Motivation Articles

The Before-During-After Journal

The Write Way to Build Your Intrinsic Motivation

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Do you often have trouble finding the motivation to stick to your exercise and nutrition goals? If so, then you might not be looking in the right place.

Experts who study motivation have long recognized two basic types of motivation:
  1. Extrinsic (external) motivation, when you are motivated primarily by external rewards and consequences, either positive or negative. When you pull yourself out of your nice, warm bed in the morning to go to work because you want (and need) that paycheck, your motivation is extrinsic—it’s the external reward (money) or consequence (getting fired) that provides the immediate motivation for getting up.
     
  2. Intrinsic (internal) motivation, when your motivation comes from the internal experience of pleasure, meaning, satisfaction, pride or other similar feelings. Imagine for a moment that you don’t really need that paycheck—you’ve won the lottery, or your spouse has just been promoted and you don’t need a second income any more. What would it take to get you out of bed every morning and off to work? Most likely, it would take some kind of intrinsic motivation.
So, why should the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation matter to you?

Because permanent weight loss and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are the types of goals that depend heavily on intrinsic motivation. If you frequently experience motivational problems, you are probably relying on external rewards or consequences too much, and not doing enough to increase your internal motivation.

Some common signs that you may need to increase your intrinsic motivation include:
  • Depending too much on what the scale (or tape measure or the fit of your clothes) says; you feel motivated when your weight goes down, unmotivated when you gain or stay the same.
  • Constantly battling with yourself; under “normal” circumstances, you want to eat whatever and whenever, and your body just naturally gravitates toward the couch.
  • Feeling like exercise and healthy eating are hard work; you wouldn’t choose these routes if you didn’t need to lose weight.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait for intrinsic motivation to appear on its own, magically, or create it by sheer force of will. In fact, waiting for it to happen and trying to force it are sure ways to make sure it doesn’t improve at all. You have everything you need for intrinsic motivation right now. You just need to let yourself experience this fact. This will help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, and reduce the amount of misery, frustration, and suffering you experience along the way. Here’s one good tool you can use to get yourself moving in this direction.

The Before-During-After Journal
You already know how important it is to track your calorie intake and output in order to lose weight. The same thing is true about your responses to exercise and eating.

For most people, it's easy to notice your negative responses when things don’t go as planned. In fact, it's even easier to get so caught up in these negative thoughts that they seem to sap the motivation right out of you. When this happens, you aren't literally losing your motivation—you're simply running into the natural limitations of extrinsic motivation. You haven’t figured out how to shift into “intrinsic motivation mode” as needed.

Making this shift requires the ability to notice your positive responses to exercise and eating, and to give them the same significance you give to your negative responses. This may take a little practice, starting with the Before-During-After Journal.

To create your own Before-During-After (BDA) journal, all you need is a simple journal (online or on paper) and a few minutes to write before and after you eat and exercise. Here’s how to do it:
  1. Before: Whenever you don't want to exercise or stick to your meal plan, stop and write down how you’re feeling in your BDA journal. This can be very short and simple—just a note about how you are feeling or what you’re thinking about, without analyzing it. Record whether you are tired, bored, angry, upset or worried about something, etc.
     
  2. During: Go ahead and do whatever you decide to do—exercise or don't, stick to your meal plan or don't, etc. Pay attention to how you feel about your decision and your actions. Did the decision make you feel better or worse? Did your decision help solve the original problem, make it worse, or have no effect? Write down the decision you made and a brief note about how you felt while you were doing whatever you decided to do. Again, short and sweet is fine—don’t try to psychoanalyze yourself or read yourself the riot act if your choice wasn’t the one you hoped for. Just make sure that when you DO decide to exercise or with stick to your meal plan, you make sure to put this in your BDA journal, too.
     
