How to Get Past “I Should” and Actually Become a Healthy Person

by | Dec 14, 2016

boy airplane

When I was a dieter I had a mindbogglingly long list of things I “should” do to reach my goals.

I should go for a run every morning.

I should do 100 crunches per day.

I should be a size 2.

I should not drink calories.

I should never eat ice cream.

It makes me exhausted just thinking about it.

Amazingly I was able to do many of these things (I’ve written before how I actually have pretty strong willpower). But it was a constant battle and it still never felt like I was doing enough. No matter how hard I tried, I was never happy.

It took me years to understand that it was in fact all these shoulds that were holding me back. That I had externalized my motivation, letting it be dictated by goals outside my true feelings, and by doing so sold myself short.

Motivating yourself is tricky business, and most of us go about it in completely the wrong way. We think we need more discipline, when what we actually need is more self-compassion.

But even self-compassion is less important than tapping into a strong source of Internal Motivation.

If you’re telling yourself you should do something, but aren’t doing it, the chances are pretty high that you don’t actually want to do it. You might want the results and benefits of whatever it is, but find the action itself to be a chore or punishment.

In other words, you are relying on External Motivation.

Internal Motivation is the opposite of External Motivation and is much more effective for maintaining long-term behaviors, especially those related to health. When you’re motivated by your own needs and desires, you stop thinking “I really should do this today” and start thinking “How am I going to make this happen?”

Your thoughts move from hope to action.

What’s interesting is that shifting your source of motivation has little to do with the task itself, and more to do with how you look at it. That means you can choose to see a “healthy” behavior in a new light by thinking about it in a new way.

But this can also work in the reverse direction. If something you once enjoyed suddenly becomes a requirement or a chore, you won’t be as motivated to do it.

Being physically active, for example, is innately rewarding. Children run, skip and jump for fun. Dogs fetch, chase and wrestle whenever they are allowed. If you know anyone who plays sports or exercises regularly at wee hours in the morning, they are probably motivated by something other than health or weight loss.

On the other hand, when exercise is a prescription for weight loss, a punishment for overeating, or forced upon you for some other external reason, your Internal Motivation gets replaced with External Motivation, and your desire to do it plummets.

This means External Motivation isn’t just inferior to Internal Motivation for achieving your goals, it actually acts as a force of demotivation.

In psychology, this is referred to as the Overjustification Effect, and it is the reason that focusing on your Internal Motivation at an emotional (not rational) level is necessary to become a healthy person.

The single most profound thing that happened to me when I decided to stop dieting and started focusing on my own well-being was that I rediscovered the innate joy that comes from eating fresh, seasonal Real Food. Shopping at the farmers market and teaching myself to cook was so rewarding and incredibly different from my past life––forcing myself to eat protein bars and making excuses to not join my friends for dinner parties––that I abandoned my chosen career in academics and launched a website called Summer Tomato. When you think about it, that’s nuts. And that is the power of Internal Motivation.

Today I never think about what I should do to lose weight or be healthier, except in a very abstract sense. Instead I make sure that I regularly do the things that support my quality of life––my Home Court Habits––and these are some of the best parts of my day. I find it beautiful and ironic that this shift in perspective is what helped me keep 25 lbs off for nearly 10 years.

If you’re still struggling to build the habits of eating better or being active, start by focusing on the things you love. Let go of the External Motivations of looking good, pleasing your doctor or being “healthy,” and tune in to your desires to feel energized, eat delicious foods that help you thrive, and giving your body what it needs.

Start on the inside if you want change on the outside.

What motivates you?

Originally published September 8, 2015.

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25 Responses to “How to Get Past “I Should” and Actually Become a Healthy Person”

  1. Patricia says:

    Hi there Darya: Once upon a time they used to call me “Little Miss Fitness” because every day I would drag my gym bag from under my desk and took off to the gym because I loved going. I started to love going when I was cajoled into trying an elliptical trainer. Before that, I thought only very skinny, and very fit people could get on that thing without falling. I was thrilled beyond my expectations when I was able to move myself on that machine. I was hooked. I went every single day for about two years and then I stopped and haven’t been able to get it back since. This is a very sad story. I feel like I have tasted success so I know how great it feels but I just haven’t been able to make it happen again. I want to feel that spring in my step again. I’m missing something that isn’t making the connection for me. I’m not giving up yet though. Little Miss Fitness…. heavy sigh.

