What You Need to Know About Goals and Motivation

How do you stay motivated? On a day to day basis you motivation might shift back and forth. Learn how you can begin to develop your motivation.

Staying motivated is one of the most common challenges that clients new to strength training ask me about.

There's a problem however with relying on motivation to get you to the gym. It won't take you all the way to your goals.

You are however on the right track when you consider motivation, you just can't stop there.

Let's talk about goal setting and motivation. You'll learn when you're most likely to feel motivated. We'll talk about how to figure out what motivates you. I'll share one method you might find useful to help you find your "why".

Our next step will be to determine milestones that will help push you forward. We'll learn to use choice architecture to smooth the path towards reaching your goals. Finally, we can use S.M.A.R.T. goals to zero in and help plot out how you're going to get to each milestone.

Get Motivated After a "Fresh Start"

Although most people fail to reach their New Year's resolutions, research suggests that the new year might be a good time to give a "fresh start" a try.

The Fresh Start Effect is the time we're the most motivated to pursue our goals.

The Fresh Start Effect, coined by Katherine Milkman is not a new idea;

"The notion that fresh starts are possible and offer individuals an opportunity to improve themselves has long been endorsed by our culture. For example, Christians can be “born again,” Catholic confessions and penance provide sinners with a fresh start, many religious groups engage in ritual purification or ablution ceremonies (e.g., Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Jews), and the metaphorical phoenix rising from the ashes is a ubiquitous symbol of rebirth." (Milkman et al, 2013)

Compared to normal, you're more likely to feel most motivated;

  • After a birthday (7%)
  • At the start of a week (33%)
  • Beginning of a month (14%)
  • At the start of the new year (11%)
  • At the start of a new semester (47%)

Whenever you think there's a chance to leave your old self behind, you should take it.

Watch Milkman talk more about the Fresh Start Effect and more in this TEDx talk.

Now that you know when you might feel more motivated to tackle your goals, let's talk about how you can build towards long term motivation.

How Motivation Works

The principles of Self-Determination Theory teaches us what motivates you.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) is considered one of the leading theories of human motivation.

Popularized by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, self-determination theory states

“…motivation [is] an internal state that energizes and drives action or behavior and determines it direction and persistence” (p. ix, 2007).

Motivation isn’t just determined by external rewards like money, being able to eat more Oreos, improving your social status and other pleasures.

Motivation is also determined by internal aspects.

In SDT we all share 3 key needs:

  1. Autonomy- having ownership, a say, whole heartedly belief in the things you’re doing
  2. Competence- experience success-being good at things that are important to you. Sense of wellness.
    You can achieve competence by breaking skills down into segments and showing yourself (or other learners) progress.
  3. Relatedness- feeling cared for and developing a connection with others. A sense of belonging, caring for and being taken care of by others. You can cultivate this by sharing a learning community.

Of course, you're not going to feel "motivated" on a continual basis. Some days, making it to the gym sounds harder than others.

Motivation is a spectrum that ranges from amotivation (not wanting to do something), to extrinsic (doing something to gain a reward) to intrinsic (the activity is a reward in itself).

Motivation ranges from:

  • Amotivation-lacking the intention to act or going through the motions.
  • External Regulation-complying for a reward or avoidance of punishment.
  • Introjected Regulation-performing an activity for pride or to avoid guilt or anxiety, partial sense of internal control.
  • Identified Regulation-doing something because you know it is good for you, there doesn't have to be an immediate reward.
  • Integrated Regulation-when doing something is just a part of your identity, it's who you are now, still done for the reward of doing the thing.
  • Intrinsic Motivation-performing an activity because you enjoy it and the inherent satisfaction.

If you're just starting out, it can be difficult to imagine that some people just like going to the gym. They may enjoy the feeling of being (occasionally) sore when they perform new exercises or increase their volume.

Recognize that we're all human and no one feels that way all year round.

Some days you may do something because you enjoy it. Other days you may hit the gym because you know you always feel better afterwards.

Now that you know what makes up motivation, we can talk about how you can build it.

How to Develop Motivation

You can develop autonomy by carving out your own path in your training journey.

In a sound program, there are exercises that you need to do and there is also room for things that you enjoy.

