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Ashleigh Atkinson, MHK


Is Motivation the Key to Being Successful?

Ever wonder how your friend is motivated to jump out of bed at 4 a.m. to go to the gym before heading to work? Or how your co-worker is motivated to meal prep every week, ensuring she stays on track? These people who follow a plan consistently and can count on one hand the number of workouts they’ve missed this year may seem like motivational icons … but are they really? Maybe they’re just incredibly disciplined.

Society has developed a strong interest in the concept of motivation. A quick scroll through social media on Monday enforces this with everyone’s #MotivationMonday posts. Outside of the online world, motivational books are flying off shelves. People sing their praises for how a book improved their life, getting them motivated to make changes to their health, relationship, or business. This movement has fueled the desire to gain motivation from someone, something, or somewhere, leaving many people searching for daily motivation.


Motivation 101

At its base, motivation is the reason people perform a certain behaviour, their desire to do something. Conversely, many people will claim a lack of motivation when they don’t want to do something. Although motivation is an internal process, it’s common to see claims that motivation was gained from someone else, which is great if that starts healthy behaviours, but in the long run, motivation needs to be self-derived. There are two different types of motivation—intrinsic and extrinsic—which work in their own ways to promote action.

Do It For Yourself

Being intrinsically motivated refers to someone’s internal desire to accomplish a challenge, learn something new, or push themselves to new levels. The work they do to reach the outcome is done out of the pure enjoyment of the task. Everything needed to get these behaviours done is found within the person himself or herself (internal). It’s been found that when someone is intrinsically motivated, he or she is more likely to engage in the task willingly, and will usually seek out as many opportunities to do more work toward the goal.

In the fitness world, this may mean athletes spend their free time reading about training and nutrition in an effort to learn more, which can improve their progress. It can also be reflected in their attitude toward their daily actions. Everything they do, they do because they truly want to, not because they’re told to, or because they expect a reward for doing it.


Do It For the Rewards

Factors outside the person, such as rewards—whether they’re monetary, or trophies and medals—are extrinsically motivating. In these cases, a behaviour or activity is done because it can lead to a person obtaining something he or she wants. This can be someone competing for the praise and attention or someone who enters races to collect the commemorative shirts. In both cases, an external reward is seen as a motivator to participate.

You may extrinsically motivate yourself to complete a behaviour with small rewards, which can work in the short term but likely isn’t sustainable for long. It also depends on how helpful the reward you choose is. Thinking “If I go to the gym, I’ll can get a donut on the way home” or “If I get groceries after work, I can pick up a pizza on the way” may be counterproductive to your goal.

Changing your vision of what constitutes a reward may be helpful. Rather than rewarding yourself with junk food or a “cheat day” of sorts, start to view healthy behaviours as a treat. Buy a cookbook and experiment in the kitchen with new recipes, or invest in a new pair of running shoes. Rewards should be things that support your goal.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations may exist at the same time in a person. Someone may love the training and the physical challenges involved and at the same time be driven by the notion of walking away with a trophy to put on a shelf. Neither is right or wrong, but intrinsic motivation is regarded as being the optimal form for long-term success. Intrinsic motivation is controlled by you and can be ongoing, provided you continue to work toward something that matters to you. Extrinsic items are fleeting; you may not win the competition, walking away empty-handed. Does this mean the work you put into the process and what you learned about yourself along the way was wasted? No, not if you’re able to turn your focus inward and reflect on the process and what you put into it. These rewards, the self-growth and improvement, will always occur when you put work into something you value. You just need to shift your focus to appreciate these factors over a material reward.

The Science of Motivation: Your Brain on Dopamine

So, what’s really responsible for controlling our motivation? Just like all of our other responses and emotions, motivation stems from the brain through chemical reactions. Neurotransmitters carry messages through the brain to tell the body what to do. One of these neurotransmitters is dopamine, which is known as the reward hormone because it kicks in when we receive something we want, making us feel good. However, it’s actually released before we’re rewarded, which is how it plays a role in motivation. Dopamine will spike when the brain senses that something important is about to happen, prompting us to act in order to achieve a reward, or avoid something negative happening to us. When brains of incredibly motivated people were mapped, high levels of dopamine were found in two specific areas of the brain—the striatum and prefrontal cortex. These two areas are known to affect motivation.

That’s great to know, but how can this help us?

You can set your brain up to maximize dopamine release, basically creating situations where your body will release the hormone. Flooding your motivational control centres with dopamine may be the secret to kick-starting the actions needed to reach your goal.

Put these dopamine-boosting practices to work and reap the motivational rewards:

• Record all your accomplishments. Set small, achievable goals, and make note when you reach them. Have a to-do list for the day of things that support your goal, such as prepping meals for the following day or drinking four litres of water, and cross them off as you complete them. The positive feedback you gain from completing a goal, no matter how big or small, releases dopamine.

• Stay focused. Life is busy and it’s easy to get distracted. If you need to get a cardio session done, don’t let yourself get sidetracked until it’s done. Put the phone down, stay off social media, and put on your running shoes. Knowing you’ve stayed on track is positive feedback in your brain, fueling the release of dopamine.