    • Darya Rose says:

      What did you love about it back then? Was it the act itself, the feeling of success or the approval you got from your friends?

      • Patricia says:

        Yes, the effort I put in while on that machine. Just not falling off was a huge accomplishment in and of itself. After a few days gaining confidence my efforts became more intense and I felt like an athlete (I believe lives inside me). I wasn’t competing with anyone. I was motivated by my own efforts. Thirty minutes of the most exhilarating feeling I have ever known. I didn’t want to become too nuts so I limited the session to 30 minutes. Once in a while I would go for an hour to make up for a missed day. I now own my own machine, and I still love how it makes me feel, but I just don’t do it. Ha ha – JUST DO IT – was my favourite slogan.

    • Darya Rose says:

      Maybe try adding additional motivation like music, TV, audiobooks or podcasts you love? Just to get back into the habit.

      • Patricia says:

        I’m happy to announce that I did a 30 minute session this morning. I started with 15 minutes and 15 minutes more felt like a great idea. Reminiscing helped to conjure up that feeling so I did it before I could up come up with a reason not to. Muscle memory is a real “thing”. Music made it that much more enjoyable by putting more oomph in my effort. Thank you for commenting. I believe you really care.

    • Debi says:

      I had a similar experience – I got 10,000+ steps for every day for six months, and since then, I feel compelled to have another streak like that. I’m sure it’s some sort of perfectionism that keeps derailing my efforts (or competition with my former self who was able to reach that goal without really trying.)

      I feel that it’s important for me to try to find a way to convince myself it’s a clean slate every day. Or make much more reasonable goal posts.

  2. Michèle says:

    This article is very true… I used to be such a weight “jojo” in the past. I would be super focussed on going to the gym and watching my food so i would lose weight and would lose it fast and i completely lost sight of “joy” in all this…

    I would think “i can’t do that fun class, it won’t burn enough calories, i should do spinning instead”, even though i HATE spinning, because that would be the most efficient… Same with food. Can’t have steak, should eat chicken. Etc.

    It makes me sad to write all that down and to see how obsessive i could get. Needless to say i couldn’t stick with it (perhaps i should be gratefull because sometimes i feel i was bordering on madness lol). Then a while later i would try again, give up again, … .

    Untill i thought “eff this” and just did what i wanted to do and basically decided i would just have to be fine with my weight. And then i started taking the classes i actually LOVED, even if they weren’t perhaps the most efficient workouts, started getting creative with my cooking again, etc.

    and yep, i lost weight. lol. and it’s stayed off for about a year now. i think the motivation thing is very true. being focussed on external things will only get you so far. actually feeling good about what you do and enjoying it will get you muuuuch further.

    So thank you for this article, because i really did enjoy reading it!

  3. Theresa says:

    Good Morning Darya,
    Thank you for your article. I needed to hear that changing my internal motivations will affect my external motivations. I have once again been on a weight loss journey for a few months now. The truth is that I have changed my eating style, and my hope is that the change is for life. My real struggle has been to begin and continue exercise. I am sure I will be reflecting on your article over and over again. Thank you for your insightful advice.

    Theresa

  4. Michke says:

    It’s true that the “shoulds” can ruin so much for you.

    I used to be somewhat obsessed with losing weight as quickly and efficiently as I could. So rather than finding a balance and being happy about it, I would eat foods that I felt I “should” eat and took the gymclasses I felt I “should” do rather than the ones I would have enjoyed more but that maybe burnt a few less calories. E.g. I felt that I “should” take spinning classes rather than the yoga classes that happened at the same hour because it made more sense because spinning burns more.

    Obviously I could never stick with it.

