Your Why: The Key to Lasting Behavior Change
Ever tried to make a positive behavior change?
Maybe build a new habit such as exercising more regularly, meditating every morning, getting up early, being more grateful, cleaning your house more often, studying harder for school, or eating healthier?
How’d that work out for you? Let me guess: You started off very disciplined in the beginning, but the longer you tried, the harder it got and then… you quit.
Happens all the time, right?
You feel super motivated in the beginning, only to quit a little bit further along the way. We start and quit and start and quit and start and quit and start…
There’s a reason why this happens: It’s because you associate the wrong meaning – the wrong Why – with your actions.
Let me explain…
Why Are You Trying To Change Your Behavior Anyway?
Let’s say you want to exercise more frequently. You could choose to do that for lots of different reasons.
Maybe you want to lose weight. Or you want to be healthier. Or you want to prevent a disease. Or you would like to live longer. Or you want to impress someone. Or you just want to do it because exercise feels great.
The point is, we engage (or would like to engage) in certain behaviors because they help us achieve a certain goal.
We want something and therefore we need to act in a certain way.
So for every behavior or action, there’s an underlying “want”, an underlying goal, an underlying reason, an underlying Why for doing it.
E.g.: You may go to the gym because you want to lose weight. Or you go to the gym because you want to gain muscle mass. Or you go to the gym because it makes you feel great. Lots of different Whys for the same behavior.
And this Why – aka our primary reason for initiating any behavior – is the #1 key to sustainable behavior change.
How Meaning – Aka The Why – Drives Behavior
Do you think people experience going for a walk differently and eat healthier or unhealthier afterward depending on their reason for walking? Researchers tackled this question in an interesting study described in Michelle Segar’s great book No Sweat:
“The first study was conducted with mostly overweight but otherwise healthy women. All of the participants were provided with maps of the same one-mile outdoor course and were told that they would get lunch after their thirty-minute walk was over. Half of the women were told that their reason for walking (their Why) was to “exercise.” They were encouraged to view it as such and to notice how they felt throughout the walk. The other group was told that they were walking in order to have fun. They were given music to listen to and told to enjoy themselves on the walk.
Afterward, the researchers asked each woman to calculate her mileage and calorie expenditure and to describe her mood. Both groups reported extremely similar mileage and calories burned, but they experienced the walk quite differently. The women who had been walking to exercise said they felt more tired and grumpy than the women who were exercising for fun.
Even more interesting is what happened when the women sat down to a pasta lunch. They could choose between either water or a sugary soda to drink, and between applesauce or chocolate pudding for dessert. The women who had been told that their Why for walking was to exercise took in significantly more calories from soda and pudding than the women whose Why for walking was to have fun.”
So, two groups of women:
- Group 1: they are told that their walk is a form of exercise
- Group 2: they are told that their walk is just a way to have fun
Same activity. Different meaning (or Why).
After the walk, the “fun” group feels more energized, is in a better mood, and even eats healthier than the “exercise” group.
How is that possible?
Answer: It’s possible because meaning drives behavior.
Again: Meaning drives behavior.
If you want to change your behavior, you need to change the meaning or the Why behind that behavior.
It’s THAT simple.
Having an effective or ineffective reason for your behaviors can make ALL the difference.
How to Make Sustainable Behavior Change Happen by Choosing Effective Whys instead of Ineffective Whys
As you can clearly see, the Why behind your actions matters.
In fact, the Why is the #1 key to changing your behaviors and your life. It determines how you feel, how you behave, how motivated you are, and whether you are going to stick to something for the long-run or not.
Effective Whys empower, energize and motivate you, while ineffective Whys leave you feeling depleted, unmotivated, and powerless.
I repeat: Pick an effective Why and changing your behavior becomes almost effortless. Whether it’s exercising regularly, meditating daily, or practicing the piano more often… pick the right Why and you’ll make it happen.
Further good news: You only have to keep 4 things in mind when picking your Why, your reason for doing a desired behavior.
4 Criteria That Differentiate Effective Whys from Ineffective Whys
There are really only 4 criteria that differentiate effective Whys – the ones that motivate you and make sustainable behavior change a breeze – from ineffective Whys – the ones that leave you demotivated and lead you to give up sooner rather than later.