• Brag a little bit. When you’ve reached milestones or overcome a challenge, talk about it! Let those close to you know what you’re trying to accomplish and share your successes with them. Recognition and praise is dopamine’s best friend.

• Get moving. Breaking up your day with some movement, even a 20-minute walk, will release dopamine. This is especially relevant for people who sit most of the day. Bonus points if you can get outdoors for this break.

• Laugh! It’s no secret that laughing is a powerful action and can immediately improve our mood. Whether you spark your laughter from spending time with a friend or watching some gym fail videos online, your dopamine will surge.


Don’t Overlook Discipline

It’s great to feel motivated, but motivation is a fickle entity. It’s unreliable, and it ebbs and flows from day to day, week to week, and even month to month. Many factors can affect motivation, most of which are psychological in nature. Negative emotions can quickly sap motivation and lead to you wanting to curl up on the couch rather than hit the gym. Feeling fatigued, stressed, disappointed, or just having “one of those days” can be enough to turn someone’s motivation off. In these situations, being disciplined is critical to staying on track.

When working toward a goal, there are patterns of behaviours that should be done in order to be successful. However, we don’t exist in a vacuum, and there will always be temptations that can throw you off track. Being disciplined is the ability to overlook immediate pleasures that detract from our goal, and perform the behaviours needed. For those in the fitness world, this may mean turning down desserts, alcohol, or restaurant meals when in prep for a competition or event. It can also mean crawling out of bed before the sun rises to get a cardio or training session in.

Highly successful people rely on their discipline to carry them through days where they feel less motivated. In most cases, they follow the same set of habits on a daily basis, habits they know are necessary steps toward their goal. Habits are essentially the cornerstone of discipline, and are formed out of regular practice.

It used to be common wisdom that it takes around 60 days to form a new habit, but research has found conflicting results about this. Truly, it depends on the person and how disciplined he or she is to the goal. Regardless of the number of days, the more you perform a behaviour, the more it will become habitual to you. Being disciplined enough to perform a habit for at least 60 days is a good step toward successfully creating a permanent habit.

Get Started

If you’re just getting started on a new fitness goal, or are looking to improve your health, establishing these habits will get you headed in the right direction.

• Write out a grocery list and go shopping on the same day each week

• Prep your food for the week and pack your meals in advance so they’re easy to grab

• Drink plenty of water by carrying a water bottle with you and keeping a glass on your desk as a reminder

• Go to the gym at the same time each day

• Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends, ensuring you get enough sleep to be energetic and productive


What comes first?

Much like the infamous chicken-and-the-egg question—which comes first?—do you need to be motivated to form discipline, or can someone be disciplined without needing a motivational kick-start? It would be nice if there were a black-and-white answer, but as with anything involving the human psyche, there’s a lot of grey.

For those just starting out on a fitness journey, or someone embarking on a totally new goal, the excitement of a new challenge should be motivational in and of itself. There’s plenty to learn, and you’ll see your body change and adapt in new ways—things that commonly keep people working hard. During these exciting weeks, you’re setting new habits in place, developing discipline along the way. When motivation fades, or on days when it’s lower, allow your discipline to take over and keep surging ahead.

There are also people who thrive on discipline, enjoying the structure of daily habits. These people are likely motivated by the thought of establishing new habits and daily routines, and easily fall into the disciplined behaviours needed. No matter which approach works for you, it will be essential to form habits as these are the pieces of action that will get you to your goal.


Keep It Healthy

It needs to be acknowledged that habits can be both positive and negative. In some people, the overwhelming need to control their health can form super-restrictive habits, while in others, it may be a temporary set of habits they put into action for a specific goal. For example, someone who sets a goal to run her first marathon may start to practice many habits to help herself, such as turning down happy hour to ensure she can complete their 10-mile run the following morning. Once she’s completed the marathon, some of these strict habits may be dropped. Contrast this with the person who runs 10 miles daily and never goes out with friends in order to have complete control over his weight. To him, the thought of losing control over his day or veering outside his habits makes him anxious about gaining weight, leading to a very regimented lifestyle. This can spiral into social isolation and negative body image concerns. In some cases, being strictly disciplined to your habits can be harmful if it starts to negatively affect your health and life.

The next time you find yourself looking for motivation, whether it’s from a self-help book or on social media, just remember it’s normal to feel less motivated from time to time. Everyone goes through periods when they go on autopilot and execute the habits and behaviours needed to stay on track. These days might not be overly exciting, but they happen to everyone at one time or another. Trust that you’ve developed the discipline necessary to keep you moving in the right direction.


What If It’s Missing?

If you find yourself unmotivated and struggling to maintain the habits you once had firmly in place, it might be time to re-evaluate your goal. Possibly, what you’ve been working toward doesn’t interest you any longer, which is fine! Take a step back from it, and experiment with something different to see if your outlook changes. A small change may be the solution, such as switching up the time of day you go to the gym or changing your meals with different foods. Or, you might need to go out on a limb and try a totally different activity. Maybe training for a triathlon or an outdoor obstacle race intrigues you, or moving from bodybuilding to powerlifting. If something is calling to you—listen!