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Personal change: It’s all about the why

By Eshley Spitzer, Licensed Professional Counselor

While January 1 may be the day most closely associated with setting goals, there is no shortage of calendar dates suggesting that we make a change for the “better.” Birthdays, swimsuit season…heck, the entire month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Most of these are well intentioned (though it should be noted that a “swimsuit body” is just a body in a swimsuit). But the truth is that calendar events can actually end up being very demotivating if not approached—or ignored—in the right way.

What do we mean? Read on.

We’ve all been there: “Between now and our trip to Mexico, I’m working out three times a week.” “Starting January 1st, I will meditate for 10 minutes every morning.” And we all know how rarely it works out. Research tends to put the February 1 failure rate for New Year’s resolutions at about 80 percent. The fitness app Strava even analyzes the workout data of its roughly 80 million users to name a “Quitters’ Day” each year—the date when the majority of the site’s users have given up on their goals. It’s always less than three weeks into January.

With a basic understanding of motivation and behavior change, none of this should be surprising. More importantly, armed with that information, you can set yourself up for success—making the changes you want and making them last.

What’s your “why”?

Our brains are really good at telling us that we are to blame when we don’t hit our goals. It’s called negativity bias. But we’re not the problem—at least not directly. The issue is that we don’t think enough about why we want to change. To achieve real, lasting change, our motivation has to be intrinsic. That is, it has to come from inside and align with our individual contexts, goals, and sense of self.

A date on the calendar is, by definition, extrinsic—outside ourselves and completely disconnected from the realities of our lives. In addition, we frequently set goals to receive an external award, like praise from our friends, or avoid something bad, like lectures about the importance of exercise.

Intrinsic motivation happens when we set a goal for ourselves. Even better is when we can view this goal as giving us something we want (a new skill, better health) rather than denying us something (desert, free time). If we can align our goals with who we are and who we want to be—when we want it—the change will follow. And it will last.

External motivators have their place. Not sure you could convince me to file my taxes just for funzies. But the secret sauce in real, lasting change is finding your “why.” To do that, start by asking yourself the following questions:

  • When was the last time I was able to make progress toward a goal? What worked for me then?
  • Am I setting this goal to embrace something I am or want to be? Or is it to avoid something I don’t want?
  • Am I setting this goal based on how I am or want to be? Or is it because of how I think the world wants me to be?
  • How will I feel about myself if I don’t meet this goal? Even if I fall short, can I view the progress I make as something worth celebrating?

So, don’t do this for the calendar. Do it for yourself. And know that if and when you’re ready to address your mental wellbeing, Meru is ready to help.

Still have questions? Ask away.