How Intrinsic Motivation Can Help You Outsmart New Years Resolutions

Intrinsic motivation

We’ve all set New Year’s resolutions that were DOA by the third week of January. In fact there’s even a term for it — Quitter’s Day, and it falls on January 17. It’s the day when most people abandon hope on their resolutions.

But there’s something most of these resolutions have in common: they’re usually extrinsically motivated, not intrinsically motivated. Meaning: they’re generally driven by some kind of external reward, like a lower number on the scale or hitting a race personal record (PR).

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, means that you’re driven by an inner desire. That is, you’re driven by knowing something will make you happy or healthy. Extrinsic motivation is OK for some situations, but it’s trickier to rely on it consistently, since it flames out faster and sometimes relies on externalities that are outside of your control.

It’s OK to have extrinsic goals, but here’s how you can harness your intrinsic, or internal, motivation to nail those resolutions — a way to help make them stick.

Figure out your why

Think about your goals and why you’re setting them. Is the motivation coming from you or an external source? For example, the motivation for a goal like weight loss could actually be culturally driven to fit in with a socially-accepted body type, rather than simply your desire to be healthier. If you’re gunning for a race PR, is it entirely for your own satisfaction or are you looking for validation that you’re a fast runner or so you can get compliments from friends? (This writer is guilty as charged.)

Assess your needs

Often, our New Year’s resolutions are reflective of what we feel is missing in our lives or what we value. If one of your intentions for the new year is to join a volunteer group, this may be showing that you place importance on connection and making a difference. “Having clarity as to what we value and what is important to us will help us create goals that are intrinsic,” says Talkspace Therapist Joanna Filidor, LMFT.

Find what’s fun

If you’ve figured out that you’re trying to lose weight to fit a cultural standard, you might want to reframe your goal as “getting stronger.” What’s fun to you about getting stronger? If you’re tempted to join Orangetheory because everyone else is doing it, stop and think if you really enjoy the workout. The workout you enjoy is the one you’ll be most likely to return to and stick with. Do the physical activity you’ve always enjoyed rather than the one that’s the latest fad.

Remove the outcome

If you’ve signed up for a race, and you want to PR, that’s a valid goal — but give it an intrinsic spin, too. It’s not often that we’d suggest imagining yourself failing, but bear with us for a second. Picture yourself on race day, falling just short of your PR. How can you use intrinsic motivation so it’s not just all about that PR? Did you feel strong the whole time, not hitting the dreaded wall? Did you PR in fun, high-fiving spectators on the course? Did you feel present the entire time, really taking in how you felt as well as your surroundings? Focus your training on what you’ll do to reach these goals to remove your attachment to an outcome so that you can enjoy the process no matter what.

Get curious

Think back to the last time you really got absorbed in a hobby, learning everything you could about knitting, for example. You were so interested and curious that you achieved milestones, like creating a sweater, without even thinking twice about them. If you’ve always been curious about meditating, try learning everything you can about its benefits. The more you know about why meditation can be so beneficial, the more likely you will be to do it. Use your natural curiosity to explore your resolution.

Take time to reflect

What many unsuccessful resolutions miss out on is reflection. We’re not talking about “reflecting” on your resolution and deciding it’s not for you and giving up on it. We’re talking about some good honest thinking about your progress and how you might alter your plan to meet your goal. Even if you’ve fumbled along the way, take into account your wins, too. It’s those wins that will keep you motivated to keep going. “If at any point a person finds themselves losing motivation, it can help to remember why you are doing it in the first place,” says Filidor.

We want you to be successful with whatever your resolutions are this year! Being Intrinsically motivated will help you dig deep when that motivation inevitably wanes — it’ll help you find your resolve to push on. You’re relying on your own power instead of drawing it from an external source, and you should be proud to recognize what you can achieve.

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