You’re Better Off Just Eating the Carrot: A Changing View on Motivation
By Avance Care’s Registered Dietitian: Shannon Corlett, MS, RDN, LDN
Did you know that human behavior is the most significant contributor to health-related outcomes? That means you have control over the greatest risk factor for chronic disease. But this involves both initiating and sustaining change, a process that can be daunting if not approached correctly. Thankfully, researchers continue to investigate what works (and what doesn’t) when it comes to successful lifestyle interventions. You can use that information to increase your likelihood for success.
What keeps you from accomplishing your health-related goals? In practice, a few responses to this question keep coming up; “I don’t have time,” “it’s too hot/cold outside,” “it’s too expensive,” “there’s been too much stress at home/work/school recently…” you get the idea. But what happens when these factors never seem to improve, the stress is always high or there are never enough hours in a day? How do you successfully make the changes necessary to feel better and be healthier?
One factor that can have a major influence on your likelihood of success are the reasons you have for making the change, also known as your motivation. The challenge here is that people are motivated by different things, and working toward a goal that isn’t personalized is less likely to result in long term success. Even the quality of your motivator can have an impact on the outcome!
Traditionally, external motivators have been used to support change. Think of this as the “carrot or the stick” approach, where performing well earns you a “carrot,” or a reward for doing the desired behavior. But let’s be honest, the reward is never actually a carrot! It’s a sweet treat, fried food, a day off from the diet, whatever you can offer yourself in exchange for eating that salad at lunch today. The flip side is the “stick,” a punishment for not meeting your goal. For example, “I have to take a 3 mile walk today because I ate that piece of cake after dinner last night.” This method has been used for motivation in many fields beyond healthcare and works well for many simple, mechanical tasks. Unfortunately, most of us would identify our lives as anything but simple. For higher-level, complicated task this reward/punishment system has actually been found to make outcomes worse! That’s right, you are actually less likely to successfully accomplish a long-term behavior change using this system.
So how can you find the motivation for change? Recent research has discussed the Self-Determination Theory, which focuses on autonomous self-regulation and self-motivation. In essence, taking ownership of the change. For example, “I do yoga because it brings me closer to myself and I want to master the skill,” “I am really interested in learning how to cook delicious meals using herbs and spices from around the world,” or “I feel that I have truly chosen myself every time I decide to step away from my desk and take a walk on my lunch break.” The goal is to identify or develop genuine interest in the task. Think “it’s fun to” or “that’s just part of how I live my life” instead of “I have to” or “I have a sweet tooth that I am just trying to avoid for now.” Making the change part of yourself eliminates the risk of going back to old habits because those behaviors would no longer make sense for your current self. Some of these changes align with natural interests, like biking because you enjoy it not because it counts for your physical activity, while others can be gradually integrated over time. But remember that the quality of your motivator also matters. Starting with an intrinsic goal, such as improving personal health, growth, or relationships promotes healthier behaviors. While extrinsic motivators, like money or looking attractive, are associated with less healthy behaviors. Ideally, making the changes should feel important and have a personal meaning and purpose.
Of course, there are limitations to this process. First, you have to associate new eating or activity behaviors with long-term goals. It can be challenging to connect eating cookies today with your weigh-in next week! Plus, a lot of your daily eating decisions happen at a lower level of thought, potentially bypassing the needed level of awareness for change. Not to mention that we tend to think of motivation as a quantitative value (how much motivation do I have?) while many lifestyle changes are qualitative (for a potential or future benefit). However, each of these limitations can be overcome. Your Dietitian is committed to providing unconditional acceptance, as well as creative problem solving, to bypass some of these barriers. Remember that the ideal goal is driven by your personal motivators and achieved when you feel successful. If you’re feeling stuck, like you don’t have any motivation, maybe it’s time we re-evaluate the goals you’re working toward!