I’m one of the most active and motivated people I know. In my entire 39 years on this planet, I’ve moved. I’ve crawled, walked, run, climbed, hiked, cycled, skied, jumped, leaped, launched, rolled and tumbled – not always in the prettiest of fashions – But I have constantly been active. Constantly pushed myself. Constantly achieved.
So, the last 18 months have come as a bit of a shock.
When lockdown hit and South Africa was thrown into a 6-week complete shutdown (we were only capable of leaving the house for shopping or a medical visit), my body gradually shut down too.
Week 1 commenced by running around the house 20 times a day, a 45 minute cycle on the indoor bike whilst watching Top Gun; and an hour Tae Bo session with Billy Blanks dressed in 80’s garb. But the motivation rapidly dwindled.
I had assumed that once the mountain re-opened, I would be back out on the Cape Town trails. Motivation fully resumed (after all – I had put on a couple of lockdown pounds). I did get back out there – sporadically. And loved it when I did. But I struggled to regain any form of consistency.
What the heck was going on? This just wasn’t like me! The things that used to motivate me: staying slim; being the best; achieving the impossible – just weren’t incentivizing me anymore!
I know that I’m not alone in this demotivation journey.
But whether you are struggling to get out of bed in the morning; to find motivation to complete work tasks; to exercise or stick to healthy eating plans – that lack of motivation is adding an extra layer of stress to what is already an uncertain and anxiety-fueled world at present.
So, I thought I’d write this article to share my realisations around my personal motivations over the last couple of months; and set out some new methods I’m testing to motivate myself to get back into exercise. Hopefully it will provide some food for thought with your own motivation struggles.
My worries around exploring the topic of motivation
I’m going to preface this article by saying that I was reluctant to look into my lack of motivation for fear of confirming a long-term belief I’ve held about success, drive and motivation. For years, I’ve believed that in order to be successful, you have to be driven by fear and/or pain. I’ll use myself as an example:
Negative motivation: Example 1
Back when I was a teenager, a close family friend stopped speaking to me for three years. It was a difficult time. Emotions were heightened. Feelings were not discussed. And silly things were said out of pain and guilt. One of the last things said to me before the hiatus was that I wasn’t good enough to be a lawyer or to go to Harvard.
As a result, although subconsciously, I spent the next 15 years constantly striving; working hard; stretching myself to be the best I possibly could in my career to prove them wrong. By the time our differences were resolved, that negative motivation was firmly entrenched. It drove me up the career ladder at full speed: achieving Senior Associate after 4 years of practice; Head of Global Mergers & Acquisitions by 34; General Counsel by 35 and Partner by 36.
Negative motivation: Example 2
I grew up in the 80s/90s where the perverse notion that every woman needed to be a Size 0 or Size 00 was flaunted through every form of media. If you weren’t skeletal, then you were not attractive. The horror of being anything larger than a UK Size 10 was just not acceptable in society. You were a failure. Media in the 90’s certainly did women’s self-esteem a world of good!
Once again, negatively motivated, I became obsessed with food and exercise. I ate like a mouse throughout university to try and control my weight – much to the horror of my poor housemate. I tried every faddy diet under the sun; from Atkins to the South Beach Diet to some weird concoction of cayenne pepper, lemon juice and maple syrup!
As I stumbled through my 20s, my obsession with food was replaced by exercise. I trained for at least an hour every single day; if not twice a day. Running off the calories that I’d consumed. Woe betide I missed a day of exercise – the negative self-talk banshee would be there in full force.
My most extreme was when I was a trainee solicitor living in Hong Kong. For those of you who have ever done a stint in Hong Kong, you’ll understand the concept of the “Hong Kong Stone”. Hong Kong is a city that never sleeps. As trainees / young associates we worked hard and we played even harder. Countless nights did we leave Jardine House at midnight; begin our walk home up the escalators to Mid-Levels and undoubtedly bump into someone we knew – which resulted in a detour to Lan Kwai Fong. For 8 months I survived on about 3 hours of sleep a night; a lot of alcohol and early morning breakfasts at the Flying Pan. It was certainly the most unhealthy lifestyle I’ve lived.
But, the fear of the Hong Kong Stone – the fear of not being attractive – motivated me every day to be at Pure Fitness at 6am. I spent an hour sweating on the cross trainer or running machine (clocking off season after season of the OC and One Tree Hill) before heading to the office for another long stint. And it worked: my abs were rock hard and into those skinny Size 8 jeans I slipped. The negative motivation once again worked.
Can you be successful without negative motivation?
So, fast-forward to 2020 – a time where I have:
- worked through all my historical traumas
- worked on my self-confidence
- become a lot kinder to myself
- placed less emphasis on the way I look
- developed a happy and loving relationship
- created and started to live the lifestyle I love and want
I realized that I am no longer fueled by fear and negativity. And there rose the fear / resistance to look into this. What if my theory that you can only be successful if driven by fear/pain was true? Where does that leave me? How could I motivate myself if I was no longer in pain?
