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“I know what I need to do, I just need to find the motivation.” This is something I hear over and over again from people I work with in my clinic.

Lady Motivation - she’s a fickle b*tch at the best of times.

If I had to summarise this blog into a TL;DR it would be this: people are often waiting to feel motivated before they take action. But frequently, it’s taking action that builds motivation. In addition, you have different motivation buckets. Understanding where motivation comes from can help you when you find your usual bucket is empty.

Motivation is like a spectrum, ranging from not really feeling it (we call that amotivation) to being super excited about doing something (that's intrinsic motivation). There's also something in the middle called extrinsic motivation, where we're driven by outside stuff like rewards or avoiding trouble.

You know when people say they just feel “meh” about something? That’s a state of amotivation

While it can be a problem for some people, amotivation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of people I know who are living their best lives when they’re on the couch, binge watching Netflix under a blanket.

For them, going for a run or doing a cross stitch is ludicrous. 

However, problems can arise when a previously motivated person finds themselves dealing with a state of amotivation. This can happen at any stage of life, for any number of reasons, but the hormonal shifts in our 40s and 50s can be a major contributor (and if that’s you, take heart in knowing this: the fact that you’re even reading this article suggests you still are motivated… otherwise you’d be on the couch with a packet of Salt’n’Vinegar Kettle chips not giving a f*).

Next, in the middle of the spectrum, we have extrinsic motivation. This is when we do things because we get something out of it. 

So maybe you set yourself the goal of going to the gym three times a week for a month and if you do, then you’ll treat yourself to a spa day, or a new piece of overpriced athleisurewear from Lorna Jane (IYKYK 😉).

And finally we have intrinsic motivation. This is when we do things just because we enjoy them. Have you ever known a person who bakes, but then gives all the cupcakes away? That’s a person who is intrinsically motivated to bake. They’re not doing it so they can eat the cupcakes. They love the process of baking. 

When we're intrinsically motivated, we're more likely to stick with something because we genuinely like doing it.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation aren't always separate. For example: you may start exercising because you want to lose weight (that's extrinsic). But as you keep going, you realise you love the feeling of being active, and suddenly, you're doing it for the joy of it (that's intrinsic).

In addition to this motivation spectrum, we have four different concepts that psychologists talk about that can also affect our drive. These are: 

  • Integrated regulation, 

  • Identified regulation, 

  • Introjected regulation, and 

  • External regulation.

Integrated regulation is like the gold standard of motivation. It's when our habits align with our core values and become an integral part of who we are. 

For example, if you value your overall well-being and see regular exercise as a way to honor that value, you're likely being guided to exercise regularly. It's about how you show up in the world.

Identified regulation is when we understand the importance of a habit and personally connect with the reasons behind it. 

For instance, maybe you don’t like weightlifting, but there’s a history of osteoporosis in your family. Your Mother never did weight bearing exercise and had her hip replaced at 65. As a result, you regularly lift weights because you want to avoid developing osteoporosis.

Introjected regulation happens when we engage in habits due to internal pressures like guilt or fear of judgment.

(A lot of people who were brought up Catholic usually make a joke when they hear this one 🫣).

This could be something like being motivated to mow the lawn because you’re worried about what the neighbours might think if you have an untidy front yard.

Lastly, there's external regulation. This is when outside forces, like rewards or punishments, push us to adopt healthy habits. For example, if you quit smoking only because your partner refuses to kiss you anymore, that's external regulation. 

It’s important to note that while it's often a great way to get us started, relying solely on external regulation might not keep us going in the long run.

Ideally, we want to shift towards integrated and identified regulations, where our habits align with our values and personal goals. This way, our motivation becomes more intrinsic and long-lasting, making it easier to stick to those habits for the long haul. 

We also need to talk about three sneaky mind games that our brains often like to play with us:

Resistance, ambivalence, and the negativity bias. 

