Win from Within! - How to Get Yourself Motivated from the Inside Out

“I tried to go on a diet, but it just didn’t work.”

“Yeah, I started to exercise, but then I went on vacation and I haven’t been back to the gym since.”

“I want to get in shape, but I just don’t have the motivation."

Sounds familiar? Whether it was from a friend or family member, or even from yourself, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve heard these lines before. While we are quick to blame failure on things like a “lack of motivation” or some unlucky event, it is less common, and perhaps more useful, to take a step back to look things from a different angle. Maybe “the problem” wasn’t what you thought it was.

Consider for a moment that perhaps, you don’t lack motivation after all, but you were simply using the wrong kind of motivation. What if success has more to do with creating a winning environment rather than just expending more effort? If these ideas sound too good to be true, I encourage you to wait till the end before you make up your mind. What I’m about to share with you is the new science of motivation and it will turn everything we think we know about on its head.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

The old theory of motivation says that humans do things in order to receive rewards or avoid punishments. This type of motivation is referred to as “extrinsic” because it depends on something external to yourself. Examples of extrinsically motivated goals include losing weight so that you can impress an old classmate at a high school reunion or working out with the goal of getting “six pack abs”. While this type of motivation does play a significant role in our lives, it is typically short lived and ultimately fizzles out when the goal is achieved. Additionally, extrinsic motivators are subject to the law of diminishing returns, meaning that the effectiveness of a given reward or punishment quickly decreases over time.

Now contrast that with the type of motivation a toddler displays when learning how to walk. Despite the numerous “failures”, they persistently explore new solutions, creatively use their environment, and joyfully celebrate each step towards success. This type of motivation, one that we are all born with, is called “intrinsic” because it emanates from within. As such, intrinsic motivation is “facilitated”rather than “forced” and if it is allowed to flourish, it gives rise to creativity, persistence, and deep satisfaction.

Self Determination Theory

For the past three decades, researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have sought to decode the science of motivation. In the process, they have expanded our concept of motivation to include an entire spectrum of motivated states as well as uncovering the conditions that must be in place for accessing the highest levels of intrinsic motivation. The synthesis of their findings is presented in the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation.

According to SDT, the three key factors that facilitate the expression of intrinsic motivation are autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In other words, in an activity where you feel like you are in control (autonomy), are able to make progress (competence), and feel a personal connection (relatedness) you also likely to experience a high degree of intrinsic motivation. Perhaps most interesting, however, is the discovery by Deci and Ryan that extrinsic motivators effectively kill intrinsic motivation.

The harmful effect of extrinsic motivators is most apparent when the task at hand is inherently interesting or complex. This hypothesis was independently tested by another set of researchers who verified that nursery school children who were promised a reward for drawing a picture ultimately lost interest in the activity. The same researchers saw no such decrease in interest in children who were not promised a reward and in children who received a reward after the fact. This made it clear that it was the expectation of completing a task in order to receive a reward (an “if then” reward) was the factor that negatively impacted intrinsic motivation rather than the reward itself.

From “Theory” to “Practice”

Now that we know the “ingredients” for creating the most powerful form of motivation, let's look at two common challenges people face and how they could be configured for success.

Rather than “Going on a diet to lose weight”, you could “Learn to cook”. Cooking is a skill that can be improved upon (competence), you are free to cook whatever type of food you like (autonomy), and you are able to share the results with friends and family (relatedness). Of course, you could also explore the food traditions of your ancestors (relatedness), buy a cookbook or attend a class to sharpen your skills (competence), or create your own recipes (autonomy) as well.

Rather than “Working out to improve muscularity”, try “Sign up for a sport”. Whether it is MMA, soccer, tennis, mountain biking, rock climbing or CrossFit (“The Sport of Fitness”), start by selecting a sport that appeals to you (autonomy) and commit to practicing enough to see improvement (competence). As you get to know your teammates (relatedness) and learn more about the history and culture of the activity (relatedness) you will experience a positive feedback loop of intrinsic motivation.

Final Thoughts

In his book “Drive”, author Daniel Pink explored the research of Deci and Edwards in the context of business. What he found was that the jobs of the next century will more often than not require creativity, risk taking, and complex problem solving as technological developments increasingly mechanize the routine work once performed by humans. In other words, individuals and companies will need to embrace the new theory of motivation (what Pink calls “motivation 3.0”) not only to succeed, but to survive.

To do this, companies are having to reevaluate their corporate structure (profit centered or purpose centered), explore alternative work arrangements (telecommuting, results-only-workplaces, and allotting time for self-directed projects), and reconsider the notion of incentives (while a “baseline” level of compensation is still important, performance related bonuses and other practices may lead to short-term thinking at the expense of long-term solvency.)

For the health-seeker, the task is no different. The old system of “carrots and sticks”, diminishing returns, and short-term thinking isn’t enough to take on the challenge of creating a true lifestyle transformation.

It’s time to welcome "failures" as steps towards mastery.  It's time to take action and responsibility.  It's time to act with purpose and intention.  It's time to get motivated, from the inside out.


"Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Deļ¬nitions and New Directions Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Dec",+Deci+00.pdf

“Undermining children's intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the "overjustification" hypothesis” Lepper, Mark R.; Greene, David; Nisbett, Richard E.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 28(1), Oct 1973, 129-137. doi: 10.1037/h0035519

“Drive” by Daniel H. Pink
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About Unknown

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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  1. Good one..thank you...I arrived t a crossroad of motivation burnout after 4 yrs of 6 days a week of road and track racing in the 50 yrs /over category ....took three months of rest and reassessed my inner motivations...liked what I read

  2. I think this is a HUGE reason that paleo works for me. I realized pretty early on that extrinsic motivation was not really effective for me, and in fact the more that i felt outside pressure to do something, the less likely i was to do it! But i see paleo as the "unifying concept" for my lifestyle - it puts the oomph behind my belief in being as all-natural as possible, and that makes it really really easy to stick to.