So, let’s take a look at what motivation is and how it can transpire in our day to day lives.
What is motivation?
Motivation is “the reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way” (Oxford English Dictionary).
In other words, motivation is why we do what we do. It’s our underlying driver, our reason, our purpose for taking action and behaving the way we do. It also explains why different people are motivated by different things.
Motivation falls into two main categories: Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, and both of those types can be expressed in a positive way (reward) or a negative way (punishment).
Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, you do it because you gain personal joy and satisfaction from the activity rather than doing it because you are influenced by an external factor.
An example of intrinsic motivation would be reading a book because you love escaping to a different world through literature. Whereas having to read a book in order to pass your Trusts exam would be an external influence. Granted – if you loved learning Trust law then this would constitute intrinsic motivation – but, for me – aie, aie aie! – I was glad to get those books off to the charity shop!
Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to behaviour driven by an external factor. This could be in the form of an external reward (i.e. I get something from someone else as a result of completing the activity) or an external punishment (i.e. I avoid something as a result of completing the activity).
A few examples of extrinsic motivation are as follows:
- If I work hard, I’ll get a promotion / salary increase from my company (reward).
- If I use my American Express card, I’ll get frequent flyer miles (reward).
- If I comply with my fiduciary duties as a director, I won’t get fired or put in jail (punishment).
- If I clean up the house, my flat mate won’t get mad and yell at me for being untidy (punishment).
Positive and negative motivation
As you can see from the examples given above, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be expressed both in a positive or negative way.
Using the desire / need to get back into exercise as an example, the diagram below highlights some possible intrinsic and extrinsic motivations which could trigger action.
Which style of motivation is better?
Each style of motivation has the ability to move a person forward, but it is questionable whether extrinsic and negative motivation is sustainable.
The “carrot and stick” approach – i.e. dangling rewards (such as the promise of a pay rise) or the threat of punishment (such as the fear of being fired) may increase motivation short-term, but eventually the influence of that motivation will wear off. For example, you’ll see in the corporate context, unless intrinsically motivated, staff will choose to leave unhealthy work situations even if there are prospects of a promotion or pay rise.
And when it comes to intrinsic motivation, although negative intrinsic motivation may be an effective source of motivation, it is evident that it has detrimental consequences on an individual’s mental health: their self-confidence, self-worth and their value.
Looking back on the two scenarios I highlighted at the beginning of this article, it’s clear that negative extrinsic motivation and negative intrinsic motivation fueled my own action, in so many aspects of my life. Especially when I was younger. It also had the effect of highlighting the fact that negative motivation and extrinsic motivation (whether positive or negative) are not sustainable forms of motivation in the long term.
Unless our motivation is aligned with our personal values & beliefs, and there is a true internal benefit to us in performing the actions necessary – creating long-term, sustainable habits and practices and achieving long-term goals is always going to feel out of reach.
Finding some healthy and positive intrinsic motivation
With all this research at my fingertips, I’ve decided to try and incentivize myself back into a consistent exercise routine from a stance of positive intrinsic motivation.
As you can imagine, there are a variety of tools and techniques that can be found dotted around the internet suggesting ways in which to develop positive intrinsic motivation.
I’d be a fraud if I were to tell you how to do it. Considering I’ve never tested it out for myself. So, instead I’ve pulled together various elements of the research I found to form the backbone of my experiment:
Set a challenge which is not too easy and not too hard
The theory is that a challenge is a good incentive to move you into action. But – you don’t want the challenge to be too easy – you’ll get bored; nor too hard – you’ll get disillusioned (The Goldilocks Rule – a challenge that is “Just right”).
So, with my 40th birthday looming just around the corner, I’ve decided to undertake a 40-day yoga challenge from 1 July to 11 August. I will finish (all going according to plan) the day before my birthday.
This challenge for me is a stretch. But it is also something I know I am capable of as I have completed a 40-day challenge before! Granted, it was 12 years ago!
Understand the positive internal benefits of taking on this challenge:
I’ve worked through a number of questions (see worksheet attached) to really tap into why I want to get back into yoga, the benefits it will bring to me, and the saboteur tendencies that are likely to try and derail me.
I’m certain that this challenge is going to be far from easy. But to keep track of my progress, I’ve committed to keep myself accountable by documenting this journey in my journal.
Will I re-find my yoga mojo?
I honestly don’t know. I’ve never consciously motivated myself this way before. But, I’ll keep you updated on social media over the next 40 days. So, stay tuned!
If you are in need of some motivation to kickstart a lifestyle change or reach a goal, and you’d like to join me on the “Motivate Me” challenge – by all means do so.
- Identify your 40-day goal / challenge
- Determine your intrinsic motivation (download the worksheet below)
- Grab yourself a journal and be ready to note down your daily progress.
We’re all in this together.
I can honestly admit, hand-on-heart, that I don’t have the answers. But I’ll tell you one thing – I’m prepared to try something new!
After all: “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” – Thomas Jefferson.
Success motivated from a place of happiness – well, who wouldn’t want that!