Whether it’s sticking to a new year’s resolution, taking up a new hobby or quitting a bad habit once and for all, achieving long-term behavioural change is hard. But why is that?
How successful you are at changing your behaviours could be determined by the source of your motivation. Many psychologists argue that the type of motivation you have is more important than the amount of motivation you have.
Research has suggested that, in order to change your behaviours, you need to be ready to change and 100% committed to the cause – and, being ready and committed often comes from deep-rooted, internal motivating factors.
The power of autonomous motivating factors
In 2012, a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity suggested that people trying to lose weight are more likely to instigate long-lasting behavioural change if they fully endorse their weight loss-related behavioural goals – meaning they feel not just competent but also autonomous about reaching them.
According to self-determination theory, a psychological theory that focuses on the type of motivation and not only the amount, our behaviour is underpinned by different motivating factors. These include external and intrinsic – with external being least autonomous and intrinsic being the most autonomous.
An increasing amount of research suggests that intrinsic motivation is the more successful form of motivation when it comes to instigating long-term behavioural change.
Intrinsic motivation for losing weight could be the internal pleasure and sense of satisfaction gained by achieving and maintaining a fit, healthy lifestyle. This is a combination of enjoying the ‘work’ involved to stay fit and healthy, and a desire to maintain the end result or ‘reward’.
Ultimately, if you’re intrinsically motivated, it means you’re doing something you love or at the very least enjoy – which can make it easier to feel enthusiastic, do well and stay focused under your own free will.
The internal ‘rewards’ associated with intrinsic motivators can include increased autonomy, greater self-awareness and an overall sense of purpose.
If your motivation is external or extrinsic, then it’s more about the reward at the end as opposed to enjoying the overall process. You want to look slim, so you exercise – even though you hate working out. You diet because you want to lose 5kg before your wedding, but you dislike eating healthily.
This type of motivation is about satisfying a short-term need, but often when the goal or need has been achieved then there is no further incentive – and that’s why extrinsic motivation sometimes isn’t as effective when it comes to long-term behavioural change.
Some forms of extrinsic motivation can be spurred by feelings of regret, shame, guilt or fear. For example, feeling ashamed about being overweight, regretting not sticking to a previous diet or feeling guilty about never exercising. Yet studies have suggested that being motivated by positive feelings is more likely to result in behaviour change than being driven by negative feelings like guilt, regret or fear.
British researchers who analysed 129 studies of behaviour change strategies found that inducing people to regret it if they acted in a particular fashion and arousing fear were the two least effective strategies. On the other hand, the most effective strategies that resulted in ‘large’ effects on behaviour—were to prompt practice, set specific goals, generate self-talk, agree a behavioural contract, and prompt review of behavioural goals.
Obviously, you can’t always be intrinsically motivated in every aspect of your life. You may not be one of the lucky ones who adores their job, all day every day. You’ll probably never enjoy vacuuming and ironing as much as you enjoy living in a clean house and wearing clean clothes. However, if you’re trying to change a specific behaviour, then knowing and understanding what motivates you is a powerful way to instigate long-term, effective change.