Developing Intrinsic Motivation is the Key to Successful Behavior Change

There’s No App For This 

I blogged a few days ago about the new rewards program that is being offered by iPhone.  iPhone users that log their workouts using the Nexercise app have a change to win rewards; gift cards, discounts, even cash.

While external rewards create motivation, over the long haul, people have to develop intrinsic motivation if they are going to create long lasting lifestyle changes.

Are you motivated by extrinsic rewards, intrinsic, or a combination of the two?

People that depend on extrinsic rewards need to be signed up for a race in order to be motivated to run, or attend a fitness class where they rely on an instructor to push them along, or have a buddy meet them at the gym to work out with.  As soon as there isn’t a race pending, the instructor is absent or the workout buddy has the flu the person relying solely on extrinsic rewards can’t motivate themselves to exercise.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from within.  It is the pleasure or feeling of satisfaction that a person gets when they complete a task.  People that have intrinsic motivation don’t need an iPhone app, a gym buddy or an instructor to be there for them.

The Dangling Carrot Seems To Be The Key To Behavior Change

My ‘real’ job is as an administrator of wellness programs for a health insurance company. No big surprise that participants rely heavily on incentives also known as carrots.  For weight loss competitions we give away cash.  Participants in walking or other exercise programs have a chance to win gift cards.  If we launch a program longer in length, where it’s harder to keep people motivated, we entice them with a bigger prize  – an iPod or free gym membership.

Employee wellness programs that are not incentivized typically have very low participation rates.  Providing rewards to get people to establish healthier behaviors is okay for a while, but really is doomed for failure as a long-term plan.  Eventually the carrot will be taken away, or the carrot will no longer provide the proper amount of motivation needed.

How Does a Person Move from Extrinsic Motivation to Intrinsic? 

A person that depends almost entirely on external motivation may have more difficulty developing that internal sense of satisfaction to push them along.  While it might be difficult it certainly isn’t impossible.  It calls for a shift in focus and they will need to concentrate solely on the sense of accomplishment they get after they’ve achieved what they set out to do.

Let’s Set A  SMART Goal

Figure out what your external motivators are and make a list of them.  Then set a goal to no longer relay on those motivators.

For example, a person that isn’t inspired to run if they aren’t signed up for a race to compete in could set a goal that looks like this:

  • For four weeks, I will run three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for 40 minutes.
  • I will do the workouts even if my running buddies aren’t able to be there.
  • During and after the run I will focus on how good it feels to be working on my running program even though I’m not signed up for a race.
  • I will keep a journal and write down how I feel after each run using positive self-talk and self-encouragement.
  • At the end of the four weeks I will set a new goal.

Over time the carrot won’t be needed.  An external motivator won’t be necessary for the workouts to take place and the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation will have begun.