Motivation: Is it what you think it is?

Motivation is a huge topic of conversation when it comes to fitness and health, and for good reason. The inherent belief is that you have to be motivated to exercise and eat healthily. Sure, you have to have a motive that you value… but is motivation really what people think it is? Does it have to be characterised by a visible, positive energy?

It’s really common to hear people say they are not motivated enough to do things, or even that they could never be motivated enough. I’m sure I’ve said it about many things. Of course, it is usually pretty difficult to be motivated to do something that you place no value on or does not interest you. However, if you do place some sort of value on something, there is usually a way of becoming motivated to do it – you just have to know how.

If someone believes that they could never be motivated enough to do something, it suggests that they perceive their level of motivation as a personality-type trait that will never change. However, motivation can change dramatically, because it is influenced by many different things.

One of the biggest advantages when it comes to motivating yourself is knowing what it means to be motivated, and what actually influences your motivation.

Various psychological definitions and indeed types of motivation have been established. You could spend absolutely ages analysing where you sit on each of these. But what I am interested in discussing here is the link between the thoughts and feelings of “motivation”, and subsequent behaviour. We want to be motivated because it results in a behaviour that is desirable to us for some reason, and motivation makes that behaviour easier and/or more comfortable in some way.  

Now, it seems like common sense that if someone wants to achieve something badly enough, they will work for it. But this just isn’t the case for many people. How many times have you observed someone you know desperately try to lose weight and then give up? I don’t know about you, but in the past I have gone through periods of months and months, not being able to get my act together and get what I need to done. It isn’t just about wanting something. Intentions are a weak predictor of behaviour, and this is the case because unfortunately we don’t work entirely on logic. We rely heavily on habitual behaviour and emotional thinking, and these are often difficult to ignore, particularly when we are tired, stressed or moody.

Wanting an outcome is only the first step in a journey towards a goal. You know you want to lose weight, so that gives you some vague direction in which you can point your efforts. But being motivated is more than a strong desire. What “being motivated” isn’t is an invincible positive enthusiasm that leaves you full of energy and feeling like you could take on the world.

Sometimes I really don’train-122691_960_720 feel like going for a run. It’s raining, I’m tired and I’d rather stay in and chill out. I make a small commitment to myself – that I will at least begin – and get out there anyway. I don’t enjoy it for the first half at least; I don’t feel enthusiastic, and I don’t feel optimistic about my goals. But that doesn’t matter. In my eyes, motivation is doing something for a valued reason, even when you really don’t feel like it. You don’t have to be the epitome of positivity and feel like you’re absolutely smashing it.

So why am I managing to get out there and run if I don’t feel like it? Part of it is habit – I’ve been in the routine for so long that it isn’t as big a mountain for me to climb as it once was. The other part is the aspect of self-improvement and satisfaction. Yes I could stay in and experience a different type of satisfaction – being cosy and comfortable, but achieving nothing. Only experience has taught me this – you have to give yourself a chance.

To truly tap into your motivation, you need to have reasons for doing something that help to satisfy the intrinsic drives we have as humans. This is by no means an extensive list, but these 4 factors are particularly important if you are trying to get motivated:

  1. Knowing why you want what you are trying to achieve.
  2. Your level of self-efficacy: this means the confidence you have in your ability to do something specific.
  3. Opportunities available for personal success and improvement.
  4. General positive reinforcement.

I will explain what I mean by these.

Knowing why

Let’s take exercising as an example; people do it for all sorts of reasons, ranging from health to aesthetics. Some people even exercise just for the joy of doing it; this is called intrinsic motivation. While many of us are not necessarily intrinsically motivated to exercise, there are often more fundamental values behind our goal than appear on the surface.

The way to know more about why you are doing something is literally to ask yourself – why do I want that? Why do I want to lose weight? Keep asking yourself why, until you run out of explanations. Then you get to the bottom of it. Once you have discovered what the real reason is behind your goal, you can start directing your focus to hone in on aspects of your journey that will allow you to honour that reason.


For example, if you want to get fitter because you just want to experience personal improvement and achievement, you will need to set goals based on incremental improvements in your performance, such as cycling for longer, increasing your squat weight or even getting out of the house and moving one extra day a week. But beware; some reasons can be toxic. If you find you are wanting to achieve something purely to gain admiration from others or compete with them for example, these outcomes are not under your control and can bring about more negativity than they resolve.


Self-efficacy, the confidence you have in your ability to do something, is a big predictor of behaviour. We are wired to seek out activities/situations in which we feel competent, because they act as positive feedback for us. As humans we have a natural drive to establish our competence and effectiveness in life, because it allows us to feel more in control. Equally, we avoid activities/situations in which we don’t feel effective. If you aren’t confident that you can complete a workout, you are more likely to drop out or even avoid it altogether.

For this reason, your feelings of self-efficacy in a situation can seriously affect your motivation. If you are finding that you do not feel motivated to get what you need to do done, ask yourself: “are my expectations too high at this point?” Setting unrealistic tasks for yourself is an easy way of making yourself feel even less motivated. Don’t expect yourself to just jump into a daily exercise regime – start with something that you know you can manage. Once you have mastered this, you can move onto the bigger stuff.

Opportunities for success and improvement

Following on from the second point about self-efficacy, we are driven to sedownload-1002802_960_720ek opportunities and situations that give us positive feedback about our competence because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Most of us want to feel good about ourselves, so if we know that we will feel good after doing something, we are more likely to do it. Structuring the tasks you need to do in such a way that you can challenge yourself and measure your efforts will make them more motivating, while not being impossible.

Positive reinforcement

Lastly, an easy way of making yourself more inclined to do something that requires effort is to make some aspects of it more enjoyable – make some part of it attractive. For a lot of people that includes exercising with friends or just other people, whether that is in a class, going for a run or playing a sport. I can vouch for the fact that you’re much more likely to get out there and move if you know you’ll be socialising at the same time. This is another human drive!


I hope this has given you a bit of an idea of how your motivation is not a static thing, and how it can be manipulated in various ways. Motivation is a complicated thing, and by no means have I covered anything like the majority of how it can be defined or what you can do with it – I just wanted to discuss a few important points that I believe are helpful.

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