These are psychological phenomena that often influence our motivation in various ways. We all experience them, they're just a part of being human.

Understanding these concepts is crucial for overcoming obstacles and dealing with dips in motivation.

Resistance: is that feeling when your brain says, "Nah, let's not do this," when faced with a task, change, or challenge.  Resistance can manifest as procrastination, self-doubt, or avoidance. Also known as talking ourselves out of things. We've all been there. 

Sometimes it’s conscious - our doctor told us we have to give up smoking but we know we’re resisting because we don’t like being told what to do. Other times it’s unconscious - the excuses could stem from fear of failure, concerns about stepping out of your comfort zone, or doubts about your abilities. 

Recognising resistance is the first step in addressing it. Once you realise you’re resisting, you can find ways to move through it. (Personally, the minute I find myself up in my head having a conversation with myself just like a small child trying to avoid chores... I know I'm resisting).

Ambivalence: is that love-hate relationship with a goal. You want to do it, but at the same time, you're not sure about the challenges.

It’s like how I know eating almonds isn’t the healthiest choice I can make (they contain oxalates which are bad news for me)… but I love almonds croissants almost as much as I love my kids.

Overcoming ambivalence involves weighing the pros and cons, identifying personal values, and establishing a clear understanding of the benefits of pursuing the goal. 

Looking after my body is a core value, but so is living a life I enjoy, which to me includes almond croissants from time-to-time. Ambivalence can often be solved with balance.

Negativity Bias: is our brain's way of being a bit dramatic. It loves to focus on the negatives, even when there are positives around. It's the art of catastrophising, where everything feels like it's going to fall apart.

(I’m reminded here of one of my favourite quotes by Michel de Montaigne - “There were many terrible things in my life and most of them never happened.”)

We become masters of the "should" game, telling ourselves what we should have done or should be doing. Negative thinking is rigid thinking. 

You have to constantly counterbalance it by learning to reframe your mindset. Cultivate mental agility by questioning negative thoughts. Ask yourself “Is this true or is this a story that I’m telling myself?”

The ultimate antidote to negativity is gratitude, practice it daily. Plus - and this is really important - look at all you have achieved. Acknowledge everything you do well. We’re far too hard on ourselves most of the time.

If you find yourself struggling to get motivated, it’s important to figure out which of the motivation buckets you can dip into. Especially if intrinsic motivation is low. Here’s an example:

Maybe you’ve lost your mojo and you’re feeling meh (amotivated). 

You don’t care that you need to workout and learn a meditation practice to help regulate your hormones and nervous system - screw your stupid hormones and nervous system! (lack of intrinsic motivation, resistance).

But, you love your kids and your partner. You don’t want to be a volatile, screaming banshee. You’ve been fighting a lot with your partner lately. Your parents fought all the time and got divorced and you don’t want that to happen to you (identified regulation). 

Plus, you feel so guilty for snapping at your kids and saying things you later regret. Things you can't take back even though you apologised. You'll do anything to avoid feeling like that (introjected regulation).

So you call your friend who exercises regularly and you make a pact to go for a walk with them every weekday morning at 6:30am. It’s winter, and you’re not a morning person, but you’ve told them you’re going to do it and you don’t want to let them down (more introjected regulation).

You also set yourself a 14 day journaling and meditation challenge. Just 5 minutes a day of journaling followed by 5 minutes of meditation. If you make the entire 14 days you’ll reward yourself with a new notebook, even though you already have 36 notebooks (you know who you are 🤭 external regulation).

Then you hear that voice in your head: Bah! There’s no point trying to meditate. You’ve tried before and it sucked a fat one and you’ll NEVER be able to learn it. You'll just fail at it like you fail at everything (negativity bias, resistance).

But… new notebook (external regulation).

We all suffer from missing mojo but when you understand how to use internal and external forces to guide your decision making process, it is possible to keep moving forward.

Bit by bit.

Day by day.

Habit by habit.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” - Will Durant.

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