Much like the chicken and the egg, the relationship between motivation and action is a classic paradox. When we’re trying to form a new habit, will we be more successful if we feel that drive before we get started? Or does it make more sense to forge ahead and hope that we’ll find a reason to keep going once we start?
To answer those questions, we have to delve into the nature of motivation. As we explore the differences between internal and external motivation, you’ll discover why it pays to start with action. We’ll also walk through some useful strategies that can make it easier to leap into a new fitness habit.
External motivation (or extrinsic motivation) refers to the notion that you’re being driven by a force outside of yourself. Sometimes that involves the promise of a reward for taking an action, or the threat of punishment for inaction. If you’ve ever studied to avoid getting grounded or kept showing up at a crappy job purely for the paycheck, you’re already familiar with how external motivation can push us to take actions we might otherwise avoid.
External motivation applies to the realm of fitness, too. Say you’re aiming to lose weight. An external motivating factor could be the belief that a lower number on the scale will translate to more compliments and positive attention. That’s probably enough to get you off the couch, right?
The problem with external motivation is that it can be short-lived and unreliable, because it depends on factors outside of our immediate control. For example, there’s no guarantee that dropping to your goal weight will translate to the attention and validation you crave. Without that one crucial reward, it can feel like any work you put in was pointless. Fixating on that end result can blind us to all of the progress and positive changes that occur along the way.
As you might’ve guessed, internal (or intrinsic) motivation works a bit differently: it’s all about the drive that comes from within. The obvious advantage here is that you’re in control. In that weight loss example, an internal motivator could be the sense of self-confidence you get from working towards your goal, or any of the positive physical or mental benefits that come along with putting forth a consistent effort to be healthy. You are motivated to keep putting in the effort because you like how it makes you feel. Even if you’re stranded on a desert island, a healthy sense of internal motivation can keep you doing a goblet squat with a coconut.
The reason we so often lean on external motivations when we’re setting our fitness goals is because internal motivations can seem abstract before we feel them for ourselves. It’s easy to see progress on the scale or in the mirror, but it’s a bit harder to imagine what feeling healthy or less stressed is like without the physical efforts required to truly experience those benefits.
That’s why you have to be willing to take the first step before a strong sense of internal motivation shows up. It may seem counterintuitive. But to paraphrase a lesson from physics class, every action creates a reaction. While you can’t control whether or not you start out with that sense of internal motivation, you can control whether or not you take action — no matter the circumstances.
And with that one spark, you begin to stoke the fire of internal motivation, which, over time, will kick in and give you the confidence to take more actions that expand your comfort zone. At some point, the switch fully flips: working out is no longer a means to the end of some far-off goal. It’s its own reward, which continually provides and reinforces the positive physical and mental benefits that you’ve started to notice.
There’s no magic spell to conjure internal motivation out of thin air. However, the right approach to your fitness routine can make it easier to not only take your first steps, but forge a stronger connection between action and motivation over time.
Even if your initial goal is the product of external motivation, take the time to reflect on what it means to you. Why do you want to achieve it? What positive change will it create? Visualize that moment of accomplishment. When you have a strong sense of what drives you, it’s easier to commit to the process of getting there.
Every journey starts with a single step. Focus on small, attainable goals in the beginning — even if it’s as simple as starting that first workout. The satisfaction that comes from achieving something you set out to do will start to build the confidence and consistency you’ll need to face bigger challenges.
The best way to tap into a steady supply of motivation is to focus on building habits rather than chasing outcomes. Having a plan and committing to it helps cultivate that inner sense of accomplishment, even if more outwardly visible results take time to reveal themselves. If you keep showing up, you’ll be surprised where your efforts can take you.
Just like in every other area of life, there will be ups and downs as you work towards your fitness goals. Staying adaptable and focusing on the things you can control will help you keep moving even if things aren’t going according to plan. Don’t beat yourself up or lose your cool over what you can’t change. Just do the next right thing.
If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. And you’ll never know what you’re truly capable of if you’re stuck in your comfort zone. By working towards a goal that seems both difficult and meaningful, you’ll gain the motivation and momentum that propels you towards even bigger and better things.
The best exercise regimen is about working hard and playing hard. Find ways to integrate some fun and games into your workouts. If you can smile as you sweat, you’ve got one more reason to show up and stick with it.
The best motivation comes from within, but that doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone. Forging a bond with a Future coach puts someone in your corner who can push you to take action and celebrate your progress, no matter where you’re starting from.
Consistency and flexibility are cornerstones of the custom-built fitness plans they create for you, and their genuine support comes from a real understanding of you, your goal, and what it takes to get there. Whether you’re taking your first step or your 500th, and no matter where or when you fit workouts into your schedule, there’s a Future coach with the power to move you.
Need some extra motivation? Get a big discount off your first month and start working with a personal trainer whose plan of action revolves around you.