Let’s check out those four distinctions one after the other…
(*Note: You might not always be able to hit all 4 of those perfectly. No problems, even just considering one or two of them will make a big difference. Just try to meet as many as possible.)
1) An effective Why Offers Immediate Gratification – An ineffective Why promises abstract, long-term benefits
Here comes the first attribute of a highly motivating Why:
The Right Why makes you feel something and offers immediate gratification, instead of abstract long-term benefits.
This study from No Sweat makes a great example:
“Some years ago, my colleagues and I conducted a study in which we examined the impact of people’s reasons to start exercising on their actual involvement in exercise. We first asked the participants to state their reasons or goals for exercising, as I just asked you. Then, to uncover their higher-level reasons for exercising, we asked them why they cared about obtaining those particular benefits. My colleagues and I found that 75 percent of participants cited weight loss or better health (current and future) as their top reasons for exercising; the other 25 percent exercised in order to enhance the quality of their daily lives (such as to create a sense of well-being or feel centered). Then we measured how much time they actually spent exercising over the course of the next year. The answer may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true: The vast majority of the participants whose goals were weight loss and better health spent the least amount of time exercising overall—up to 32 percent less than those with other goals.”
Ask people why they want to start exercising and you’ll get the following results:
- 75% say their Why is “better health” or “weight loss”
- 25% say their Why is to enhance the quality of their daily lives
Who exercises how much? The majority of people whose goals were weight loss and better health spent the least amount of time exercising.
Isn’t that kind of shocking? Our most common and culturally accepted reasons for exercising produce the worst results – “better health” and “weight loss” are associated with doing the least amount of exercise.
Why is that?
Well, turns out human beings aren’t very reasonable creatures at all. We have a very simple, emotion-based operating system: We tend to approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.
The emphasis lies on FEELING. Emotions trump logic when it comes to motivating us.
If a certain behavior makes us feel good today, then we approach it and feel motivated to do it. If a behavior offers no immediate value, then we feel no urge to approach it – we don’t feel motivated.
Even worse, if a behavior is associated with negative emotions (“Ugh, now I have to go to the gym…”), we will try to avoid it. We will literally dread doing it.
The point is, if you want to exercise more regularly, or study harder, or meditate more often, you must associate these activities with positive feelings and immediate rewards.
Logical Whys such as “better health”, “more productivity”, “more money”, or “weight loss” don’t offer any hard and fast promise of a better today, a better right now. There’s no immediate payoff… there’s nothing enjoyable to approach… so why should you feel motivated?
Feelings trump logic.
Immediate gratification outdoes long-term benefits.
Activities must feel good today, not offer a better future in X amount of time.
So that’s the first thing to consider: Frame your desired behavior in a way that feels good and is immediately rewarding.
Examples of abstract, logic-based, future benefiting Whys:
- Exercising because you want to live a long life
- Eating healthy because you want to lose weight
- Studying because you want a good job 10 years from now
- Meditating because you want a healthier brain
Examples of emotionally rewarding, immediately gratifying Whys:
- Exercising because it makes you feel strong and determined right now
- Eating healthy because it gives you more energy and clear mental focus today
- Studying because you’re interested and excited about a topic
- Meditating to feel grounded and more present right now
(*NOTE: What you learned here also means choosing, if possible, an activity that is fun or enjoyable in and of itself. If you want to make regular exercise a habit, choose a form of exercise you enjoy. You don’t need to go to the gym or go jogging for 40 minutes. Remember: It should feel good and be instantly gratifying. Go play some football, catch a Frisbee, or play volleyball.
2) Effective Whys Are Self-Chosen – Ineffective Whys Feel Like “Should’s” or “Have to’s”
Do you prefer doing something because someone in authority tells you that you have to do it? Or because you’re excited and curious about the idea and motivated to try it out?
That’s obvious: You’d rather be in charge and make your own decisions.
