Science & Medicine

The Empowered Patient (March)

by Michael Goldstein, M.D.

Motivating Yourself
Last month I wrote about how to maintain a New Year’s resolution and to encourage you to keep trying if you are having difficulty meeting your goals.
This month’s column is for those of you who didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you thought about it, but never got around to it. Or, you didn’t even think about setting one. Perhaps you set resolutions in the past, but avoided making any this year because you have become demoralized from years of “failure”.

If you have even a tiny bit of motivation to change something in your life, and are willing to consider how you might motivate yourself to take action, you’ve come to the right column.

Behavioral scientists who have studied motivation have found that people are most likely to change when the reasons for change comes from within themselves, rather than from an outside source. Though outside influences (e.g., your spouse, your doctor) may help tip the balance towards change, the most powerful motivators for lasting change are your own reasons or arguments for change. Some psychologists call this “intrinsic” motivation, in contrast to “extrinsic” motivation that comes from sources outside ourselves. Rewards for changing, as well as punishment for not changing, are examples of extrinsic motivators. Though external rewards and punishment may result in short-term changes, their effect diminishes when they are no longer in play. In contrast, change that is intrinsically rewarding or pleasurable is more likely to be maintained.
So, what increases intrinsic, or internal motivation? Research suggests that intrinsic motivation is increased when we are able to see a link between change and something that is very important to us or has meaning and value. For example, a parent with young children is more likely to give up smoking if they see a link between stopping smoking and being able to keep up their kids on the playground, or if they want to quit to be a good role model for their children.

Intrinsic motivation is also increased when we feel like change is under our control and when we have choices. Nobody likes to be told that they must change, unless it is coming from an inner voice.

A third factor that increases intrinsic motivation is competence – feeling confident that you have the ability to change. This often comes from past experience with change or believing you have the tools and resources needed to be successful.
If you would like to work on your own motivation (if so, you must have at least a smidgen of intrinsic motivation), it might be helpful to reflect on your answers to the following questions. Take a minute or two while reading these questions to think through your answers, and maybe even jot them down.

  • What do I want to change?
  • What reasons do I have for changing? (focus on your reasons, rather than somebody else’s reasons)
  • What is the most important reason for changing? What makes it so important?
  • If I were able to change, what benefits would I experience?
  • What is the most important benefit?
  • Who else might benefit from my change?
  • How would people who care about me feel about my change? (picture the scene)
  • How would I feel about myself if I was able to change? (try to imagine actually experiencing the feeling)
  • What small steps can I take to get started on the road to change? (consider the really really small steps that you know you to successfully take)
  • Who can help me get started?
  • How can I bring my talents and skills and experience to the change process?

You probably noticed that these questions lead you to consider the positive aspects of change. I have avoided questions that pull for barriers to change. Though it may be useful to consider how to overcome barriers once you are ready to change, starting with questions that pull for benefits, reasons, desires and ability to change can spur you to take action, particularly when you can imagine or see the benefits, and especially when you can see the benefits spilling over to others who are important to you.
Feel free to share your thoughts and reflections in a comment here.
If you would like to learn more about intrinsic motivation, see the Self Determination Theory website .

Take me back to the Contents

© Michael Goldstein and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Goldstein and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Comments on: "The Empowered Patient (March)" (3)

  1. with you all the way on this, Michael. Thank you for the link to the Self Determination Theory website

  2. Excellent article. I am trying to start exercising and have found the motivation to keep on exercising through reading and answering your questions. Just what I needed – thank you.

    • Bonnie, I am glad to hear that the column was helpful. Your own answers to these questions are more powerful than any advice another can give. I hope your exercise plans bring you closer to your goals. Best wishes, Michael.

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