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Commentary | Sept. 10, 2021

Three strategies to build motivation for losing weight

By Human Performance Resources, CHAMP at the Uniformed Services University

Who is the most fit person that you know? What motivates and empowers them to be so dedicated to their health? 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,” but usually it’s based on internal reasons. 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 that 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 motivations—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 that 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
Do you know someone who—no matter the situation, how much sleep they get, or how bad the weather is—will not miss their five mile morning run? Or, do you know someone who loves yoga or CrossFit who also describes themselves on social media as a “yogi” and posts their workouts-of-the-day results? 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, do yoga, or watch TV is already made…because it’s about how you identify yourself. “I’m a runner!” or, “I’m a yogi.”

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 becoming a “water drinker” as 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 your kids, you can leverage that ideal 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 “longevity 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 that 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, true to yourself and at your best when you use them. Finding ways to use your signature strengths to accomplish your goals 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 in your motivation. Try HPRC’s Use signature strengths to be your best self worksheet to discover and explore your signature strengths. Then use HPRC’s signature strength goal setting worksheet to leverage them to accomplish your weight loss goals. 

Moving forward
Once you’ve reviewed the three 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—apply it to many aspects of your life. 

Take a look at HPRC’s articles on the WOOP goal-setting strategy, four easy strategies to help develop habits and the SMART goals planner to find out more about goal setting too.