There’s science behind why you feel that way. Here’s an explanation from No Sweat:
“Self-determination theory (SDT) distinguishes between feeling either “controlled” or “autonomous” toward a behavior, and it shows how these differences can affect subsequent motivation and adherence. According to SDT, an individual who feels controlled toward being physically active – say, being told that she must take a brisk forty-minute walk every day – would consider walking a should. To this person, walking is something she has to do in order to avoid a punishment (such as having to pay higher healthcare premiums), to comply with an external pressure (such as following a doctor’s prescription to lose weight), or just because she thinks it’s “the right way” to exercise. In contrast, an individual who feels autonomous toward walking decides to do it because she wants to do it in the ways that she chooses to do it. this person deeply values her reasons for taking a walk, understands and acts on the benefits she gets from walking, or simply experiences pleasure or feels satisfaction from the process of being physically active.”
Feeling controlled toward a behavior: You feel like you’re being forced to do something. It feels like you have to do it. It feels like you should do it. You don’t really want to do it, but you may fear the consequences of not doing it.
Feeling autonomous toward a behavior: You choose to do it. It’s YOUR decision. You do it because you want to do it. You do it because you believe it’s of great value to your life. You feel ownership over your behavior.
Needless to say, feeling autonomous toward a behavior is much more motivating and leads to more sustainable behavior change.
In fact, feeling autonomous toward a behavior – choosing it yourself - leads to a powerful kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation as explained in Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book Succeed:
“We find the greatest motivation and most personal satisfaction from those goals that we choose for ourselves. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, self-chosen goals create a special kind of motivation called intrinsic motivation – the desire to do something for its own sake. When people are intrinsically motivated they enjoy what they are doing more. They find it more interesting. They find that they are more creative, and they process information more deeply. They persist more in the face of difficulty. They perform better. Intrinsic motivation is awesome in its power to get and keeps us going.”
When you feel like you’re in charge of your own actions, when you feel like you’re creating your own destiny, when you feel like you’ve chosen a certain activity by yourself, then you’ll benefit from the power of intrinsic motivation - you’ll be more motivated and successful.
But beware, intrinsic motivation is a delicate flower as explained in Succeed: “This motivation is destroyed by anything we experience as controlling – including rewards, punishments, deadlines, and excessive monitoring.”
When you want to change your behavior in a sustainable way, you better choose the behavior yourself. You better feel like you’re the author of your life. You better take ownership of your actions.
As soon as you feel like you “have to” or “should” or “feel forced” to initiate a certain behavior, you’re in for trouble. Your motivation just won’t be there. You’ll dread doing the thing. You’ll feel controlled. It’ll feel like a chore. It’ll be a constant battle, a constant fight. It won’t be enjoyable. And it’ll be very hard to sustain.
So that’s the 2nd criterion to consider when choosing the meaning for your desired behavior: Do it because YOU want to do it. Because you feel like it’s a good idea. Because it feels good for you. Because it’s part of who you are as a person.
Don’t initiate a behavior because you feel like you “should” do it or because you “have to” do it or because someone told you to do it.
- Studying because you have to in order to go to college
- Cleaning your room because your mother tells you to
- Going out partying because you feel like you have to… after all, you might miss out if you don’t go, right? (aka fear of missing out)
- Participating in a sport because you should stay fit and healthy
Autonomous, self-chosen Whys:
- Studying because you choose to, because you are interested in a topic
- Cleaning your room because you enjoy living and working in an uncluttered space
- Going out partying because you feel like partying, because you want to have a great time, because you want to enjoy yourself
- Participating in a sport because you enjoy it, because you want to
3) Effective Whys Are Intrinsic – Ineffective Whys Are Extrinsic
The third criterion to consider is choosing between external reasons (extrinsic goals) and internal reasons (intrinsic goals).
Michelle Segar explains the differences in No Sweat:
“Exercising as a way to help you achieve something specific outside of yourself, like losing ten pounds or lowering your cholesterol by fifty points, is an external reason (or extrinsic goal). External reasons are sometimes called instrumental because they are a means to an end. In contrast, exercising because you genuinely want to, because you’ve chosen an activity you enjoy and are looking forward to, is an internal reason (or intrinsic goal) that fuels your core needs and wants: who you are.”
External reasons (or extrinsic goals) help you achieve something outside of yourself. These kinds of reasons are often about obtaining other people’s validation and approval or external signs of self-worth. They are about polishing your public image, becoming famous, getting rich, or seeking power over others.
