Although I am a psychologist who is particularly interested in motivation, I have had uneven success with initiating and sustaining healthy changes in my own life. At present, I am struggling to adopt a predominantly plant-based diet, though I continue to be a moderately serious triathlete. When people set a goal, their choice is influenced by their motivational attitude. For example, when you join a gym, your thoughts, feelings, and past experiences related to exercising in public clearly affect the way you participate. Accordingly, at present, I get more enjoyment out of running and biking than abstaining from pulled pork. Forgive me, I was raised in the pulled pork capital of the world, northern South Carolina.
My own personal experiences as a developing human, therapist, teacher, and researcher suggest that folks generally struggle with motivation. In fact, research demonstrates that many New Year’s resolution makers struggle to achieve their personal goals without a plan and strategic and ongoing support (Oscarsson et al. 2020). First and foremost, it is important to normalize that starting and maintaining change is hard and to mostly avoid being self-critical.
Motivation seems to initially generate from within, whether it is prompted by our personal desire for salient external rewards (e.g., money, praise from others) or by enjoyable activities that we engage in for no external reward (e.g., runner’s high, pleasure from finishing a book). Depending on the situation, your motivation is largely propelled by intrinsic (e.g., personal satisfaction, curiosity) or extrinsic (e.g., financial reward, social recognition) factors. Studies have generally demonstrated that intrinsic motivation leads to increased persistence, greater psychological wellbeing, and enhanced performance (Deci & Ryan, 2008). The good news is that it can be cultivated.
Three Methods and Strategies to Enhance Intrinsic Motivation
There are multiple strategies to enhance intrinsic motivation to reach important goals. I chose the three below based on my personal and professional experience combined with existing research.
1) Promoting perceptions of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others commonly bolsters people’s motivational behaviors. Research suggests that fulfilling these three psychological needs promotes ideal motivation and is associated with better outcomes (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Competence means that people need to have the right skills and to appreciate their effectiveness. I must remind myself that I have made lots of hard changes that taught me how to make new changes, such as adopting a plant-based diet. I may also need to learn specific meal preparation skills related to being predominantly vegetarian. Autonomy suggests that people need to understand they have choices. For example, I need to tell myself that I am choosing to be healthier and feel better by eating a plant-based diet. “I don’t have to eat healthier; I am choosing to each
healthier.” Relatedness implies that people benefit from deepening their connections with supportive others around their change plans and goals (Miller and Rollnick, 2013). For example, I discuss my dietary plans with my wife and children and get specific about how they can be helpful. It is also important that I tell myself and supportive others about ‘the why’ related to my change plan. I want to adopt a plant-based diet to be a healthy role model to my children and to have the best chance possible of a retirement filled with active leisure (i.e., The Why).
2) It is generally helpful to set small, actionable goals that you can celebrate along the way to your ultimate goal (Miller and Rollnick, 2013). You may acknowledge and affirm any progress rather than viewing success as merely getting to the finish line. For example, my initial goal was to avoid eating meat for 2-meals each day, which seemed like a doable first step toward my final goal. Each day that I abstained from meat for two meals, I congratulated myself.
3) It is beneficial to appreciate that the motivation that spurs change in the early phase might be different than the type of motivation that drives you to your goal. Research suggests that as you progress toward a change, your motivational energy changes from promotion-focused (e.g., developing/refining a plan or acquiring skills), to prevention-focused (e.g., avoiding setbacks or crystalizing a routine; Bowen et al. 2011). If your goal is to improve your diet, you might start by promoting positive changes such as developing an interesting meal plan and buying the necessary foods. As you master those mini goals, your focus might shift to preventing negative changes, such as preparing to deal effectively with the accessibility of sweets over the holidays, as well as the “it’s the holidays” mindset. For example, I may allow myself one extra ‘cheat day’ and make healthy meals even more accessible. I may also tell my friends and family about my dietary changes and ask them to avoid offering me sweets over the holidays.
Lastly, be kind to yourself as you work a change plan. We all struggle with change at least in a few areas. Having setbacks and struggles does not indicate you are defective; it means that you haven’t found the right plan with the necessary supports. You can always pick yourself up and give it another go.
Bowen, Chawla, & Marlatt (2011) Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Addictive Behaviors: A Clinician’s Guide. Guilford Press: NY, NY
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 182–185. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0012801
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: helping people change (3rd ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Oscarsson M, Carlbring P, Andersson G, Rozental A (2020) A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals. PLoS ONE 15(12): e0234097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097