For the most part, we know what the right choices are: we should eat healthy, exercise regularly, find time to meditate, finish that business plan. Yet, all too often, even if we start out on the right foot, we fail to stay motivated long enough to reach our goals. So how do we maintain our momentum? By aligning our motivations with the deeper intentions of our hearts.
Though it may seem the most ready solution, using external reward (or punishment) to motivate isn’t an enduring strategy. We do it to ourselves, we do it to our children (as it was done to us as children): we set up an “if-then,” “reward-consequence” scenario, believing it will get us, or another, to do the right thing. You might think, “If I make it to the gym four times this week, then I can buy myself those new shoes.” Or, to junior: “If you don’t get your homework done, you don’t get any screen time.”
The problem with this kind of setup is that the stimulus to get us to do or not do something is dangling outside of ourselves. When you engage in a behavior in order to earn an external reward (like a coveted treat, a prize, money, or fame) or avoid punishment, your drive to persist is likely to peter off once that reward or consequence is meted out. In other words: your heart just isn’t in it.
Do you really want to stay motivated? Then dig deep to get to the heart of the matter, and ask yourself why—really why—you want to reach a goal or practice a certain behavior.
Announcing that you want to lose twenty pounds isn’t enough. Rather, ask yourself why you want to lose that weight. “To be more fit,” you say. Why? “To live a longer life.” Why? “To grow old in good health with my spouse and be actively engaged with my grandchildren.” The deeper your questioning goes, the more meaningful your motivation becomes.
What I like to call “regressing the whys” is an effective exercise for identifying your deepest motivator. And thinking about living your life aligned with what matters most to you can be a powerful way to form a habit that’s good for you and keeps you on the right track. Once you’ve identified that you desire a long life not bound to an armchair or walker during your retirement years, then wolfing down chicken wings and guzzling beer in front of a screen on Sunday afternoon becomes less enticing. When you see yourself going on hikes with your future grandchildren, then staying motivated to shed that extra weight and keep it off becomes a whole lot easier.
That which gives you deep satisfaction and makes you feel at peace with yourself is always going to be a more powerful motivator than any promise of reward or threat of punishment. Eat right, exercise, or do your homework on time because by doing so you are being the type of person you want to be—healthy, on the road to longevity, on the road to college. These bigger aspirations will always hold more sway than any short-lived gratification.
Consider this: Ask yourself why you want to reach any goal you’ve set for yourself. Ask again. Dig deep until you identify that intrinsic motivator that will drive you steadily toward it.