External Vs. Internal Motivation: Part 1

Motivation. Its what gets us out of bed in the morning, helps us decide what to eat for dinner, whether or not we make it to the gym that day, it drives every action we do on a daily basis. We find motivation in so many different forms from so many different places, but how do we know if it is truly effective?  Being that it is such a large force in our lives it would makes sense to try and understand what kind of motivation would allow us to be the most successful. When it comes to motivation there are a lot of different ways to label it and terms we can use to differentiate the forms it comes in. The main forms I will be talking about are: external and internal motivation. Having a better understanding of these two terms can help you set yourself up for success not only inside the gym, but also outside the gym. Check out this great article from the CrossFit Invictus blog on this topic.

External motivation can come in the form of feedback from other people, obligations, or demands that are from outside sources. An easy example would be you want to lose a couple of pounds, so you will receive more compliments on your physical appearance. The motivation is not coming from your own satisfaction of knowing you will be thinner, but rather it is coming from the recognition from others. This type of motivation is not necessarily bad, but is not as effective as internal motivation. This is because external motivation relies on other people to determine whether or not you have achieved your goal. You may very well have lost ten pounds, look better, and are more healthy, but if you are relying on external motivation and other people do not give you recognition, you will feel like a failure.


Some people might call Aaron a weenie but hes looking to come back strong this season!


Another common mistake when it comes to motivation is setting finite goals. This is another external motivation trap because you are either 100% successful or 100% unsuccessful. Lets say its the start of November, and you want to get stronger in the clean and jerk. You want to increase your clean and jerk from 135 to 185 by the end of the year. You train hard for two months putting in extra strength sessions and really brushing up on technique. You re-test and you hit 175, and you feel like a failure. Instead of noticing how you have improved your clean and jerk by forty pounds, all you can think of is how you fell short of your goal. Setting finite goals can downplay the hard work and dedication you put in to try and reach that goal. A great quote that I have heard from time to time is that a performance is merely a reflection of all the hard work and time you have put in leading up that point. Don’t put too much emphasis on hitting that finite goal. Learn to appreciate the process of getting better and putting your best effort forward.

Now, this is not to say that all types of external motivation are bad. If your boss sets a deadline for you on a project, it would behoove you to meet the deadline in hopes of pleasing your boss. This allows you to retain your job, make money, pay for bills, afford to go on vacations, etc. This kind of external motivation is a good thing because we are not always going to be able to whip up internal motivation all the time to get tasks done. In doses, external motivation can be just the thing you need to get the job done.

While external motivation can be used successfully, we have to understand when it is appropriate to use it. Using it for health related goals is not always the best tactic. When it boils down to it, we are trying to improve our own health, not someone else’s. If the goal is to improve oneself, why should your success be contingent on recognition from other people? As many you know improving any aspect of health, whether its diet, strength, aerobic capacity, aesthetics, takes a fairly long time. It takes consistency over a long period of time, and unfortunately external motivation is not the most consistent form of motivation. It is better suited for short term tasks, for things that will have finite end points.

Two people I always admire for their internal motivation to stay committed to their fitness are Marko and Art.

Its always easy to strive towards our goals when other people are noticing, and giving us compliments. We are human, we like recognition. But this does not set us up for long term success when it comes to our health. I can guarantee at some point the compliments will slow, people won’t notice your progress as much, and what happens with your motivation? Poof! Its gone. With something as serious as your health you need to figure out a way to have it be something that is internally motivated. Whether things are going great, or they seem like they’re spiraling out of control, we cannot lose our motivation to be our best selves. You may have noticed in the title that I have external and internal motivation listed, I will cover internal motivation in next weeks post. I wanted to make sure I gave each practice adequate attention and explanation so be sure to check back in next week when I talk about internal motivation!


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