Ten Steps to Build Intrinsic Motivation

Based on self-determination theory

Self-determination theory, developed by Ed Deci, Richard Ryan, and colleagues assumes that humans have three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. People who have high levels of autonomy, competence, and relatedness tend to be more intrinsically (self) motivated to pursue important goals in their lives. Perhaps you have a major goal of boosting your health and well-being. How would you go about increasing your autonomy, competence, and relatedness in order to motivate yourself to make healthy lifestyle choices to achieve vibrant health and psychological well-being? Self-determination research suggests the following ten steps.

1) Assume responsibility for your own health and well-being.

Better yet, actively “own” your health. In other words, create intrinsic motivation to assume responsibility for your health rather than rely on extrinsic motivators. Of course, external factors over which you have little or no control, such as safe places to walk, also matter. But do what you can right now to get started.

2) Internalize a compelling, emotionally laden reason to adopt a healthy behavior—a BIG WHY.

Think of a future event or condition that is vitally important and emotionally powerful to you. Then mentally link that event or condition to making a healthy behavior. For example, you may want to be able to play catch with your 2-year old grandson when he reaches adolescence. This will require you to Keep Moving to maintain your physical strength, flexibility, and balance.

3) Learn the benefits of taking charge of your life.

My recent book Choose Better Live Better – Nine Healthy Choices that Nurture Body, Mind, and Spirit, explains the many benefits that you can expect from adopting healthy behaviors. Understanding the benefits will help you internalize healthy behaviors. You may also need to acquire relevant information about how to adopt a healthy behavior, especially if it’s unfamiliar.

4) Develop affirmations and visualizations to promote a feeling of competence with respect to adopting a healthy behavior.

Affirmations and visualizations operate on the principle that your brain cannot tell the difference between an actual event and one that you vividly and emotionally imagine. Effective affirmations are personal, positive, present tense statements that support you adopting a healthy behavior. Note that affirmations must be believable to your subconscious mind. Affirmations are often phrased as if they are already true. For example, an affirmation that would support a decision to cut back of sugar might be, “I am losing interest in drinking sodas.” Visualizations are mental image versions of affirmations. You might imagine yourself drinking a glass of cold, unsweetened iced tea instead of drinking a soda and feeling satisfied and refreshed. In addition, you can monitor your self-talk for phrases that do not support adopting a healthy behavior.

5) Acknowledge  (but don't dwell on) roadblocks that you might encounter, such as feeling reluctant to adopt a healthy behavior.

You need to come to grips with feelings that engaging in a healthy behavior might not be enjoyable, at least initially. For example, you might not think that taking a daily after dinner walk would be much fun. One way to more forward would be to recruit your spouse or a friend to accompany you on an after-dinner walk.

6) Find others who will support you in pursuing healthy choices.

Such others might include friends, or a spouse, or neighbors. It’s important that the support people foster your autonomy rather than attempt to control you. You probably don’t want other people telling you what do to. You need to be supported in a manner that involves minimal or no pressure. Friends, relatives, and others need to phrase a suggestion to initiate a healthy behavior as an invitation rather than a demand, emphasizing choice rather than control. You’ll probably be more likely to feel that your healthy behavior is freely chosen and not imposed or pressured by some outside force. In other words, your motivation to choose a healthy behavior is intrinsic rather than extrinsic.

7) Choose a healthy behavior that resonates with you.

That is, you need to feel that the healthy behavior will benefit you, be practical to implement, and enjoyable to do (at least over time). If you love your dog, how about taking Fido for one additional walk each day. You’ll both be better off as a result.

8) Write a specific plausible goal for what you want to achieve with regard to implementing your healthy behavior.

For example, walk at a brisk pace for a half hour each day, or reduce soft drink consumption to one can every other day.

9) Create some sort of tracking form on which you can record daily activity designed to achieve the goal.

Spreadsheets are handy for this. You or a friend can create a custom computer spreadsheet to track your healthy behavior. I created a custom spreadsheet using Excel. I keep it at the gym and record every exercise I do at my twice-weekly workout sessions. I like seeing all the check marks on the printed spreadsheet at the end of each workout.

10) Celebrate accomplishments.

Research shows that acknowledging achievements after the fact promotes intrinsic motivation. The celebration need not be fancy or expensive. After every workout at the gym, I give myself a pat on the back. In winter after a workout, I sit in the sauna as a reward.


Boosting your health and well-being by making healthy lifestyle choices may not be easy. That said, you’ll probably make faster and greater progress when you build your intrinsic motivation by incorporating these 10 steps into you daily life.

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