The psychological phenomenon known as the overjustification effect explains why extrinsic motivation isn’t getting you to the gym. 

Motivation is a murky myth. The belief that you need to feel excited to complete a task means we put things off until we feel like doing them, and when the buzz never comes, we end up neglecting the task completely.

It leaves us scrambling for reasons to get things done, looking for motivation in bizarre or harmful places. Think about exercise – rather than just doing it because moving is fun and good for us, we end up plodding through it because we think it might change the way we look, the way we’re treated or what we eat. Unsurprisingly, the novelty wears off, and we’re back to square one. 

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That cycle is what psychologists dub “the overjustification effect”. It is the name for our tendency to become less intrinsically motivated to do something that we used to enjoy because of external incentives. Basically, the more we do things for reasons outside of ourselves, the less we actually want to do the task.

If we relate that to exercise, it means the more we focus on exercising to look a certain way, to justify food choices or lifestyle habits or to impress other people, the less likely we are to find joy in the activity (and therefore less likely to stick at it).

The phrase comes from a study from the 1970s, in which participants were asked to complete a puzzle task. When they were offered a financial reward for the number of puzzles solved, they were more motivated. But the effect was temporary and as soon as the external reward was removed again, the motivation reversed and their effort levels dropped drastically. Participants actually ended up doing less than before the reward had been introduced.

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They compared those changes in motivation levels to a group of people who were never offered any monetary incentive. That group had even levels of effort throughout and had better levels of overall motivation.

According to Dr Eva Krockow, a psychologist from the University of Leicester, offering external rewards may interfere with innate levels of intrinsic motivation, therefore making exercise harder in the long term.

Writing in Psychology Today, she said: “Two different explanations may explain its power. One theory suggests that people with an external source of motivation focus their attention on the extrinsic reward and no longer notice their inherent enjoyment of the task. The second theory states that people interpret external rewards as measures that force them to engage, thereby undermining their freedom of choice. This, in turn, produces negative feelings and reduces intrinsic motivation.” 

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Ironically, the general public messaging about exercise is often focused on extrinsic motivators. Very rarely do you see messaging about taking up running to simply enjoy the act of running. Rather, the act is always justified for its associated outcomes – you’ll get fitter, you’ll go for a burger afterwards, you’ll even ward off illness.

But telling yourself to just find intrinsic motivation is near impossible. How do you dig a desire to move from deep within? Dr Krockow says there are three science-backed ways. 

Have choices 

When there are lots of options that lead to one outcome, you can choose the thing that feels right to you and your values. If the goal is to simply do more exercise, then you can choose from walking, dancing, swimming, yoga, Pilates, weight lifting, rowing… the list goes on.

On the flip side, if you were to pick your exercise based on what might make you look a certain way or receive a certain type of respect, the list shrinks. 

Do it for the now

We are less likely to get out of bed with a view to reducing the risk of falling in 40 years’ time. We are likely to get out of bed for something we want to do now. What type of exercise makes you feel OK about putting down your phone, walking away from your emails or – yes – even getting out of bed?That’s the one you’ll stick to.

Think about the pleasure

Not yet thrown off the duvet in delight? Thinking about the enjoyment of the task itself is likely to get you more motivated to do it. If you focus on the fresh air on your face as you walk, the rush of pride as you lift or the weightless feeling of pushing through water, you’re much more likely to actually do the thing than if you think about exercise as hard or horrible. 

Images: Getty 

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