Figure out something you want to be able to accomplish;

  • Performing your first pull-up
  • Lifting a heavy suitcase
  • Going on a long bike ride with friends
  • Feel confident tackling a DIY gardening project-rocks won't move themselves

Take a more active role in designing your training program. Those exercises you like doing, put those in your program. Ask to do them more often if you're working with a trainer.

Balance what you need with what you want.

You can practice competency by breaking skills down into segments and showing yourself (or other learners) progress.

Use progressive overload to improve different aspects of your training.

Write down your workout progress.

Film your heavy sets of exercises. Practice, critique, ask why.

Break a pull-up down into skills that tie together to complete the entire exercise. (Meghan Callaway has a phenomenal program that does just that, check out The Ultimate Pull-Up Program)

Cultivate relatedness by sharing a learning community with others.

Make friends with the person you see every week at your yoga class. Cook meals with friends. Share what you're learning about fitness and nutrition with curious friends and family. Find a mentor.

A supportive, client-driven approach to coaching is a great fit for developing all three aspects of motivation, especially when there’s a fostered learning experience.

For more information on Self Determination Theory, you can visit https://selfdeterminationtheor...

An Exercise to Find Your "Why"

Something that shouldn't be overlooked is why you're doing this in the first place.

Those of us who are more introspective might know why immediately. For those of you who don't consider yourself introverts, try an exercise created by Toyota. It's a process that involves asking why five times.

The 5 Whys Process

The creation of the 5 whys process is credited to Taiichi Ohno, Former Vice President of Toyota Motor Corporation. Toyota uses this process to solve recurrent problems in production.

In the example provided on Toyota’s website, Taiichi talked about how to apply the five whys to a welding robot stopping in the middle of its operation:

  • "Why did the robot stop?"
    • The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
  • "Why is the circuit overloaded?"
    • There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
  • "Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?"
    • The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
  • "Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?"
    • The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
  • "Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?"
    • Because there is no filter on the pump.

By getting at the root cause of a problem, Toyota can continually overcome challenges and find the keys to a lasting solution. You can apply this same method to your life.

Ask yourself, why do I want to do (x)?

What will reaching that goal allow you to achieve in the rest of your life? What will you feel like? Why haven't you already reached that goal?

Only you can figure out the real reason why you want to do something. You don't need to justify your answers to anyone but yourself.

Learn to Think in Milestones and Moments

In your mind, some moments stand out above the rest. Birthdays, prom, your first kiss, a big presentation-these are what New York Times best selling authors Chip and Dan Heath refer to as peak moments.

In The Power of Moments Chip and Dan Heath explore what makes moments memorable.

A peak moment is a defining moment or short experience that is both meaningful and memorable.

We can use one or a combination of four elements to create memorable experiences;

  1. Elevation
  2. Insight
  3. Pride
  4. Connection


The Heaths' define elevation as "experiences that rise above the everyday."

Moments of elevation are those times that we savor. The might be social occasions, competitions or even presentations. They are the most difficult to create but, we cherish them.

Some examples of moments of elevation include:

  • Birthday parties
  • Weddings
  • Running a 5k
  • A first kiss
  • The walk on a sunny day that leaves you smiling

You can work to create moments of elevation by doing all or two of three things:

  1. Break the script-do something unexpected
  2. Boost sensory appeal-do something to turn up the "volume" like dressing up
  3. Raise the stakes-add in competition or a deadline

The Brothers note, if you see people take out their cameras, you're on the right track. People take photos because they're experiencing moments that they want to remember.


"Moments of insight deliver realizations and transformations". (Heath Brothers)

In order to deliver insight, it's not enough to give people the answers to their problems. Like mentors, we need to create opportunities for others to "trip over the truth".

Craft experiences where you have the opportunity to fail at something. Maybe that means you sign up for an intimidating yoga class you were thinking about.


Moments of pride are all about showing respect for someone's accomplishments.

You can take the time to write a thank you card to someone and thank them for all they've done for you in your life. To really experience pride, you'll want to hand deliver that note.

A concept within pride is the idea of multiplying your milestones.Think, creating multiple finish lines to celebrate.

Say you want to get started with strength training. If you read, Strength Training for Beginners, you know that this is a big step.

Why not break up "getting started" into smaller milestones all worth celebrating?

