Internal vs External Motivation
Written by Invictus Athlete Josh Littauer
You get up in the morning and start getting ready for your day. For some, the first order of business is going to the gym, for some it’s taking an hour of time to themselves, for others it’s heading straight to work. Regardless, we all have motivators that get us up and at it every morning.
What is your reason? Your reason for picking the first thing you do? For deciding whether to go right to work or to hit the snooze button?
It could be anything, some deep value you hold to, or as simple as you need to make money to be able to live. No matter your answer we all have something that gets us going, and when it comes to motivation there are tons of different places we can find it. So today we’re going to look at a few different types of motivation and how they play a role in our development in life and fitness.
Have you ever gone out with friends and decided when getting ready that you were going to dress up a little? At first, you feel a little uneasy, until you get out of the car and one of your friends immediately says how good you look or how much they like your attire. All of a sudden you stand up a little taller and walk with more confidence because someone else affirmed your decision to dress up.
Or maybe, in the context of fitness, you have been working really hard on your nutrition and are seeing the benefits of consistent exercise and clean eating. You’ve lost 10-15 pounds and people are telling you how great you look or how proud they are of your effort. It is easy to be motivated by these compliments and keep pushing ourselves or getting outside our comfort zones because people are recognizing your efforts or results.
On the flip side, what if you had made all these changes and no one said anything? What if instead of compliments you got no response at all, or worse some negative feedback? All of a sudden the motivation waxes and wanes or disappears entirely. This would be an example of an external motivator. External motivators are factors that come from other people that affect how we see ourselves, how we pursue things outside our comfort zones, and how we view our progress. Other examples could include, comparing yourself and your efforts or progress with others, or focusing so much on a specific number goal or value.
Now let’s take the same examples and frame them a little differently. You’re going out with a group of friends and you know that you feel your best and most confident in a particular pair of pants or shirt. So naturally, that’s what you choose to wear. You show up and no one makes any comment about your attire, and you enjoy your evening without ever second-guessing what you decided to wear.
Or maybe you haven’t been feeling your best and decide that adding in some clean eating and exercise will help you to not only feel better but also improve your overall health and longevity (both natural side effects of clean eating and exercise). You begin your new diet and exercise regimen, see all the benefits of some weight loss, gained strength, and improved health; all with no acknowledgment or recognition from others.
Now while this may seem a little sad, perspective tells us that the latter is actually a more sustainable motivation. This is called internal motivation. Internal motivation comes purely from an inner desire to be your best self, intense focus on the process of improvement, and on pride in knowing the effort you gave was your absolute best. Other examples of internal motivation could be focusing on improving a process to reach a goal, knowing that your effort will benefit someone else, or from seeing the end result only as a cherry on top and not the whole dessert.
The Difference between Internal & External Motivation During Tough Times
The difference between internal and external motivators makes all the difference when times are tough or things don’t go your way. If all your motivation is external, when things get tough it is all too easy to give up, to put in less effort, or convince yourself the goal wasn’t worth it. Flip that mindset, if your motivation is internal and you see each day as part of a long process, the effort given is rewarding itself and not reliant on an external factor.
Again, using fitness as context; let’s say you start the journey of getting healthy with the hopes that you will receive more compliments or will get more attention for your appearance. While the attention will probably be there in the beginning and you will see your confidence grow, eventually the comments will become fewer. If the attention was your motivator, when it disappears so does motivation.
Now the inverse would be someone who knows that without clean eating and exercise they are on a certain path for chronic disease or future health problems. Now when things get tough it is much easier to stick with the plan because you know your present efforts and struggles will yield the best results later on.
Here’s another example. Let’s say you set a very specific squat goal with a definite deadline on when you need to hit that number – 315 by end of year or bust! But along the way you hit a few roadblocks, you missed a week of workouts because of work, you tweaked your knee playing flag football, the program wasn’t as focused on your squat. So now you have added some pounds to your squat but were far from your goal in a longer period of time, and now since you totally missed it you decide to quit squatting altogether and move on to yoga. With the external motivator being the 315 pound squat by December 31st, you set yourself up for either 100% success or 100% failure.
Flip that perspective and say, I want to be as strong as I can be and to get there I am going to control all the variables I can, regardless of the number on the end I focus on the process of being consistent and giving my best effort each and every day. The shift in focus improves the longevity of your process and will make it easy to stay motivated for longer.
What is Your Motivation?
To be clear, getting compliments from others or setting goals are not bad things. They are in fact good things when taken with the right perspective. The trick is seeing those things for what they are, finite elements reliant on external factors that you cannot control. If you can maintain your focus on the internal factors you can control, it makes the long processes more enjoyable, more fulfilling, and more realistic for long term improvements.
So where do you lie? What is your motivation? Be honest with yourself. You may need to take a step back and look big picture to see how your response to certain struggles and aspects of life is affected by external objects. Regardless of where you’re at right now, stay focused on the process of being the best version of yourself. That’s all you can ask of yourself anyway.
Stay Humble. Stay Hungry.
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