Dad at 40

Fitness, Nutrition, Parenting, and Life

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation – Why Goals Fail and Succeed

what are your goals?

A question was asked about energy levels on my FB feed today. I think it is a good question. It got me to thinking about some possible answers. When I write, I write from experience. I do not write to you all in some prescriptive sense, telling you that my way is the right way. I write because my failures have given me insight into myself. I then like to share those thoughts and experiences with you and each of you have the choice to take what I say and mold it to your needs. Some may agree and some may disagree, but if it gets you thinking, then we have measurable success.

But to the question about energy levels, I think it might go a bit further. As humans, we are conditioned to set goals. Get to this point. Graduate high school. Graduate college. Get a job. Buy a car. Buy a house. Have children. Prepare for retirement. You can literally add anything in there you want. Each one of those things are goals we set for ourselves. They are measurable and attainable. I can go buy a car. I can go get a job. Pretty easy.

Then, we move into other goals depending on our philosophical leanings. If you are religious, you may say get closer to God. Or if you are academic, you might say continue learning for the rest of my life. These are more nebulous as you can never truly measure your closeness to God or just how much you learn relative to others.

So, we get to fitness. This is what I try to focus on (and back to the original question about energy levels). You see, I tend to think that people set goals for themselves. For example, you might say I want to lose 15 pounds for summer beach season. Or, I want to look good in a tank top. Maybe you have gained some inches on your waist and you decide you want to fit back into those 36” waist pants in your closet.  Perhaps you want to fit back into those size 8 dresses. But if you truly examine those goals, they are what we call extrinsic goals.

Some of you may know what extrinsic means, but just in case:

Extrinsic – not essential or inherent; not a basic part or quality; extraneous

Most of our wants are extrinsic in nature. The car. The house. Money. Looking good. Some would argue that they are shallow goals. I would not. We all work hard and we want things. So, no one should feel bad about that. You earn it, you use it the way you want to.

Now, we talk about intrinsic. Once again, pardon me for defining this for those of you familiar with it:

Intrinsic – belonging naturally; essential

We often set what I like to call extrinsic goals. We want to reach a certain point for a certain reason. As we slowly approach that point, we start to slow down. Now, you may think this is silly or not really think it applies, but I will ask you to think about many times you have seen a video of someone losing a race because they let up at the last second. Ever seen those? Person thinks they are going to win, raises their arms in victory, and ever so slightly slows down. That person in second place digs deep and grinds hard and pushes past to win by an inch (notice that theme….a game of inches….). The look of shock and disbelief on the person who just lost is sad yet funny at the same time. You think to yourself, that is what you get for easing up.

But, therein lies the rub. People tend to ease up when they think they have accomplished the goal. So, is it that energy is going down? Or is it that people are easing up because they think they have reached their goal? Are these the same thing? On the surface they appear to be. But, energy going down could be attributed to illness. Work life balance. Any number of things. Easing up is quite simply a person thinking they got what they wanted and they ease up. In my mind, these are very different.

So, as we look to set goals, we have to understand what we are doing. Are we setting intrinsically or extrinsically motivated goals? I think this makes a world of difference. But….and this is a big but, it flies in the face of what we are generally taught. We are always taught that goals should be measurable and attainable. The smart person will set a goal – lose 5 pounds. They can attain it. This is a common fitness philosophy. While it is not wrong or bad (as I have done it myself), it is also not necessarily right or good.

Now we start getting into the complicated stuff. Come on dude, you have a goal of trying to bench 400 pounds? Now you are telling me that goals like that are crap? Yes and no. I will use my goal of 400 pounds. When I first started pursuing that goal, it was for one simple reason. I wanted to bench 400 pounds so I could rub it in the face of all the guys I remember that played football when I was in high school who made a big deal out of benching 225 in the school gym. There I was struggling to bench 95 pounds (which is the bar and a 25lb weight on each side) while they benched the bar plus two 45lb weights on each side. Maybe they laughed at me. Maybe not. Really, who cares? It was high school man. But, in my mind I was going to show those dudes up. Lift, lift, lift. Boom….I got hurt. Hurt enough that I had to have shoulder surgery to correct it. Too much, too fast, and for the wrong reasons. Extrinsic and also shallow goal.

