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Whose Goals Are You Pursuing? The Role of Motivation and Self-Determination

Motivation. It’s a term thrown around the health and fitness circles as often as

peanut butter is among dieters. Unlike peanut butter, however, much effort has gone

into researching motivation. What is it? How is it acquired? Who has it? We see

individuals behaving in a motivated manner within some contexts of their lives but not

others. We know from our own lives that we can feel highly motivated and committed to

a goal one moment and indifferent the next. And I guarantee you’ve heard yourself say at

least once, “I can’t seem to get motivated! Or “I just need more motivation!” It’s

motivation mayhem!

If we view motivation from a quality perspective, versus quantity, we may just have some

solid ground to stand on. Let’s look first at motivation when it comes to goal pursuit.

In a 2007 review of obesity treatments conducted by Powell and colleagues,

the following conclusion was made: successful lifestyle interventions “used a variety of

behavioral techniques to achieve goals, including self-monitoring, modeling,

environmental restructuring, as well as group and individual support” (242). Motivation isn’t listed.

Isn't that interesting? It's important for me to acknowledge here that I used to provide weight loss coaching services. I no longer believe that a weight-centric approach is in line with a life that is well-nourished on all levels-- mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, environmental, relational, and energetic. When focused on weight, vs whole life health, we lose touch with ourselves and our internal cues. We begin practicing how to ignore our body's messages rather than develop a relationship that is trusting, respectful, and collaborative. Motivation wasn't listed in the above quote, because motivation is internal.

I provide support to individuals who have set goals for living a more conscious life, for aligning their actions with their values, for focusing their energy on the callings of their heart and soul vs things like money, fame, image, and the like. Now, of course we all need some amount of money to survive, but a life centered around it rarely leads to a sense of meaning and purpose. As our journeys together progress, I assess my clients' ability to act with

behavioral persistence. How will they continue to engage meaningfully with the skills/ideas/insights

they are learning in order to sustain the changes they have made? How will they, when the

going gets tough, when they’re tired, when their friends aren’t being supportive, when they are emotional and uncomfortable, when a couple of goals conflict with one another, or when they’ve acted in a manner that feels self-sabotaging, respond skillfully?

We know that goals are chosen for a variety of reasons, but the enduring, driving,

and reinforcing goals show certain characteristics illustrative of their foundational

motivational quality. Put simply, it’s the rich, meaning-driven, value-oriented, “I do this

because it’s important to me” goals that are strived for under pressure. Contrast that

with the fleeting “Ooh, that sounds neat, I think I’ll try it” type of motivation toward an

activity. It’s the difference between choosing freely and being somewhat self-

determined, or feeling pushed by someone in authority—a coach, a boss, or a teacher—

in order to avoid a negative consequence or as a means to an end (i.e. make money,

look beautiful).

Your decision to pursue a goal may have been initiated by such an external motivator,

however, how you evolve into identifying with the goal, if you do at all, will influence the

determination you exert toward achieving it.

Social science literature describes this type of motivation as autonomously

regulated. This means that it’s connected to the psychological needs we all have as

human beings—autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Think about how this applies in

your own life. How does your need for volitional control and personal

accountability/responsibility, a secure sense of belonging and connection to those

around you, and a feeling of effectiveness in your social environment with opportunities

to use your talents and abilities, influence what you choose to pursue and how much

effort you’ll devote to it?

This continuum of motivation is based on the quality of its relevance and meaning

in your life and how it is regulated. In a recent podcast I described the different

dimensions of motivation. Imagine the different contexts of your life—relationships, school, career, family—to gain

a perspective of how none of us are operating in just one spot along the line of the

motivation continuum. In fact, we could be functioning at very different qualities of

motivation: globally (our general, most stable motivational orientation), contextually

(moderately stable orientation related to specific life contexts like leisure or

interpersonal relationships), and situationally (changes easily, and is influenced by the


So why is this information important and how can you use it?

