Question of the Day: What’s Your “Why?”

The Gas in Your Behavior Change Motivation Tank

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on

If you’re embarking on any kind of personal, behavioral change, you’ll be in a much better position to succeed if you know why you want to make that change on a deep level.

Goals are absolutely important–particularly if you’ve taken the time to develop SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) which help you give structure to a vague desire and put a time limit on it to keep you accountable.

Your why, though, based on your values, hopes, dreams, and deepest desires can help pull you through moments when that goal by itself is not enough to keep you motivated.

Your “why” is like the gas in your tank.

You need the vehicle – you – and a destination – your goals.

But without the gas, you’re not gonna get very far.

Consider any change you’re making or are considering making. Have you taken the time to identify precisely why you want to make the change? Not just what you want or how you’re going to get there, but how that change will help you align with your personal values, vision of health and wellness, and inner wisdom?

Your “why,” or motivation, could be intrinsic or extrinsic initially–meaning does it come from within you or is it imposed from outside. Do you want to make the change for you, because it fits your personal vision of yourself? Or do you want to make the change for someone else, to gain an external reward, or to avoid external punishment?

How successful in the long-term will an extrinsic motivation be for behavior change? That might depend on how long that outside pressure remains in place and how you feel about it. Is it a new habit you fully agree with or one you would just as soon break given the chance?

You are certainly more likely to find success if you are making a change because it’s what you want, it’s your dream or passion or life’s purpose, or it aligns most perfectly with what you believe about yourself and who you want to be in the world.

I quit smoking and drinking in or around October of 2019. My mother, who suffered from COPD, chronic shortness of breath, coughing, and leg swelling had finally been diagnosed with liver cirrhosis. This was more than a little surprising because she had only ever drank in moderation if at all. She had also never been a smoker. Instead, we found out that she had a genetic disorder, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, that caused all of those symptoms/conditions. Her case was advanced, and the speed with which she declined was breath-taking to us, her family.

I was tested and found I only have one of the allele’s for the disease, so the likelihood of my developing any serious complications from it are extremely slim. Nonetheless, watching her extreme illness and decline helped me to know I absolutely did not want to actively contribute to my own liver or lung damage. But I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

I had been a “drinker” going back to my young adulthood, sometimes a heavy drinker. I took breaks from it when I felt I was overdoing it, yet I never enjoyed a comfortable, take it or leave it attitude towards alcohol. It was not my friend, and though I liked it a lot, now was the time to let it go for good.

I had quit smoking for 21 years when I started again. First, I started vaping because it was new and “only water vapor” and nicotine (umm, yeah), and I was stressed and needed an outlet and and and… Then I started to occasionally have a cigarette as well. When the medical community and media started to condemn vaping, I switched back to solely smoking. (Because it’s a proven killer with fewer unknowns? Made sense to me at the time.) I tried to quit smoking several times, and it seemed even harder than it had been in 1994 when I had successfully kicked a pack-and-a-half-per-day habit.

Shortly after my mom got her diagnosis, I decided to ditch both of those addictions entirely and in quick succession. Besides, they didn’t fit with what I was trying to do for myself, my body, or my life. And I absolutely did not want to contribute in any way toward making myself sick with diseases my mother didn’t have the privilege to avoid due to her genetics.

I would love to say, “and I never looked back.” But that, my friend, would not even be close. Just yesterday at the grocery store as I headed for the dairy/non-dairy aisles, I walked past the beer cooler and the wine aisle with a random table display of small bourbon bottles in the middle of the path, and the voice in my head started yelling, “Oh, my Gawd! I want a beer!! Or a spritzer, or a shot, or…” My mind rapid fire listing off the possibilities. I managed a deep breath. “No, I’m not doing that to myself.” I still had to walk it off for several aisles, only to confront it again at checkout facing the customer service and spirits alcove where they also sell cigarettes. Another deep breath. “No.”

I’m not doing that to myself. If I have one, I’ll have more. I’ll be right back where I was. And this time I may not be able to stop again. I may not have time. I could get sick. And if nothing else, it would certainly make me feel like crap, give me a headache, wreck my stomach, take a day or more away from me.

I don’t want to lose any days. I lost my mom this past February. She has no more days. And what I wouldn’t give for just one more day with her. One more hug.

My why’s: I don’t want to make myself sick–end stage liver disease is horrific and COPD is no picnic. I also love feeling physically fantastic on most days–why would I want to mess with that? And of course there’s the whole, “How would anyone find me a credible health coach or personal trainer if I smoked and drank heavily?”

I am absolutely clear on my why’s for these two major behavior changes, and those why’s are examples of intrinsic motivation–avoiding pain and illness, maintaining vitality and health benefits, and honoring my personal values of credibility and integrity.

So what’s your why? What can snap you back to looking at the big picture and knowing what you need to do for yourself to make the best decisions moving forward?

Vague ideas–“It would be better for me if I ate less sugar,” “I should go to the gym because I already paid for it,” or “she’s gonna kill me if I eat the last of her cheese again”–won’t cut it.

Takeaway: Having a clear reason for doing something that aligns those behaviors (or stopping those behaviors) with the vision you have of yourself, the who you want to be in the world, can make or break your behavior change plan. (A real health scare can also give you a hell of a push.) Finding your personal “why” is the gas in your tank.

Go well!

The resources and information shared here are solely for informational purposes and aren’t intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any condition or disease or provide any professional advice. Discuss any changes in your activity and eating patterns with your primary care physician prior to pursuing.

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