Become Your Own Best Motivator

There are several kinds of motivation problems that people run into, and each requires a different set of strategies. Let's start here with a little quiz to find out which motivational problems you might be dealing with.

Get out a small piece of paper to mark your answers to the following five questions. Respond to each statement with "True" if you think it applies to you more often than not or "False" if you think it doesn’t apply most of the time. Next, indicate on a scale of 1-10, how big of a role you think the statement plays in your motivation problems. If you think it plays almost no role, give it a one. If you think it is by far the most important factor in your motivation problems, give it a 10.

1. True or False: My motivation seems to depend on what the scale (or tape measure, fit of my clothes, etc.) says. I feel motivated when I see results, but unmotivated when I don’t. SCORE (1-10): _____

2. True or False: I feel like I am in a constant battle with myself. In my "normal" state, I want to eat whatever I like, whenever I want it, and/or my body just naturally gravitates towards the couch. It’s very hard to make myself do what I know I need to do. SCORE (1-10): _____

3. True or False: I really want to eat healthy and exercise most of the time, but I just can’t seem to resist the temptations that I run into most days. SCORE (1-10): _____

4. True or False: I think I would do much better if I had more control over my life and my time. There are just so many demands on me that I can’t fit exercise and healthy meals into my day as often as I want to. SCORE (1-10): _____

5. True or False: I do well for a few hours (or days or weeks), but then I have a bad time and things really go downhill. All I see is what I did wrong, not all the things I did well. I get flooded with negative feelings, and just want to give up. SCORE (1-10): _____

Interpret Your Results: Identifying Problems & Solutions
If you marked this statement True, and gave it a high score (5+), you are relying too much on external (extrinsic) forms of motivation and need to work on developing your internal (intrinsic) motivation.

There is nothing at all wrong with extrinsic motivation—we all need to see some concrete, measurable progress towards equally concrete and measurable goals. But, since these external results are so fickle and unpredictable when it comes to weight loss, you also need some internal motivation to keep you going when the scale (or your body) isn’t cooperating with your expectations. Here’s a simple exercise you can do to find out which sources of internal motivation might work best for you:

Imagine you live on a planet where scales and mirrors have never existed, where everyone wears one-size-fits-all unisex robes that effectively disguise their actual physical appearances. There are no standard height and weight charts, and your doctor has never heard of the Body Mass Index or waist-to-hip ratios. How will you decide whether your body is the way you want it to be? If you decide some changes are necessary, how will you know whether you are making progress towards those changes?

For example, ask yourself how you’re handling everyday tasks, like squatting down to pick something up, getting up from a chair, or working on your feet all day. If you’re carrying some extra weight, it may begin to affect your performance or comfort level when doing these activities. To make things easier, you may decide to reduce your calorie intake to get back down to a manageable size and building strength to make moving easier. Set a concrete, measurable goal that will make you feel better—like getting up out of the chair without using your arms—and set up an exercise program that will strengthen your muscles and improve your endurance. Keep track of your progress by noticing changes in your ability to handle your daily activities.

Use the same approach if your physical condition is causing problems with your moods or energy levels. Remember when you felt mostly good and ask yourself what you did to feel that way (not what your weight may have been). Start doing more of what you did then, as best you can, and experiment with different exercises and foods until you come up with options that help you feel the way you want to.

You get the basic idea here: weight is not the real problem, and losing weight is not the real solution. The problem is how you feel and what you can do. The solution is doing things that make you feel better (physically and mentally) and improve your functional abilities. To find out what those things are, you need to look inside yourself and observe what happens when you try different things.

Once you have some ideas along these lines, try to turn them into specific goals and measurable outcomes you can incorporate into your healthy living program.

If you answered True to this statement and gave it a high score (5+), you may have some inaccurate assumptions about what motivation means and feels like.

Many people seem to think that "being motivated" means not having to struggle with opposing desires. Not so. It is our nature as human beings to pursue both the gratification of our senses (eating what we like when we want it) and the psychological gratification of achieving meaningful but more abstract goals (being healthy, fit or attractive).

Judging one of these pursuits as superior to the other is to deny half of what and who you are, and set yourself up for endless inner conflict and turmoil—not exactly the stuff motivation is made of, right?

Your motivation will be much stronger and consistent when you focus on making conscious choices about what you can do consistently to meet all of your needs and desires.

A True response to either or both of these questions and a high score (5+) indicate that you may be assuming that your behavior is dictated by external factors (the needs of other people or the "appeal" of tasty foods), rather than by internal factors (your own values and decision-making processes). It is very difficult, if not impossible, to stay motivated when you believe you have little choice about what to do or how to manage your own feelings and desires.

One thing you can do to begin transforming these assumptions about who or what is controlling your behavior and choices, is to put the "I" back into your vocabulary. Take a closer look at how you define problems and situations in words. When you start using "I" statements to describe problems, as suggested there, you will automatically reprogram your mind to look for ways you can put yourself in control of what you think, feel, and do.

If you answered True to this and gave it a high score (5+), you probably struggle with some strong either/or and all-or-nothing thought patterns, as well as an overdose of perfectionism. These habits are real motivation-killers. The emotional upset they cause when things inevitably don’t go perfectly makes it impossible to stay focused on what really matters: what you can learn from your slip-ups to do better next time.

Unfortunately, just telling yourself to stop being such a perfectionist and to start thinking in both/and terms rarely solves this problem. You need to learn more about how this problem develops and how to effectively break the cycle of pessimism and self-defeat.