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Is Motivation Overrated?

Learn to discern which behavior-change advice is right for you.

Key points

  • Discounting the value of motivation in supporting sustainable changes in healthy lifestyles misguides us.
  • Behavior-change experts and professionals have biases that influence their research, what they learn, and the strategies they promote.
  • We can become more discerning of behavior-change advice through asking the right questions.

I’ve been doing a lot of podcast interviews recently. A question I’ve been getting a lot more frequently than I could have imagined goes something like this:

“Michelle, motivation is overrated, isn’t it?”

As someone who has seen the concrete value of motivation, both among my coaching clients and in my academic research (and in the science of others), my answer is unequivocal: “Absolutely not! Motivation is essential for most people.”

This de-emphasis on motivation signals something specific to me. Increasingly, I think this trend to play down the role of motivation in supporting sustainable changes in healthy lifestyles may be coming from behavior-change experts or professionals who don't know how to help people cultivate the type of motivation that drives the consistent decisions underlying lasting change.

This attitude is understandable. If someone has not witnessed the true power of motivation when it becomes a deeply compelling daily driver of healthy decisions, it's logical to believe that motivation itself must be overrated.

Here’s what I believe: Like in every field, our worldview determines how we see the world, what we expect to happen, our actions (or nonactions), and what we believe is possible.

So, when it comes to sustaining healthy changes in self-care behaviors like exercise and eating, the quality of our choices, and ultimately the results we get, will be determined by what we believe we need to do to create a lasting change in behavior.

Learning to Discern

How can you become a more thoughtful consumer of behavior-change advice so you can better discern if it's the right fit for your unique change needs? Start by asking yourself some questions:

  1. What is the behavior-change story I am being told? Does implementing these strategies assume ideal circumstances? Or does it allow room for the messy, unpredictable reality many of us live within?
  2. Am I being told that a particular behavior-change technique will work equally well across vastly different types of behaviors? Consider that what works for helping you floss your teeth every night is unlikely to work as well for consistently being physically active.
  3. Is this story backed up by published research? The value of many behavior change stories rests only on the questionable promise of "common sense."
  4. If the story is supported by published research, ask two important questions: (1) Was this research conducted among people who have lives similar to mine? (2) Does the research feature short-term or long-term outcomes?
  5. Have I tried anything like this strategy in the past? If so, has it worked for me long-term, or do I keep having to start over?
  6. When I consider my own life experience and that of my friends and family, does this behavior-change strategy seem like it could withstand the frequent shifts in priorities that daily life often demands?

I want to plainly say that, as in all fields, all behavior-change experts and professionals have beliefs that influence the questions we ask in our research, what our subsequent research shows, and, ultimately, the advice we give to individuals, organizations, and the media.

So, it’s important to be transparent about what our beliefs are so people can understand the foundation upon which our advice stands.

Creating Sustainable Changes

What I believe evolves through the things I learn in ongoing research I and others conduct, my coaching, and living my own life. However below are my current core beliefs about how to create sustainable changes in lifestyle behaviors:

  1. While they are different from each other in important ways, changes in eating and exercise are very different than any other change in behavior. I believe advice that ignores eating and exercise's unique tie to "weight loss" (and the common negative feelings associated with it) is likely to keep people in a vicious cycle of failure.
  2. A sustainable change in eating and exercise can't occur for most of us unless we change our beliefs about and relationship with these behaviors. Tactics (like "start small") matter, but they are just the tip of the sustainable-change iceberg.
  3. Research on college students advances our knowledge about behavior change. But the life circumstances and daily responsibilities of average university students vastly reduce the applicability of this research for creating sustainable change for those of us working full-time jobs and/or caring for children, parents, or others.
  4. Most people who will achieve lasting changes in lifestyle behaviors need to understand how to maintain their behaviors as they go through the dynamic nature of their days, have tactics that are inherently flexible, and believe “success” is staying on the journey over time, not hitting a bullseye every time.
  5. To make the daily choices that favor self-care, well-being, and health, people need a personally relevant and compelling motivation for making them. Because of the traditional ways we’ve been socialized to approach behaviors like eating and exercise, many of us haven't learned to have this type of deeply compelling motivation. In fact, deep down, many of us want to avoid exercising and eating in more intentional ways. But the good news is that transforming one’s motivation isn’t as hard as it might seem. In fact, it's quite easy. (If you're interested in how to do this, read this published paper or my first book showing the methods to transform exercise from a chore into a gift, No Sweat.)

As I say in my keynotes: Nothing is ever true for everyone. So, while I hold these beliefs about what will help most succeed with sustainable change, I also know that there are some people (a minority) who can sustain a change using very different tactics like pure grit or habit formation.

The bottom line? It’s up to each of us to think critically about what we hear about how to change our behavior to discern if that advice actually aligns with what we know to be true about ourselves and our own lives.

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