- Intrinsic motivators are necessary for lasting behavior change, especially for complex behaviors like healthy eating or exercise.
- One can maximize motivation by linking health behaviors to an important “why," “what," “how,” or “who.”
- Linking a health behavior to what one values most in life increases motivation to repeat the behavior.
We all have personal wellness goals we are trying to achieve at any given moment. My current wellness goal is establishing a daily meditation practice and I’ve struggled to maintain it. Amid our hectic, busy lives, how can we tap into behavior change science to maximize our motivation for healthy living?
First, it’s important to understand how motivation works. Motivation is the reason we behave in certain ways, encompassing many different forces (biological, emotional, social, and cognitive). It can initiate, guide, and maintain goal-oriented behaviors. The good news is that motivation can be influenced and changed.
Identifying Your Why, What, How, and Who
Intrinsic motivation originates from within us and is most strongly linked to sustained behavior change. To maximize our motivation, especially intrinsic motivation, we must first define our “why," “what," “how,” and “who." Then, we need to link the healthy behavior we are trying to sustain to one of these intrinsic motivators.
Start with identifying the “right whys." Michelle Segar's book, No Sweat, asks us to give some thought to why we think we should pursue a specific behavior, putting the reasons into two categories: those that are helpful and those that are less helpful. She calls these the right or wrong whys.
- Come from outside of ourselves. We think we should do them because someone else tells us to.
- Are abstract or clinical, such as health consequences or future biometric screening values.
- Feel like a burden or something we ”should” do; a chore.
- Come from inside of us and focus on what we enjoy. The behavior is associated with a specific reward or positive feeling.
- Are framed in terms of something that we want or desire deep down.
- Are associated with more immediate happiness, like a gift.
When associated with the wrong whys, and we fail to achieve our healthy living goals, we reinforce the negative meaning associated with the behavior which can lead to lower confidence and belief in our ability to change the behavior. Research suggests we develop a different mindset about the specific behaviors tied to our goals such as exercise and healthy eating.
Key Point: We need to shift from rational, logical reasons for our behavior to more emotional and feeling-based reasons. For example, on hectic mornings when I’m feeling behind, I remind myself that meditation will make me feel calmer and less reactive amidst my busy day.
Values are highly related to purpose, but they focus less on what you aspire to do and more on how you go about achieving it. Activating the power of values for behavior change starts by identifying your core values.
Research shows that when we reflect on our values, it activates brain processes that make us more open to behavior change. According to the book, The Power of Full Engagement, value-based habits are one way to align our health behaviors with our values. To create value-based habits, we start by identifying our top values.
Pick just one value and reflect on what it looks like to live that value out in your everyday life. Then consider how investing in your health behavior of choice can help you live out your value. Turn that connection into a set of value-based habits: routines you incorporate into everyday life that allow you to live out your values.
Key Point: Identify your three top values and determine how you will invest in healthy behavior choices to live out your values. When I meditate, I can be more fully present with others. When I am making decisions about whether I practice meditation, I remind myself that I’ll be able to respond better to the people in my life if I take the time for the 10-minute practice.
Relationships are linked to mindset, purpose, and values because for many of us, our relationships are what matter most in our lives. There are many ways we can reinforce our health behaviors by linking them to important relationships in our lives.
When we invest in our own health and well-being, it allows us to better serve others and live out our life purpose. We can tap into relationships to create social support for ourselves and for others who share the same health behavior goals. According to research by Christakis and Fowler, healthy behaviors are contagious so role modeling them can positively influence loved ones and contribute to a healthier society around us.
Key Point: Identify just one way that you can link a healthy behavior to the most important relationships in your life. Make it a mindset, linking the health behavior you want to reinforce to stronger relationships. For example, I’ve been trying to increase the number of walks I get during the day, and I’ve been linking them to my relationships. Every week my twin sister and I do a walking phone call together and every evening I go on a walk with my spouse. The new walking routine not only helps with our well-being goals, but also helps foster stronger relationships.
It’s easy to let go of our healthy living goals in the face of daily challenges. By linking our health behaviors to the most important “why," “what," “who," or “how,” we can maximize our motivation, making lasting behavior change more likely.
Here are five steps you can take to help maximize your motivation:
- Step 1: Identify one specific health behavior that you’ve been trying to make more consistent. Instead of “eat healthier,” focus on one way to do that such as “replace a sugar-based treat with fresh fruit.”
- Step 2: Consider what matters most to you in life. Name just one motivational strategy that you’d like to try: “why," “what," “how,” or “who.”
- Step 3. Identify one way to link your specific health behavior to one motivational strategy. Write down in a sentence or two how you plan to do this and why this is important to you.
- Step 4: Practice. If one motivational strategy isn’t working, try another.
- Step 5: Be patient and give yourself grace. Consider each practice attempt as a new way to learn what works best for you. The key is to increase the consistency of the practice over time and to have fun with the experimentation. The focus is on practice, not on perfection.
Rebranding exercise: closing the gap between values and behavior by M. L. Segar, J. S. Eccles, and C. R. Richardson
Rethinking physical activity communication: using focus groups to understand women’s goals, values, and beliefs to improve public health by M. Segar, J. M. Taber, H. Patrick, C. L. Thai, and A. Oh
Increasing vegetable intake by emphasizing tasty and enjoyable attributes by B. P. Turnwald, J. D. Bertoldo, M. A. Perry, P. Policastro, M. Timmons, et al.
Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change by E. B. Falk, M. B. O’Donnell, C. N. Cascio, and V. J. Strecher