Most people don’t need a kick in the rear to start pursuing a fitness, physique or weight goal on January 1st. New Year’s day feels like a fresh start, so you’re naturally motivated. The problem is, most people are disillusioned at how quickly motivation wanes.
Many have fallen off the wagon by February. Some make it longer if they have a strong motivator like a 12-week fitness challenge. But most of them drop off the day the contest is over. They may start again, but only when incentivized by another dangling carrot or new fresh start. Only a small percentage of people stay motivated to keep going consistently month after month, year after year, continuing to pursue fitness and continuing to improve themselves. What’s the difference between these people? A big part of the answer lies in the type of motivation they’re using: self-motivation.
External Versus Internal Motivation
There’s no question that external motivators like competitions, prizes and awards work. The issue is that this type of motivation is temporary. When the incentives are gone, the motivation is gone. By contrast, people who tap into their intrinsic motivation (self-motivation) and focus on their purpose and values stay motivated, keep going and keep the positive changes they’ve made.
What’s worse is that using only external motivations and rewards can make people dependent on them and ultimately undermine their own intrinsic motivation. Without another contest or another prize, they simply never get moving on their own accord. Even more alarming is that chasing only external goals and being only externally motivated is correlated with poorer mental health.
Edward Deci, who is known as one of the fathers of self-motivation research, says there are three main extrinsic goals that motivate people:
Yes, they motivate. But there’s a downside of making these goals the priority. Deci says that having a strong aspiration for material success without balancing it with intrinsic needs is associated with narcissism, anxiety, depression, and poorer social functioning as assessed by clinical psychologists.
External Fitness Motivation Has Downsides
Like material success and fame, changing your body shape is also an external goal (it’s in the beauty category). In the fitness realm, it’s indisputable that having a sole preoccupation with body shape also correlates to poor mental health.
Over 50 years of research on self-determination theory shows that not only is extrinsic motivation not as strong as intrinsic motivation, focusing only on externals has consequences. For this reason, some experts rally against rewards, incentives and competitions, because external goals and external rewards for achieving those goals do not sustain motivation long-term.
This is also why more and more health counselors have been promoting weight neutrality and body positivity. These movements suggest that you simply eat for physical health and psychological well-being and make no intentional effort to follow a specific diet or pursue any change in body weight or body shape. For people with eating disorders and body image disorders, this might be an appropriate plan of action.
For any person, there might be times when it’s beneficial to focus less on the scale and body aesthetics. Switching the focus to performance goals like strength, fitness or endurance rather than outcome goals like scale weight or body fat percentage, can put you in a less obsessive or stressed out headspace.
But here we are, bodybuilders, physique fanatics, fitness enthusiasts, and many of us competitors who like a challenge. Where does that leave us?
The good news is we don’t have to cancel contests or abandon awards. We don’t have to throw away our scales or body fat calipers. We don’t have to give up on body transformation and physique goals. (Believe me, we’re not cancelling the Burn the Fat Feed The Muscle Challenge!)
I firmly hold the position that there is nothing wrong with wanting to pursue fat loss or aesthetic goals, even though they are external goals (and are even known as vanity goals) and there are other types of goals worth pursuing (like health and strength and endurance). You wouldn’t expect anything less from a coach who has been a bodybuilder for 30 years would you?
But what we must do is acknowledge there are pitfalls if you approach fat loss or body transformation goals without the right motivations. The problems arise when you have an excessive or exclusive focus on extrinsic goals and external rewards. Putting your focus on intrinsic aspirations and intrinsic rewards provides not only more powerful and lasting motivation, but is also better for psychological health, vitality, contentment and self-esteem.
The Power Of Intrinsic Motivation
The reason intrinsic motivators are so powerful is because they are among the basic human needs. That means we are naturally motivated to pursue them and doing so fills us with a sense of well-being, happiness and success. These days we hear all the time that “motivation comes and goes so you can’t and shouldn’t depend on it.” But that’s talking about external motivation. Intrinsic motivation is always within you, you simply must become aware of it and tap into it.
The three intrinsic motivators include:
1. Competence: The feeling that you are effective, you are doing a good job and also getting better, learning, and growing.
2. Connection: Meaningful, genuine, mutually supportive connections with other people.
3. Autonomy: The power of choice; the freedom to choose one’s own goals, plans, and activities and choose to enjoy doing things for their own sake.
Based on what research says about self-motivation, some people suggest that we should give up the pursuit of external goals and rewards. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. People will always want to lose weight or bodybuild. Athletes will always want to play sports. Human beings will always like trophies, awards and recognition. Competitions will continue.
Yes, there’s a downside to pursuing only externals, especially being preoccupied with body weight and body shape as the only goal, but self-motivation research says that it’s the balance of your motivations that’s most important.
