Why “Just do it” Doesn’t Work for Most of Us

Love of Learning is my #1 character strength.  Every time I learn something that fascinates me, I get a sort of “high” and I cannot wait to share my newfound wisdom with others.  I have been devouring every book I can get my hands on about wellness, positive psychology, mindfulness, you name it.  The more I learn about the many challenges we, as humans face, the more I see it pretty much boils down to our struggle with becoming the masters of our minds rather than being slaves to them.  Our minds are all over like a crazy, undisciplined monkey.  It gets our emotions going, is always on he lookout for perceived attacks to its identity.  It is always fighting to maintain the status quo.  When we discover something that we are doing doesn’t serve us and we decide to change it or let go of things or try to implement new things, our monkey-minds put up a real fight.

I was watching a webinar the other day given by Dr. Mark D. Faires in Texas where I learned about why we don’t “Just do it” when it comes to healthy lifestyle changes.  It’s hard to believe that these 4 things can prevent 80% of all diseases, yet only 3% of the US population are doing them:

  1. Non-Smoking
  2. Maintaining a Healthy Weight
  3. Exercising
  4. Eating Fruits & Veggies

Seems simple enough, right?  We all know we need to do these things, some of are even told that we will die sooner if we don’t change, so why don’t we??

Our monkey minds are maybe open to change, but only if it doesn’t interfere with its idea of normalcy.  Pop a pill once a day?  Ok.  But spend time exercising and change what we eat?  No thanks!  We do know, on an intellectual level, that these changes are good for us, and we may get to where we totally intend to do them, but when turning intention into actual behavior, there is this “gap” we need to overcome.  Dr. Faries refers to this as the “Intention-Behavior Gap”.  He breaks that gap down into 4 elements to help us learn how to overcome it.  They are The Motivation, The Trigger, The Response, and The Process.

For myself, The Motivation is the biggest hurdle.  “Motivation” is such a broad word if you think about it so I like that he breaks it down into 3 types of motivation.  The most effective type of motivation is Intrinsic Motivation; that’s the type where we engage in the behavior purely for the enjoyment of it (“I love exercising!”), this motivation comes from within ourselves and is either there or NOT there.  Next is Extrinsic Motivation, which comes from outside ourselves.  It can either be Other-Determied (“I will work out because you are making me”.) or Self-Determined, which can arise from guilt (“I’ll feel guilty if I eat junk food”.) or a desired goal (“I work out and eat right so I will be healthy and attractive”).  The 3rd type is Amotivation, which is actually the opposite of motivation which is pretty much impossible to work with.

Data from studies says that Extrinsic Motivation that is Self-Determined and driven by a desired goal, rather than out of guilt is the most common type of motivation in people who live healthy lifestyles.  We can find ways to set up our environment to foster it.  Self-Determined, Extrinsic motivation has 3 innate needs: Autonomy (to be the authors of our own actions), Competence (control over our environment; success), and Relatedness (a place in social order; in caring relationships).

Autonomy/Competence:  Failure can shift things to Amotivation in an instant.  Behaviors need to be challenging, yet attainable, so setting  out to follow complicated diets and hit the gym 2 hours a day right out of the gate is not fun and all but guarantees failure and confirmation that getting healthy is miserable.  Exercise (I like to call it “movement”) is not limited to the gym or going for a run (gag to both).  Physical activity has to be fun and meaningful (I’m doing it for my dog’s health!) or it won’t happen.  The Physical Activity Compendium lists a wide array of movement and tells you how many minutes spent on it adds up to a “workout” (Gardening and home repair is on there; you can find SOMETHING you enjoy).  Success begets success, autonomy and competence grow and create an upward spiral. (Yay!)

Relatedness:  How can one create meaningful relationships that are oh-so-helpful in keeping the ball rolling?  Maybe joining group classes, support groups with people who share a common condition.  How about looking at MeetUp groups?  More and more of these groups with healthy activities are popping up all over.

The Trigger:  What makes a person change?  A trigger taps into who we are, so we need to identify what we value.  When a lack of change threatens who we are, change will happen.  It could be poor health threatens what we value, an upcoming reunion we want to make our classmates green with envy with an attractive body, maybe not being able to be active with our grandkids.  If a doctor says, “You need to change or you will die”, this is defeating.  Reframing that statement into, “If I make some lifestyle changes, I will be happy and healthy” will be a much more motivating trigger.


The Response:  Along the same vein as Competence, research shows that if a person HATED their first attempt at physical activity, for example, the odds of them repeating it extremely low.  After the activity, they should feel strong, great, positive, terrific, NOT exhausted, drained, miserable.  It’s crucial that the first experience is a positive one.  One study on inactive people showed that those who rated higher on the positive side of the “how do you feel after the activity?” scale predicted their activity habits 12 months later (the more “ticks” up, the more minutes they were spending exercising 12 months later).  That’s how important enjoying physical activity is.  Even if it’s very small to start, if it’s enjoyable, it will naturally progress into more.

The Process:  If our goal is to BE (healthy), we need do DO (physical activity, healthy eating) things to accomplish that, but before we can DO, we need to ACT (get gym membership, find healthy recipes).  So much attention is placed on what we need to DO and we forget that we need to break it down into specific, daily ACTions that get us there, so our DOing gets pushed off because “I don’t have the right shoes”, “I don’t have a gym membership”, and so on.

Change is DIFFICULT!  Hopefully, this breakdown has shed some light on why and can be used to do some self-inquiry into how Extrinsic Motivation can be cultivated and the “rubber can meet the road” and take you from Intention to Behavior.

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