  3. After: At the end of the day, sit down with your BDA journal for a little while and go through your notes. What patterns do you see, in terms of what seems to help and what doesn’t? What lessons can you take from this and use tomorrow, or the next time a problem comes up?
Chances are, you’ll notice that you feel better when you stick to your goals and plans, and that the short-lived pleasures of eating that treat or skipping your exercise session are quickly replaced by feelings of guilt and frustration. You’ll also spot some consistent patterns that can be altered with small changes in your daily routine, like doing your exercise as soon as you get home from work instead of waiting until after dinner. These small changes can help you tap into your internal motivation.

Maybe you'll notice that you actually prefer guilt and frustration to the pride, accomplishment, and pleasure that come with doing what you set out to do. Crazy as it sounds, lack of motivation can be related to secretly wanting to feel and think negatively about yourself. You may prefer these feelings, as unpleasant as they are, to the anxiety that comes with making big changes and opening yourself up to new possibilities in your life. If this rings a bell for you, you may need to work on getting comfortable with positive thoughts and feelings about yourself.

Either way, paying attention to what's going on inside when you act is the first step towards uncovering your own intrinsic motivation to accomplish your goals.  If you can commit to keeping your Before-During-After journal faithfully—even for a short time, like two or three weeks—I’ll bet big bucks that your problems with feeling unmotivated will happen much less often and be much easier to deal with.

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Member Comments

  • I read this article just in time! Goes for slacking off on my other life goals too! I had created new nutrition and fitness goals. But this journal idea will keep me mindful of how and why I am slacking of. Writing things down, like this comment, makes me feel more committed to not try but do.
  • This is a really great article, thank you for it! I will start my BDA journal the next time I feel tempted to eat too much / not exercise.
  • Great article, this method would definitely help people keep an eye on their motivation levels.
  • Thanks for a spot-on article. I continually lose my focus and need to keep my eye on the prize so I printed this article as a visual reminder.



  • Thank you so much for a great article! I just heard a podcast about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and never thought part of my problem is that I look only for extrinsic motivation - fit into smaller clothes or scale number. You've helped to open my eyes to intrinsic motivation by keeping a BDA journal.
  • Whether you're worried about calories, or your overall health, you should consider journaling anything regarding your health. Add how you feel after exercise, returning from a medical appointment, sleep, etc.
  • ANGIE_E
    Another advantage of journaling is that you can more easily identify what works for you and what doesn't. I did really well with my nutrition several years ago and got really lean....then I fell off the proverbial wagon. I want to get back to where I was before and referring back to my journal entries at the time really helped me get back on track!
  • Liked this...thanks...
  • I am the person described at the beginning of the article. Surprising, because I had thought I was internally motivated. But yes, I want to give up a lot lately, both the exercise and on the right food. The food is more common for me, but I've always loved lifting weights if nothing else, so I'm definitely off track right now.

    So, I am going to try this journal, which may get me to focus, or think of my goals more often. In any case, I think it will help! Thanks for the great idea, Coach Anderson!
  • This.....was a really good article. Thanks.
  • KIMOOKI
    I didn't know this article has been on SparkPeople so long! I did discover the power of journaling and ritual (Twyla Tharp on creativity) when I committed to everyday activity until I turned 50- a bet I could do it (160 some odd days) with my daughter because she went to live in Japan after high school graduation and I pinky swore her to doing it. I did it. And I'll be 51 in 3 months, still going strong. My motivation turned intrinsic real fast, and I continuously monitor motivation(s). What amazing changes and recognition I've gotten, but not at all on the faster timetable I naively thought too many times. Worth it? yes. Hard work? some days more mental than -? Yes. But I did it and I need no real recognition for it. Intrinsic motivation met.
  • Were you listening in on my lack-of-motivatio
    n conversation with my family last night??? (she says with a smile) I'm stuck in the downward spiral of I don't commit because I don't see results (because I don't commit..). I'm going to try the BDA journaling technique to see what patterns surface.
  • I have read much about dieting over the years, but have never heard about a before-during-aft
    er journal. Love to learn something new. Thanks for the great article.
  • I love this idea! Just found an online journal site and set it up and wrote my first entry. Thank you for sharing this today!

About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

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