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Accessing Internal Motivation - The True Key to Change

May 01, 2022

I'm personally fascinated by human behaviour, particularly as it relates to habits and personal motivation. 

What makes one person driven to workout, follow a race training plan, or hike a mountain, and another person struggles to be consistent with getting outside for a regular walk or making it to the gym once a week?

Why can some people say no to evening snacks, push aside cravings, and order salad with their burger on a Friday night, when others don't think twice when they order the mozzarella sticks, deep fried pickles, and the double chocolate fudge brownie?

One of my favourite books Atomic Habits by James Clear , breaks down three layers of behaviour change and how it relates to motivation.

Most people start with the outcomes. 

  • I want to lose 20 lbs. 
  • I want to fit into a size 8 jeans.
  • I want to have toned arms. 
  • [insert other goal/outcome you may have]

The problem with starting with the outcome is that we reply on external motivation to get us started, then start to work backwards from there and try to change some processes. Along the way we hope our identity changes, but in the end, the outcome is the most important. Inevitably, the external motivation slows, or we don't hear it anymore because external motivation is short term and usually comes when we start something new, or start working with a new coach or program etc.

The more effective way to approach change is to tune into your own internal motivation (hint: this is the one that fuels you long after your coach or trainer is gone, and weeks into a program when the initial shine and excitement fades). To find out internal motivation we need to start with our identity, not the outcome.

Perhaps you want to run a 5km, but your current habits and lifestyle find your body sitting on a couch watching 5 hours of Netflix every evening. 

If you look to change your identity (and it might feel a little forced in the beginning, after all, changing habits is work), you'll have more success in the long term. You'll access your own internal motivation, which will keep you consistent and motivated, long after the 'newness' of something wears off.

Using the 5km example, you could ask yourself, what is the identity of someone who runs 5km races? What habits & behaviours do they have and do regularly?

  • They likely have quality running shoes that support their feet.
  • They possibly have a training plan that they follow.
  • They likely swap in 30 minutes of those 5 hours of couch time for a jog around the neighbourhood.
  • They may choose foods that don't make them feel lethargic and bloated prior to running. 
  • Maybe they meet up with other runners through a program or club.

The more successful route is for you to start to identify as a runner and try to adopt some of the habits and behaviours of a runner. Perhaps you could buy a pair of good shoes. Find a training plan online. Commit to going for a jog a couple times a week, and eating a mid-afternoon snack of an apple and some almonds so you feel fueled for you run, search out and join a running group or club.

You could start telling people you are going out for a run (thereby confirming in your head and to others that you are, in fact, a runner). If someone asks you what you are doing Thursday you say 'I'm going for a run because I have a race coming up' instead of 'ughhh I'm not a good runner but I need to get a run in'.

See the subtle difference in the way you word/think about things? One is something you have to do to achieve the outcome. The other is part of your identity and you do it because it's who you are. Slowly start to shift your identity, which brings you to the processes that will then bring you to your goal.

In the end you've changed elements of your life, behaviour, and possibly, way of thinking. You have created new habits and this is the sweet spot! When you don't have to put so much energy into every thought & action. 

In the book James Clear uses the example of a smoker trying to quit smoking cigarettes. Someone offers this person a cigarette and there are two possible answers

  • "No thanks, I'm trying to quit" 
  • "No thanks, I'm not a smoker"

Can you guess which one is looking at changing their habit from an outcome vs. identity perspective?

This is the route that I find my clients have the most success with. By approaching health & lifestyle change this way, they are building new habit(s) and shifting their identity to one that is in alignment with the outcome they wanted (maybe it was to lose 15#). But the best thing with this approach is once the outcome is realized, the habits are in place to support this change long term. The outcome flows naturally out of the processes you've incorporated into your life, because your identity has shifted. This is how you build long term sustainable habits. 

This is why so many diets and fitness fads fall short. You hit the goal, you're done, you made it - congrats....and then what? You fall back into your old habits, the weight creeps back on, Netflix hours start to build back up and 3 years later you find yourself back where you started, frustrated that you have to start again.

I share all this with you now because I know spring is a time that people naturally start to think about their health a bit more. It's a natural cycle. As the weather starts to get a bit nicer, we consider what we'd like to do/achieve this spring/summer.

Whether your 2022 summer goals are to lose a few pounds or run a race, I'd like to encourage you to give some thought to approaching your goals from an identity starting point vs. an outcome-oriented one.

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