If your desire for the three extrinsic goals (including body shape) are a lot stronger than your aspiration to satisfy your three intrinsic needs, that’s when you’re most likely to have problems with mental health and motivation that doesn’t last.
When you pursue extrinsic goals, if you use external motivators like competitions and awards and you don’t at the same time use all three of the intrinsic motivators and have a strong connection to your values and reasons why you’re pursuing a goal, again the motivation will be short-lived and you put your mental well-being in jeopardy.
The solution is not to abandon your ideal body weight and physique goals, but to connect physical external goals to your intrinsic motivations and work on making that connection stronger.
You could say this is reanalyzing and reframing the reasons why you’re doing it. If you want to set a body weight or physique goal and even do it with the external motivation of a transformation contest, great! But think deeply on these questions: Why are you doing this? What are your values? What is your motivation? What is the right motivation?
There are three intrinsic needs, so there are three angles you could look at this from
One, instead of setting a weight goal for the reason of attaining a societal ideal, or because someone else is pressuring you to do it, or to get a prize, or to win a weight loss contest, or to post photos on social media, or even because you think it will make you happy, set that goal and pursue it because of the type of person it will make you become in reaching it. Do it because in the process, you know you’ll get better at something like weight lifting, a sport, a type of exercise, or healthy cooking, and feel more satisfied and competent as a result. Do it for the sense of accomplishment you’ll have when you choose an optimal challenge and meet it. Do it because you’ll achieve personal growth during the process, and personal growth is something you value. Do it because you will learn something and learning is something you value.
Two, do not do it alone. Know that we are social creatures and being connected to others is one of our deepest human needs. Therefore, connection is one of our greatest intrinsic motivators. This means more than having a coach, because unless that coach supports your autonomy, it’s only another external motivator and if you’re a round peg and some coach tries to hammer you into their favorite square hole, that’s worse than having no coach. Connection means to pursue a goal as part of a circle of support, allowing others to help you and you wanting to help others. Do it for a sense of belonging in a community. Do it to be a part of something bigger than you alone. Do it so you can inspire other people or be a role model. Do it for your family, because family is something you value.
And three, do it because you get to choose your own goal and you’re choosing to pursue it by your own volition, not because anyone else is pressuring or coercing you. Do it because you want to, not because you feel like you have to do it or should do it. Have to’s and should’s don’t motivate long term or promote mental well-being. Say “I Choose to.” Choose to do it for health because health is something you value. Choose to do an activity for the activity’s sake alone. Choose to do it to enjoy the journey, and enjoy each moment, not to get somewhere. Define success as moving toward a worthy goal that you have chosen for yourself. And remember that your goal may be one specific destination, but many different paths can lead you there. Be certain that you have the freedom of choice to choose your path and you have a hand in crafting your plan, even if others are also helping you.
Parting Advice About Self-Motivation
In closing, remember that motivation starts with goals. Choose a goal that’s challenging and makes you stretch, but you know is fully achievable for you. With every time-bound outcome goal you set, always know what’s next after you achieve it (think one goal ahead). Remind yourself that each goal achieved is not the end, but only a stepping stone on a lifelong journey.
During your goal pursuit, put your focus on the intrinsic motivators. Think of personal growth and a sense of achievement as the greatest prize. Think of health as the greatest physical reward. In addition, clearly identify your values (what’s important to you in life and in the fitness realm) and know your purpose (the reasons why you want to achieve your goals). Along with the three intrinsic needs, values and purpose are also among the greatest self-motivators.
If you do these things, you will be self-motivated, the motivation will be strong, and the motivation will last.
To your success,
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle – The Bible Of Fat Loss
Founder, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Not a current member? Join us! CLICK HERE
PS At the time I’m writing this, we’re approaching the start of another Burn the Fat Body Transformation Challenge. It’s a fitness contest with prizes, and yes, it’s great motivation! It’s incredible motivation! However, it is external motivation. There’s also an end date.
If you choose to set a physique or weight goal and enter a transformation contest like our Burn the Fat Challenge (and I hope you do), it could be the most motivating thing you’ve ever done. But when you consider how many people stop training the day a challenge is over, you realize how important it is to apply what you learned in today’s post.
Wanting to win, or obtain a prize, or get recognition is not wrong, and neither is wanting to reach a certain body weight or pant size in 12 weeks. Just remember none of those motivations will sustain you for the long haul. Go into a challenge focusing on the right motivations, and you’ll not only have stronger, longer lasting motivation, you’ll enjoy the process more, and you’ll feel happier, more fulfilled and more accomplished. I hope you join us.
To Learn More About Upcoming Burn The Fat Body Transformation Challenge Contests That You Can Enter, CLICK HERE
About Tom Venuto, The No-BS Fat Loss Coach
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 55,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here to learn more about Burn the fat Inner Circle