Fast forward a few years. I gained some weight after the surgery. I enjoyed food a bit much. I got lazy. Why? Extrinsic goals are easy to abandon once you reach them. I lost X number of pounds. I looked great for swimsuit season. I fit into that dress for the big party. Whatever it is. Then it is over. You start to slide back into bad habits. You search aimlessly for the next thing you want to be healthy for, the next thing you want to look good for. I have seen so many people fall into the vicious cycle. It is partly because we set goals and once we reach them, we sometimes stop. Now, some people will then set another goal, but sooner or later, you stop setting goals. Then your goals flip from losing 5 pounds to not gaining 5 pounds. Not gaining 10 pounds. This leads to poor eating habits. Gimmick products. And l know I sound judgmental when I say gimmick products and I am sorry for knocking something you may believe in, but what happens when you can no longer afford your products? What happens when the cost becomes prohibitive? Is it only people who can afford Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, or whatever other fad system or product is out there that are able to get healthy and lose weight? Is it really that special tea or shake that makes the difference? Or are these things crutches that we use so that we do not have to commit and use this thing we have called willpower?

So, when I looked at myself one day and realized that I had stopped focusing on me, I had a choice to make. This really coincided with the election cycle. As I saw the constant bickering and recrimination and the negativity that existed in the world, I just said enough. Not only did I put my hand over the mug, but I dumped its contents out and started over. I took a long and hard look at myself and asked myself what I was doing. More importantly, I asked why I was doing it. Did I want to do it so I could be admired by others? Did I want to do it so I could rub it in the face of people who I had been jealous of as a teen? What was my motivation?

About this time, I was gifted with my son Luke. As I looked into his little eyes, I saw a vision of a strapping and energetic teenager that would want to go hiking and riding roller coasters and exploring caverns and riding bikes. Would my body hold up to that level of activity when I was 55? Not at the rate I was going. So, I would say a profound change came over me. I have heard people say that the moment they accepted Jesus Christ in their hearts, they felt this profound change wash over them. Well, for me, it is like that. As soon as I let go of all of these extrinsic motivations, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off me. I cannot describe in any better way than that. I stopped caring how I looked to others. I stopped caring how I compared with others. I stopping caring what others thought. Oh, I still clown with my friends and say some silly things, but make no mistake that being playful and silly doesn’t change the immensity of the philosophy shift I experienced.

Rather than set these limited goals – benching 400 pounds, I simply said I need to be better. I need to be healthier. This flies in the face of traditional fitness objectives. Lose 20 pounds. Fit into a pair of pants. Fit into a dress. Nope, I set a vague and nebulous goal. Some would say what the hell does it mean to be healthier or better? Exactly!!! What does it mean? It means nothing and it means everything! What the shit dude….I am really starting to hate you! But think about this….really think about it. It means that instead of setting a goal of a mile, I just decided I was okay with an inch. One inch at a time. One quarter-inch at a time. No one set goal. I just said do better. Make better choices. In doing so, I just said get up and get back in the gym. As I brought that cookie up to my face, I asked myself if I really needed it. Slowly, but surely, I started to change. Not just externally, but internally. I was free from the burden of trying to be something for society and I was happy with just being the best me I could be. Whether it is 5 pounds of 50, if you are the best you that you can be, then you are moving forward. The great thing about being the best you is that you can always be better. You are never hitting the finish line. Therefore, you will never let up. Just strive to do one more pushup. Say one more kind word. Make one more person laugh. It drives you from the inside.

Fast forward a year and I am pushing that 400lb bench press. Not because I want to show off, but because it is movement forward. It is a part of the journey. A waypoint. Not the finish line. I changed my eating habits. My thinking habits. I started blogging again, this time focused on health and fitness. I realized that health and fitness does not start in the gym, but inside you. You do not need a program, a class, a gym, a trainer, or anything else. You need to find the drive and willpower within yourself to move. To change. To better yourself. We have tools that can help with this, such as those classes, that gym, that bike, or any other tool. But, if we were without them, we could simply run, do push-ups, and do other body weight exercises to stay fit. We would not need a buddy to push us. We would push ourselves. This is the hardest state to achieve. It is brutally hard to get to that point. You feel like you are climbing Mt. Everest. That is one of the most difficult and technically challenging climbs in the world. But, for those that do it, they feel a sense of accomplishment like no other.

So, this post is a possible answer to the question of why do energy levels drop. Why do we ease up? Why do we fail? I think, and I stress the word think, it is because we have the wrong perspective when we set goals. We want something we can measure. We have been conditioned to look for the measurable. This is not bad. Obviously, you have to measure progress when you run a marathon or prepare for a competition, but if that is a smaller part of the whole “I am making myself the best me possible” then it is fine. If those goals are your only reason for doing something, you will most likely fail once you attain your goal. So think about this as you set goals. Especially as we approach a new year in 7 months. We love to sit down and make resolutions. But I say resolve to make yourself the best you possible and you won’t need resolutions. You will be living it daily.

Good luck out there…think that over. Ask yourself why you do what you do. The answer may surprise you.

 

 

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