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Start With Why to Achieve Success

Knowing our intention can help us stick with healthy eating and fitness plans.

Key points

  • Starting with why can keep things simple and focused when it comes to making decisions about eating and fitness.
  • Why creates an intrinsic motivation held in our prospective memory; intrinsic motivation is a key component of making healthy changes.
  • It can take practice to remember our why when faced with a flow of challenges.
Source: Alexmillos/iStock

Back in 2009, Simon Sinek wrote a best-selling book called Start with Why that caused a sensation in some circles. Sinek uses the concept of why mostly in corporate examples, but many people have picked up on the concept and applied it to other areas as well. Like health and fitness.

In a nutshell, Sinek showed that companies have more success marketing a result rather than a thing. He talks about the company Apple a lot. Whatever you think about Apple, you have to admit that its success and impact have been huge. He says it is because Apple did not market a “thing,” like a great computer, but rather a “result.” For example, having your own personal computer changes your lifestyle, connects you with others, and gives you all sorts of information at your fingertips. Not “we make better, snazzier computers than anyone else.”

Why is why important for health and fitness choices?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at a construct called prospective memory. Prospective memory is part of a group of different types of memory which include episodic, semantic, procedural, short-term or working memory, and sensory memory.

Prospective memory, in particular, gives us the ability to make a plan based on an intention and then to retrieve that plan and intention when faced with day-to-day choices. In other words, our why is the intention that drives our choices. In terms of health and fitness, we may decide that we want to eat healthy foods and exercise regularly. The why in this case could be because we want to feel better, look better, and do more going forward.

Using an analogy from Sinek, it’s not about a product, like buying a treadmill thinking it will motivate us. Or joining a gym because paying for the dues will induce us to use it. Or trying a new diet because the last one didn’t work. A true why goes to the heart of who we are and what we value.

How prospective memory supports our why

There are some key features of prospective memory that keep us focused on the why of our health and fitness goals.

  • Prospective memory is about setting an intention that is based on a subjective value. Can we value a new treadmill in the same way? No! The intention is our anchor because we see the value in it for us in the long term.
  • Prospective memory sets up an intrinsic motivator. An intrinsic motivator could be something like wanting to have more energy to play with grandchildren or being able to keep up with friends and family. In contrast, extrinsic motivators could include things like entering a challenge or wanting to lose weight for an upcoming wedding.

Research has shown that having an intrinsic motivator leads to a performance advantage because an intrinsic motivator is more easily linked to automatic retrieval in the memory process. On the other hand, relying on extrinsic motivators can lead to all kinds of interference and distractions. An extrinsic motivator can easily change into something else. For example, once the challenge or the wedding is over, then what?

  • No one can choose our intention for us. When we choose it for ourselves, our motivation becomes more compelling. It ties into a purpose, cause, or belief that can be part of our identity.

Some potential downsides of why

Even if you have your why, your intention, life still happens. We need to be able to remember to fall back on our why when faced with all sorts of different situations at different times. As our days unfold, we are constantly faced with deciding how to eat and if/when to exercise.

Maybe it is easier to remember our why when we are in the relatively controlled environment of our own home (although some may argue that the home environment isn’t very controlled!). On the other hand, when we are out and about and are faced with more distractions, using our prospective memory can go out the window.

Research has shown that prospective memory is impaired by situations in which we are faced with items that are competing for our attention. Lots of complexity can deplete the cognitive resources that would otherwise be happy to retrieve our why.

There is another reason that our why may be forced to take a back seat. Our brains remember our emotions and have attachments to certain feelings. Temptation is “an emotion remembered.” It can be difficult to find a sufficient reward for holding fast to our intrinsic motivator in the face of an attractive immediate reward.

Why it’s still number one

Picking your why is still an important first step. A why is there to guide us in the long run.

When you are basing your choices on a personally held value, it also means that you are participating in self-care. It is not always easy to put ourselves first, but self-care has been shown again and again to be one of the cornerstones of sustainable health and fitness behavior change.

Finally, it takes practice, practice, and more practice. Like anything else, we need to repeat that which we want to remember before it becomes part of us. We can start with why, but we need to do our best to remember it when we are faced with life’s never-ending stream of moments that present us with a choice to make.


Sinek, Simon (2009). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Penguin Books.

Walter, S. & Meier, B. (2014). How Important is importance for prospective memory? Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5, Article 657.

Kvavilashvili, L. & Rummel, J. (2020). On the Nature of Everyday Prospection: A Review and Theoretical Integration of Research on Mind-Wandering, Future Thinking, and Prospective Memory. Review of General Psychology, 24(3), 210-237.

Marsh, R.L. & Hicks, J. L. (1998). Event-based prospective memory and executive control of working memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 24(2), 336-349.

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