    And now that I’ve “given up” and just do the things I want to do FOR ME I have ironically lost the most weight I’ve ever lost and have been keeping it up. I go to the gym more often for classes because I LIKE the ones I’m doing and I don’t give one hoot about whether or not they are the most efficient to achieve the perfect body or burn the most cals. I eat healthy but in a broad sense, not in the “steamed chicken every day” sense.

    So yeah this article makes ALOT of sense to me. Balance is key and if you let yourself be overwhelmed by the “shoulds” then you won’t last.

  5. John Fawkes says:

    What really helped motivate me was simply recording my meals, workouts, weight and body fat percentage. There’s a gamification element to it- you see how well you’re doing, the progress you’re making, and the sense of accomplishment increases your intrinsic motivation. Habit-tracking apps like SuperBetter and Habitica are great too.

  6. Craig says:

    John that term gamification is apropos and filled with meaning. Thanks.

  7. LoLa Lauscher says:

    This rang so true for me. After 14 years of not running regularly (broke my leg and stopped/started running several times) and a fair amount weight gain, I decided it was time to find the joy in running again. Once I decided it was to find the joy and not for any other reason, it clicked. I did some research and some reading and settled on the C25K program and 10 weeks later, I don’t think that I “should get the workout in” but rather, I find the time to make it happen, even if it’s getting up earlier or staying later at work (I use the gym there). And I can honestly say I’m proud of my efforts and progress. Today I’m at a conference, and rather than go out on the free time with colleagues, I get to hit the gym and the pool. Love this feeling; love this life. I found the joy again.

  8. Amanda says:

    I love this article so much!!

    I’ve been on a fitness and health journey for 2 and a half years (technically most of my life in actuality) and what you’re saying here is what I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

    You put it so succinctly and in such a meaningful way that it was enjoyable to read and really hit home.
    Lately I’ve been tired from not enough sleep and not eating right so therefore I’ve been skipping workouts.
    In the past, I would go anyway! Now, I just can’t…

    I really do love to work out, I lift weights and do cardio after and I like it- I have a program I follow; I feel AMAZING after and the results speak for themselves.

    Eating healthy has the same effects, I feel great when I do it but some days it feels really difficult. I think it’s the old adage of “old habits die hard” because you would think after 2.5 years of making changes that it gets easier, which it does, but I suppose that internal motivation needs to grow some more.

    Ultimately I will never let myself go back to being inactive and eating junk for a long period of time but right now, this article has helped a lot. Thanks!

  9. Maryann says:

    I love how the simple shift from “I should do this,” to “how am I going to make this happen” completely changes the way I feel about what I am (or am not) doing to achieve a goal. Super simple, yet very powerful! Thanks!

  10. Great article Darya! I work with many clients who are trying to lose weight and the first thing we do is try to find that internal motivation. It really isn’t easy though! People have come so accustomed to focusing on external motivators that they find it very weird to look inside and find internal motivations. I really liked the ideas that you gave throughout the post, I will be using these in future :)
    I loved all of the other comments that people wrote and it made this post even more relevant and important.
    Thanks for always posting such great content!

  11. Dee says:

    I absolutely love this article Darya :) especially when you said ” When you’re motivated by your own needs and desires, you stop thinking “I really should do this today” and start thinking “How am I going to make this happen?”

    Your thoughts move from hope to action”

    That really hit home for me on aspects beyond health. Truly a wonderful article. Keep doing what you’re doing because it is working for you and helping so many others along the way

    xo
    Dee

  12. Scott says:

    So happy to read some like minded content! Keep pumping out the truth Darya!

  13. CG says:

    Hmm. I’m in a different place than most of the commentators. I just cannot seem to find my motivation. To be honest, I love sweets, and I have an extremely demanding and sedentary job. I also have a child, who, frankly, is quite demanding. I know I should be taking better care of myself. But when I have the chance I usually want to rest and try to decompress. I prefer to eat foods I enjoy. Anyway, I’m just saying, sometimes internal motivation is pretty hard to conjure up.

  14. Judith says:

    I am a perfect example of what happens when you try to impose external motivation on someone else. When I was 10 years old, my parents decided that I was overweight (trust me, I have looked at the photos and I was not – just starting to mature a little early). My mother’s doctor put me on diet pills and a 1200 calorie a day diet. My parents forced me to ride a bike for a specific time each day.

