Intrinsic motivation is the key to lasting change

motivation - a bend in the road is not the end of the road

The cultural obligation to promise to transform yourself is nothing if not reliable. Each year, it bares its teeth between Christmas and January 1, when advertising for weight loss products and gyms hits fever pitch. They know we know we need all the help we can get to cultivate the willpower we proved not to have last year. And the one before.

The mechanisms of failure for resolutions are both embarrassingly simple and impossibly complex since we are both more than capable of not buying Kit Kats and because behaviour change is the icing on a layered psychic cake. Only around eight per cent of people actually follow through with their new year resolutions.

In essence, resolutions are like any other goal, except that their prescribed timeframe and assumed rather than felt necessity shift a key element of motivation from within to outside us. Without intrinsic motivation, lasting change is unlikely since true change requires significant effort and what initially feels like sacrifice and discomfort. That’s on top of challenges native to even goals in which we are invested to greater or lesser degrees – lack of or wavering motivation, lack of willpower, lack of planning, or even a lack of self-belief.

Without a plan, a goal is really just a dream. A plan – not necessarily scheduled to the hour – allows us to think ahead to possible hurdles, create solutions, and have a system for implementing them holistically, with mind, body and spirit.


Willpower is both exhaustible and subject to changes in mood and energy. Changing habits is better done by altering the environment. Consider habits as tiny computer programs in the brain. Things in the environment are the triggers (it might be a certain restaurant where we tend to drink too much alcohol, or a group of friends with whom we tend to overeat). There’s a reason fatigue has been linked to overeating. Changing physical actions might involve pre-empting temptations (e.g. warding off the mid-afternoon dip with a healthy snack), having an alternative (e.g. drinking soda and lime instead of a cocktail at happy hour), creating time in your calendar for the new habit (e.g. blocking out 30 minutes each day for a brisk walk) and reducing triggers (eg. switching off our WiFi in the evening so we’re not tempted to surf the internet all night when we should be sleeping)


Habits are preceded by the way we speak to ourselves. Rather than telling ourselves that healthy food is bland and boring, a better approach might be to focus on the foods we already like that happen to be healthy, and to approach healthy, delicious food as an
exciting adventure.

The words we say to ourselves can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Changing self-talk means slowing thoughts just enough to become aware of what we’re telling ourselves, and to question whether they’re really true. This is where mindfulness or meditation can be useful, as they allow us to untangle ourselves from the words in our minds. Once we’re aware of our self-talk, we can do something to change it.


Motivation is forever – but, only if it comes from within. While there are a million reasons to change habits, only a handful really matter to us. We might want to look good on the beach, or impress our old school friends at our reunion, or have enough energy to keep up with the kids. There is no good or bad reason to change our habits – only the reasons that matter to us. They can be deeply personal and private, or something that we want to share with the world.

Uncovering deep, hidden motivations can be done with structured introspection and a pen and paper. Sure, you want to look good and have more energy for the kids, but why – what’s the reward you’re chasing? Are we really wanting stronger relationships? To feel like a better parent? To feel more attractive? To be a better role model? To feel connected with a higher power?

Being in touch with and cultivating these deep-seated, fundamental motivators can renew and replenish motivation, even when willpower has long since been depleted. Staying motivated demands the repetition of daily practice, focusing on the why of our promised change.

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