3 strategies to build motivation for losing weight

Who is the most motivated, passionate person you know or admire, whose dedication inspires you? 

What is it that empowers them to be so dedicated? What helps them push through when they’re tired? What’s the “why” behind their efforts? 

Chances are your answer isn’t “to lose weight to fit into a new outfit for vacation,” or to “get a raise.” Motivation based on awards, punishments, or achieving a desired outcome—called extrinsic motivation—can be great in the short term, but it doesn’t usually last. When the season changes and the special event is over, or the reward is in hand, the motivation to sustain the behavior drops. That’s why it's often hard to stay motivated to lose weight after you meet these types of goals.   

More likely, what motivates the person you thought of is “they love what they do,” “they want to make a difference in the world,” “they’re inspired by their faith,” or “it’s just who they are.'' These are examples of intrinsic motivation, when you’re motivated from within to behave driven by what you enjoy, how you define yourself, or what connects to your values. Unfortunately, many goals, including weight loss, require doing tasks you’re not intrinsically motivated to do. Using the following strategies can help you increase your long-term motivation to accomplish your goals. 

Build on your self-identity

Eat. Sleep. Run. Repeat.Do you know someone who—no matter the situation, how much sleep they get, or how bad the weather is—will not miss their 5-mile morning run … and also has a “Eat, Sleep, Run, Repeat” T-shirt. Or do you know someone who loves yoga or CrossFit who also describes themselves on social media as a “yogi” and/or posts their WOD (workout of the day) results? One reason that can explain these T-shirts or social media posts relates to increasing motivation. Self-identifying with a particular behavior is an incredibly powerful motivator. The behavior just becomes “what you do.” The decision to either go for a run or watch TV is already made…because “I’m a runner!” 

If you don’t already self-identify with a healthy behavior to reach your goals, you can try to develop one. For example, if you want to start drinking water instead of soda, start saying to yourself when tempted with soda, “I’m a water drinker,” or “I don’t drink soda.” It might seem odd at first, but the more you say it and do the desired behavior to back it up, the more likely this will become a rule that’s part of how you see yourself. 

Connect to your values

If making “water drinker” a part of your identity feels off to you, try another strategy: Connect the behavior to a core value you already have. For example, if you value “being a great parent and role model to my kids,” you can leverage that value by reflecting on how living a healthy lifestyle helps you to live out that value, such as “having more energy helps me be more present,” or “living longer will let me be there for my kids longer.” When you’re challenged to choose water over soda, you can now reflect on how important being a good parent is to you for the push you need.

To help identify your core values, read HPRC’s Azimuth check: Are you living your values?

Learn your signature strengths

Signature strengths are character traits that make you feel energized, motivated, and true to yourself. You feel at your best when you are using your signature strengths. Finding ways to use your signature strengths to act in the ways needed to accomplish your goal will increase your motivation and performance, and help you to enjoy those behaviors. For example, if one of your signature strengths is curiosity, you could change your morning run to explore different areas. If you’re creative and playful, you could come up with different games to play during your run; it could be as simple as how many pigeons you can spot during each run.

By finding a way to use your signature strengths, you’re helping to make the desired behavior part of what you do, rather than going against your nature. A simple shift can be a major improvement to your motivation. Try HPRC’s Use signature strengths to be your best self worksheet to discover your signature strengths and how to use them to accomplish your goals. 

Moving forward 

Once you’ve reviewed the 3 strategies, choose at least one to try to increase your motivation. Try it for a couple weeks and if it doesn’t work, try another. Discovering how to motivate yourself is often a trial and error journey. As you learn what really motivates you, you can apply it to many aspects of your life. 

References

Forest, J., Mageau, G. A., Crevier-Braud, L., Bergeron, É., Dubreuil, P., & Lavigne, G. L. (2012). Harmonious passion as an explanation of the relation between signature strengths’ use and well-being at work: Test of an intervention program. Human Relations, 65(9), 1233–1252. doi:10.1177/0018726711433134

Silva, M. N., Markland, D., Minderico, C. S., Vieira, P. N., Castro, M. M., Coutinho, S. R., ... & Teixeira, P. J. (2008). A randomized controlled trial to evaluate self-determination theory for exercise adherence and weight control: rationale and intervention description. BMC public health, 8(1), 234. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-8-234

Silva, M. N., Vieira, P. N., Coutinho, S. R., Minderico, C. S., Matos, M. G., Sardinha, L. B., & Teixeira, P. J. (2010). Using self-determination theory to promote physical activity and weight control: a randomized controlled trial in women. Journal of behavioral medicine, 33(2), 110-122.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-009-9239-y

Strachan, S. M., Fortier, M. S., Perras, M. G., & Lugg, C. (2013). Understanding variations in exercise-identity strength through identity theory and self-determination theory. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 11(3), 273-285. https://doi.org/10.1080/1612197X.2013.749005

Vlachopoulos, S. P., Kaperoni, M., & Moustaka, F. C. (2011). The relationship of self-determination theory variables to exercise identity. Psychology of sport and exercise, 12(3), 265-272. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2010.11.006