    Once I got out of there, I did the yo yo diet thing for years, then decided the heck with it. I will just be overweight and a couch potato. I hated sweating, hated exercise, and refused to do any of it. Fortunately, my weight stayed stable – high but stable.

    Then, 55 years later, I was on an insurance plan that provided free gym memberships. A friend suggested that we go to a Zumba class together. I fell in love. I started slow with Zumba Gold, and worked my way up to four regular Zumba classes a week. I loved it. I still love it. I seek out new instructors and even became licensed myself to upgrade my dance skills. I started a kettle bells class, work with a personal trainer on functional movement, and do a stretching and balance class every week.

    I am still overweight (working on tracking down thyroid issues with my doctor and a nutritionist) but I am darned fit. My motto (for anyone who will listen) is ditch the boring workouts and find what you love. I can hardly wait to grab my gym bag and head to class.

  15. Lee says:

    I have never been a “dieter.” One thing I know about myself, is that unless a habit is something I want to do, I won’t be developing it. When I was a teen/early 20s, I was very thin and active. I never thought about what I ate or did. Then came my happy marriage and three children. Yes, I gained 10 pounds for each child, and a few to grow on.

    What I struggle with today (mid 50s), is finding a motivation I think is healthy. I have been eating 1500 calories or less a day for three years now. Good, healthy, home-cooked food. Haven’t lost a pound (well, my body thinks it will start losing, gives me a little hope, then says, “Nah, we’ll stay right here”). However, I have far less pain now than when I started.

    So I look at my movement. Sigh. I am a very sedentary person. I love to read, and I resent activities which cut into the little reading time I have. But I want to be a capable woman with as little pain as possible (I have arthritis) for as long as possible. I think that is my inner motivation.

    I don’t really care any more about how my body looks, I mean, I miss that thin body I had, sure, but more for the effortlessness of it than the looks of it.

    I can’t afford the gym, not budget-wise and not time-wise. So, I found a job a mile from my home, and I try to walk to and from work each day. I’ve started high-stepping while I wait for the microwave, dancing while I wait for the water to boil and jiggling when I’m reading. I do the arm-boxing thing when I’m waiting too. I do 10 minutes of Yoga in the morning because it feels so good to feel my body transform from the pain-racked and cramped joints to a somewhat limber body. I do a fast jog-in-place while waiting for the copy machine at work. Essentially, I am trying to change my sedentary body to a body which likes to move. Right now, if I get 5000 steps in a day, it is a good day for me. Yesterday, I discovered that eating at work and then walking for 45 minutes gained more steps than walking home for lunch and driving back to work, so I may start doing that.

    I guess for me it is bit by bit, habit by habit, and whether or not there is a slim and trim body at the end of it or not isn’t the point. The point is to move freely without pain for as long as possible. Although, in the back of my head is the thought that if by 2020 all these efforts amount to no change, I may just buy a bag of marijuana and a bottle of good gin and forget about it. ;)

    • Darya Rose says:

      Great work Lee. Audiobooks might end up being a thing you enjoy as well. Personally I do non-fiction audiobooks and save my beloved fiction for book reading as a treat :)

  16. Bridget says:

    These are such important points that are so often overlooked, and cause people to give up on their goals. It took me a long time to realize that if I’m forcing it, I’ll readily abandon it. For instance, I ditched the treadmill in favor of incorporating small movements and exercise into my daily routine. I find now that I really look forward to “working out!”

  17. Susan George says:

    It is a really inspirational post. Amazing work.

  18. emmab says:

    I never used to feel like I had a list of “shoulds” until I moved from Los Angeles to New York City. Now, in the snow, especially this late in the season, I feel like my habits are gone. Does this mean they weren’t habits to begin with? I don’t know. Walking, running, heading to a yoga class used to be part of my routine without thinking. Now I feel overwhelmed by the idea of cold, snow, wet socks, gray skies. I know it seems like I “should” just buck up and get out there, but I feel like I have no idea how to navigate in this new geography without “you should”.

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