative

Now, I know what you’re going to say.  The carrot. Definitely the carrot.  The self-aware among us will probably argue that positive rewards tend to be more effective (and pleasant) than negative punishments. 

The less self-aware among us choose the carrot because we’ve been conditioned to choose vegetables over pretty much anything else. And whilst some diet food does admittedly taste like cardboard, we’re not sure if we’re ready to start eating sticks.

[That was a joke, by the way.  I know you’re not actually meant to eat the stick.  But sometimes when you’re really hungry, you can’t help wondering…]

Internal Versus External

Anyway, I digress.  Before I start contemplating ways in which to incorporate tree bark into my diet, let’s get back to internal versus external motivation. 

It’s easy to assume that it always better to be intrinsically motivated.  If you are doing it for yourself, then that is it’s own reward. And that feels instinctively better.  But I think human beings are a bit more complicated than that.

First of all, people tend to respond faster to external motivation.  Whether it’s negative (such as the threat of diabetes or not having enough money to replace all your pairs of trousers because they no longer fit you) or positive (such as praise from other people or finally being able to fit into that bikini that you’ve always wanted to wear). 

The fact is that training a human is like training a dog – rewards are extremely effective.

The problem with rewards is that they soon lose their value. So you find yourself constantly needing more.  The first time someone notices you have lost weight and praises you, you feel absolutely wonderful and you quickly abandon the thought of diving in to the biscuit tin when you get home. 

But after a while, it’s not enough.  You need more and more praise from people. And if that is the only thing that is keeping you going, then you’re destined to fail. 

Especially since weight loss often slows down over time and the novelty wears off. People will notice when you lose a stone in a month.  They probably won’t notice the final two pounds that took 3 months to shed!

Photo credit: Alvan Nee

The right way versus the wrong way?

“So I was right,” I hear you cry. “Internal motivation is better!”

Before you get too carried away, remember what I said before about the carrot and stick (how could you forget)? Does that change things, and if so, how? 

Positive internal motivators all sound fantastic in theory. Who doesn’t want to do something purely for the deep sense of personal satisfaction and self-respect? What sounds better than doing something simply for the sense of fulfillment? But if we’re honest with ourselves, these attitudes are actually the hardest things to cultivate. 

I think a lot of us are very much internally motivated, but in all the wrong ways.  We are motivated by our own feelings of guilt, shame, embarrassment, or fear

Most of us probably have low self-esteem, or are very angry at ourselves.  Many of us are perfectionists and are driven by a need for power over ourselves or the people around us.  Others have a desperate need to please people

Even if none of these things apply to you, you may be motivated by worry or debilitating stress.  None of these are healthy emotions, and whilst they make good motivators, I’m not sure they are good for our emotional wellbeing.

And I’m willing to bet that most of the people reading this blog can relate to some, if not all, of them.

Photo credit: I Yunmai

The problem with sticks

The problem with sticks (aside from the fact that they aren’t edible) is that they reinforce the negative thought patterns in all of us.  Take dogs as an example (can anyone tell I am about to adopt a dog?!)  Lets just imagine you rescue a dog who is afraid of other dogs. 

The first day you take them to the park and they come across another dog, they immediately feel scared and stressed.  They want to take back some control so they start growling and barking. 

You want to train them to stop doing that, so you pull on their lead or shout at them to stop barking.  Does this fix the problem?  Probably not.  The dog might eventually learn not to bark at other dogs, but they do it because they’re scared

Only now they are scared of other dogs AND their new owner who starts pulling on their lead and shouting at them every time they bump into Bertie the over-excited Yorkie at the park!

Negative internal motivation is probably the thing that motivates me the most.  It is also the thing that causes me to fail.  Every. Single. Time. 

Photo credit: Nathan Dumalo

What about a bit of both?

So we’ve come full circle and we’re now back at my original question.  Which is better for weight loss – internal or external motivation?  I’m starting to think that there isn’t a right or wrong answer.  There are clearly benefits and downsides to both. 

But as I get older, I am learning more and more about the importance of balance.  Maybe it’s not a case of one or the other.  Maybe both are good.

Either way, I think it is really important for me to stop and ask myself why I started this weight loss journey in the first place?  Is it because I want to succeed for myself and no one else?  Or is it there another reason? 

Whatever my motivation, it’s better to figure it out right from the beginning. Otherwise I’ll spend the next few weeks and months wondering around aimlessly like the children of Israel did in the desert, and I’m unlikely to ever achieve my goals.

[Reverend Maggie – that last one was for you. Turns out I was paying attention after all!]

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