Losing Weight, Giving Up Smoking, New Year’s Resolutions…Do We Need to be More Motivated?

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A couple of the most common desires are losing weight and giving up smoking. People genuinely want to do these things and for what they see as sensible and rational reasons. And yet they often don’t. If they had more energy to do these things, surely they would. Isn’t this a motivation problem?

My guess is no. I’ll explain why soon. But first…

What do I mean by motivation?

For me motivation is the energy to do something. “Motivation” can be used in a variety of ways. When teachers say they want to motivate their students, they seem to mean something like, “I want them to enjoy something they don’t enjoy” or, more simply, “I want them to do what I say”. For me motivation is energy-with-purpose. I might have lots of energy in general, but I am motivated to run a race or do the dishes or create some artwork.

Which brings us to what is often presented as a motivation problem. I have the desire to do something but can’t be bothered. A couple of the most common desires are losing weight and giving up smoking. People genuinely want to do these things and for what they see as sensible and rational reasons. And yet they often don’t. If they had more energy to do these things, surely they would. Isn’t this a motivation problem?

Wouldn’t this kind of problem be fixed with more energy for this purpose?

My guess is no. I think the problem is that we may only be looking at half the situation. When we have a desire it is easy to be aware of it. We can even become quite obsessed with what we want. Some people will spend a great deal of money and sacrifice relationships to attain their desires.

The other side of the story is that there may be another desire. When we want to stop smoking or eating food that we see as being of the wrong kind, we are usually well aware of what it is we want to stop doing. What is harder to be aware of is the part that doesn’t want to stop. Some part of us wants to eat the food of which we disapprove, or keep on smoking.

Competing Motivations

For me this kind of problem is not a matter of enough motivation, but of competing motivations. The amount of energy and suffering involved in the conflict can be considerable. And where to channel the energy is not in doubt. The energy is often there to make repeated efforts.

If this is the case, that we have competing motivations, does it help? Does it mean that we have to increase our motivation some more, or that we need to overcome one of our desires with another? My guess is usually not; there is a better way to respond to these situations. Here is what I have found to work.

1. See the bigger picture

By “the bigger picture” I mean seeing that we have competing desires. This can be difficult — especially when one of the desires is judged to be bad or unacceptable. (Eating whatever I like is regarded as bad [weak, indulgent, undisciplined, etc.], for instance.)

2. Listen to the competing desires

Prejudice is judging before we have listened. We usually disapprove when we do this to others (or at least when we see others doing this to others). But I think we often do this to ourselves. We don’t stop to find out why we don’t want to go on the diet or don’t want to stop smoking.

It may be that we will decide to ignore or destroy a desire we have. However, it would be wise to have listened to this desire and found out what it was about first. Otherwise we are just being prejudiced — and this will likely lead to a bad decision.

I want to emphasise as strongly as I can that out of the people I’ve spoken with, the competing desire, at root, has always been healthy. Never once, in all of my experience and the experience of all the people I have spoken too, has the part that doesn’t want to change been destructive.

An example: my friend the smoker

I had a friend that wanted to stop smoking. He had tried numerous times and never succeeded. Surely the desire to keep smoking was unhealthy — the figures on the diseases that can be caused are fairly clear and my friend was well aware of them. When he listened to the part of him that didn’t want to stop, he found that what he wanted was a break. Smoking was his way of taking time out. He was quite hard on himself — and being hard on himself for smoking fitted this pattern very well. Which is about . . .

3. Change perception

When we listen to the competing desires then we see the situation differently. From here it is possible to move on to…

4. Create different plans or behaviour

If the situation is fairly simple then we may be able to move to action immediately — I decide on a sandwich instead of a cake for instance. If the situation is more complicated, then we may need to plan or even try out different kinds of behaviour. I might try replacing smoking with sucking mints, going for a walk, taking a break and lots of other things before finding the one that works for me.

Motivation is Usually There Already

I don’t think we need more motivation because the motivation is usually there already. We usually have lots of energy to do what we want to do. The challenge is usually finding out what it is that we want to do, or finding out ways we can do it. Once we know what we want and how to get it we don’t usually lack the energy.

Have you had motivation problems? Do you find this perspective helpful or have you found other ways of handling conflicts? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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