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Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation, How to Get Going When You Don’t Feel Like It

Posted on September 18, 2020 By In Fitness With disabled comments

“I should work out today.”

“I should eat better.”

“I should stop shoving food in my face.”

How many times a day do you find yourself using the word should? Most of my clients know what they should be doing to improve their health, but can’t seem to motivate themselves to actually do it. That’s why they come to me. Here’s the thing though. I can’t give you motivation, I can only give you the tools to motivate yourself.

So, if you’ve been feeling like you should be working out more or eating better or refraining from cutting yourself another sliver of pie, keep reading. I’ll be unpacking what motivation is, the reasons you get stuck, and how to finally get off your butt and take action.

What is Motivation, Anyway?

In its simplest terms, motivation is used to describe why you do what you do.That why is the driving force behind your actions, whether it’s taking a swig from your water bottle because you feel thirsty, going for a run because you paid money to hire a trainer, or smashing the alarm clock because you stayed up too late binge-watching Netflix. Your why will likely be influenced by a variety of intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivators.

Examples of intrinsic motivators:

  • Running because it’s a stress reliever or feels fun
  • Eating a protein-forward breakfast because it keeps you satiated all morning
  • Doing yoga because it helps you clear your head
  • Filling your fridge with healthy foods because it saves you time and money
  • Organizing your space because it helps you feel calm

Examples of extrinsic motivators:

  • Losing weight to win a fitness challenge at work
  • Cleaning the house so your spouse doesn’t get irritated with your mess
  • Avoiding processed foods because your doctor or health coach told you to
  • Sprinting because that’s what the people in your FB feed are doing
  • Eating organic because you want others to perceive you as healthy

Let me make it really clear though that your motivation (and your why) are entirely internal processes, meaning it’s your own perception of a situation that makes you more or less motivated to do something. That’s why it’s important to discover your own deep-down reason for staying committed to the path you’re on — or choosing an entirely different path.

The Reasons You Get Stuck

Clearly, motivation involves more than just wanting something or doing it because you should. That said, even with the best laid plans and a handful of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, why is it still so damn hard to actually do it?

In my private practice and with my students and graduates in the Primal Health Coach Institute, I talk a lot about Toward Motivation and Away from Motivation. While the former is designed to ignite a positive, transformative emotion, pulling you closer to the things you want (having more energy, feeling great in your clothes, boosting your confidence), the latter usually more negative, acting as a reminder of all the things you don’t want in life.

If you’re constantly telling yourself that you’re sick of feeling fat, foggy, and fatigued, guess what your brain is hearing? It hears that you’re fat, foggy, and fatigued — which often brings on feelings of fear, self-doubt, or self-pity. Trust me, that’s not the best talk track. And it’s the quickest way to sabotage yourself before you even start.

When you operate out of Away from Motivation, you’re more likely to use negativity to (try and) get motivated. But studies actually show that self-compassion and self-acceptance are better tactics — especially after you’ve had a setback. Researchers at the University of California found that after failing a test, participants who spoke kindly to themselves ended up spending more time studying before taking a re-test than participants who were angry or disappointed by their score.