You can author your fitness journey to include:

  • Performing your first successful pushup
  • Holding a plank for a minute
  • Learning how to squat properly
  • Graduating to perform a more difficult variation of an exercise

You can determine what success looks like to you. Instead of one large milestone, you're able to stop and enjoy all the little victories you pile up.


"Moments of connection bond us together." (Heath Brothers)

Struggling towards a meaningful goal with those around you bonds you. We all desire a sense of connection and relatedness.

Taking a yoga class, cooking with a spouse, going on a walk with a friend. Those shared experiences can all becoming meaningful depending on how you frame them.

Do you have to wait for those moments to happen to you? Thankfully not. You can script moments.

The same way that you can script moments, you can also control your environment using choice architecture.

Use Choice Architecture to Smooth Your Path

Choice architecture is building out an environment to make good decisions more likely.

You make it more likely to stick to your goals when you remove as many obstacles as you can.

Choice architecture is an idea that comes from Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

Nudge can open your eyes to how you can structure some of your choices in life to be more beneficial.

By using choice architecture you're not removing choice, you're merely making it more likely that you choose in a way that benefits you.

Some fitness examples of choice architecture:

  • Leaving a set of workout clothes in your car.
  • Bringing your lunch to work.
  • Picking restaurants that serve healthier options.
  • Planning out your workout before you hit the gym.
  • Create a playlist to avoid surfing during your workouts.
  • Choosing to leave the Oreos at the store, you can always go get them when you want them.

There are other ways that you can sprinkle positive choices into your life.

Take that trip across the office to talk to your boss instead of sending an email. Wash those dishes by hand. This sort of thinking will come to you.

An added benefit to choice architecture is that it doesn't take more mental energy to perform once it's done.

Let's bring this all together with an example using the S.M.A.R.T goals framework.

How You're Going to Reach Your Goals

If you have a goal in mind, the next step is to plan how you're going to get there. S.M.A.R.T. goals are process oriented goals that spell out the actions you need to take in order to achieve success.

A smart goal is something that is:

  • Specific-lift (x) amount, run a mile in (y) minutes, etc.
  • Measureable-something that is valid to your goal that can be measured repeatedly.
  • Achievable-realistic or attainable.
  • Relevant-appropriate for your current circumstances.
  • Time Orientated-involving time sensitivity or a deadline.

Let's say you want to lose some body weight in order to be able perform your first pull up using Meghan's Ultimate Pull-Up Program.

Losing weight will make pull-ups easier and attaching your weight loss to something fun makes it more meaningful.

Your S.M.A.R.T. Goal might fill out like the following:

  • Specific-lose 10 lbs in 12 weeks while following the first two phases of Meghans program.
  • Measureable-Weigh yourself 2-3 times per week while remaining in a caloric deficit.
  • Achievable-depending on how you're built, how strong you are and how much you weigh, this might be a quick win or take some time.
  • Relevant-it's fitness related, we'll just assume you want that, since you're on a fitness website.
  • Time-Oriented-while you can't control how fast, you can improve, set a date and try your best to make progress.

If you wondered what a caloric deficit is (weight loss), I recommend you read What Beginners Need to Know About Nutrition and Dieting.

Recommended Resources:

If you want to learn more about some of the things mentioned in this article, in addition to what I've already mentioned check out this stuff.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

I buy and gift every single book that Chip and Dan write. Switch is research based and can teach you some of the principles behind changing habits and what it takes.

The Heath Brothers synthesized switch in a 16 minute video that can be found here.

All it takes to access the video is an email address.

I've been on the Heath Brothers list for years and they maybe send an email 3 times a year.

If you’re looking for a professional with real world experience applying more psychology to the real-world, Dr. Lisa Lewis is incredibly knowledgeable and extremely approachable.

Dr. Lisa Lewis is a licensed psychologist and a certified addictions counselor who strives to help clients achieve personal, professional and athletic goals.

Contact her at https://drlewisconsulting.com/


(1) Dai, H., Milkman, K. L., & Riis, J. (2014). The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science, 60(10), 2563-2582. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2...

(2) Heath, Dan, and Chip Heath. The Power of Moments. Random House UK, 2019.

Phone: 1-573-443-1495

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