The basic psychological needs I mentioned above are created through your

choosing of goals that are self-concordant, that is, goals that represent your deep

personal values and interests. We have limited resources when it comes to self-

regulation, so we need to spend them wisely. Ultimately, when you accumulate daily

experiences that bolster your competency, autonomy, and relatedness, you’ll be happier,

have greater well-being, be more likely to thrive and persist, and exert enduring energy

toward the goals of true importance. In essence, as the researchers Sheldon and Elliott

(1998) argued, you must find personal goals that are actually personal, and selecting

goals that are self-concordant requires three key skills.

First, if you are striving toward meeting specific health targets, perhaps approaching your nutrition with greater consciousness and intention or exercising more regularly, understand that adopting a mindful approach for achievement is imperative. Particularly if the behaviors required to meet your goals are foreign, new, or not part of your routine, you must develop methods of intentionality and

practice paying attention to your behavior and thoughts. As Sheldon (1999) explains, we

have to be able to discern when our momentary whims are butting up against our

foundational values. This requires first that we are able to notice and observe our

experience in the moment, but then align with what is enduring. Further, it requires that when faced with conflicting motivations, for example, when I’m studying for my final exam and a friend calls to ask if I’d like to see a movie that I am able to quell the urge to do what might be most comfortable in the moment.

Second, we must learn to distinguish between goals that are personal and those

that are personable. Many good options might exist, however, it’s worth asking whether

they are in your best interest or are they adopted because someone told you to adopt them?

Listen to your life to inform your behaviors so your goals are not just self-serving. Learn to tell the difference. In an interview on Oprah, Diane

Sawyer explained that her father told her, at an early age, to pay close attention to three

things: 1) do what you love; 2) do it in a place that is exciting; and 3) make sure it benefits

others. Those aren’t goals you pursue just because you’re personally able to.

Finally, to adopt goals that will be enduring, you must learn to assess their

content and how well they match your basic psychological needs and motives. Looking at both the

what and the why of your goal can inform you of its motivational quality. What does the

goal provide for you and why is the pursuit worthwhile? How does it feed your heart and soul? If you can answer the why in a manner that conveys you feel a sense of responsibility, it is likely more intrinsically driven and will be personally meaningful and fulfilling.

The goals that will withstand the tough stuff become internalized—they are

woven into the fabric of your being. They are yours. If you’ve recently set a goal and

either want to weave it into your life in a meaningful manner or are wondering if it’s

worth it, consider the following questions:

1. Who is doing the driving? Are you behind the wheel—perhaps with a supportive,

encouraging mentor, coach, or support system?

2. Are you owning the changes you’re making? Are you writing a story for your life that

includes you as the leading character? As a partner with life itself?

Can you imagine the outcome, and then toggle back to focus on the process (over and over again)—the more energetic, awake, stronger, confident, persistent, open, effective, relational, compassionate, deliberate individual? Your well-being and behavioral determination depends on it.

3. What is your quality of motivation versus quantity of motivation? Levels of

motivation will be expected to wax and wane based on circumstances, mood, and

fatigue. But someone who has internalized the behaviors knows this and will do what

they know is internally important anyway. If you have adopted a self-determined goal,

but times get tough, remember the commitment you implement in other situations—

toward your children, for example.

4. What is the “nature” of your goals? Intentionally review your goals. Were they

written with external incentives (i.e. “the doctor says I need to lose weight” or “I need to

drop ten pounds to fit into my wedding dress”) or are they deeply internal and connected to "who" you are vs your appearance? Are your goals interesting, rewarding, and

fun, but also commitment oriented? Do they require a sacrifice that is inwardly and relationally nourishing?

5. Where are you integrating the changes into your personality? Pay attention to

changes in your tone, demeanor, the thoughts you express, the confidence you exude,

the level of competence you’re demonstrating, the friends you’re making with similar

goals, and the risks you take without prompts from others. What you bring to light you

will start noticing more often, creating more opportunity for self-awareness and

authorship of your behavior change.


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