Internal reasons (or intrinsic goals) are personally meaningful to you. They fuel your core needs and wants - who you are as a person. They pertain to your passions, interests, and core values as well as your relationships and your personal growth.
Which reasons do you typically choose? Do you want to do something because it fulfills you, because it’s deeply meaningful to you, because it excites you, and because you’re passionate about it?
Or do you want to do something because it helps you achieve more “success”, because it helps you earn more money, or because it helps you impress others?
Well, as you might guess… internal reasons are the smarter choice here. An effective Why is personally meaningful to you and who you are as a person.
They did a great study at West Point Academy that beautifully illustrates the superiority of intrinsic vs extrinsic goals (as described here in No Sweat):
“I’ve been fascinated to read the research that supports my observations. Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University led a study on more than 10,000 cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to evaluate their professional success over a decade from the impact of having different types of motives for enlisting. Would holding both internal motivates (military service is personally meaningful to them) and external motivates (prestige, career advancement) for joining the Army be valuable career-wise, or would such motives compete over time? The long time frame allowed Wrzesniewski and her colleagues to identify which cadets became commissioned officers, which extended their officer service beyond the minimum required period, and which were selected for early career promotions.
In each case, they found that having a personally meaningful reason for being in the service predicted the most positive outcomes. But they also found that when the cadets also held external reasons for enlisting, this positive relationship was undermined.”
Okay, so they compared the performance of three different kinds of cadets:
- Cadets with intrinsic goals: “I want to serve my country.” Or “I want to test my abilities.”
- Cadets with extrinsic goals: “I want to become an officer because that’s a position of power.” Or “I want to do well because it’s prestigious.” Or “I want to do it because I can get a free scholarship.”
- Cadets with a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic goals: “I want to serve my country and I love the prestige.”
What they found is that intrinsically motivated cadets outperformed the extrinsically motivated people. And intrinsically motivated people also outperformed students with both intrinsic and extrinsic goals.
What does that mean for you?
It means you should initiate a behavior because it’s meaningful to you. Because it’s important to you. Because it matters a lot to you.
Don’t do it for the money or the fame or the power or the recognition…
Do it for the thing itself. Do it because you value it. Because you enjoy it. Because you’re passionate about it. Because it’s part of who you are as a person.
As they say, money and fame will come as a by-product of doing what you love.
(Learn more about extrinsic vs. intrinsic goals here.)
Extrinsically motivated Whys:
- Going to the gym because you want a better body in order to impress others
- Studying to get a good grade
- Starting your own business to become rich
- Getting a job promotion because you want to command other people around
Intrinsically motivated Whys:
- Going to the gym because you enjoy pushing yourself beyond your physical limits
- Studying because the topic excites you
- Starting your own business because you’re passionate about it
- Getting a job promotion because you enjoy taking more responsibility
4) Effective Whys Are Singular – Ineffective Whys Are Multiple
Here’s the last thing to consider when choosing your reason for doing a certain activity:
Pick ONE primary Why.
Not two. Not three. Not twenty. Just ONE.
Here’s Michelle Segar’s explanation in No Sweat:
“Having more than one primary Why for doing a behavior is thought to “dilute” out motivation. We become less motivated and perceive a specific behavior as less effective in achieving any one goal (or Why) when it aims to achieve more than one. Plus, if we hold two or three different Whys for exercising and feel differently about each of them, it also generates ambivalence. And that’s not good for motivation, either.”
Remember the cadets at West Point? The ones who were the most successful only had an intrinsic reason for going there. As soon as they had multiple motivations (both internal and external reasons), they got less motivated and less successful.
Multiple Whys compete with each other, dilute your motivation, and possibly create ambivalence, undermining your desire to stick with a certain activity.
Marketers have known this all along. Here’s Michelle Segar again:
“Consider how the most popular companies market their products to us. They don’t give us three different reasons to buy their product; they brand it with one primary meaning. They know that to really get us hooked and coming back for more, again and again, they need to identify a very strategic, emotionally focused benefit from using their product or service that we’ll focus on and desire to keep having. One make of car, for example, may be “sexy,” while another one is “sporty”. We want one or the other but probably not both. Clearly, marketers are onto something that we can all learn from.”
A car is either marketed as “sexy” or “sporty”.
Likewise, you should market your desired behavior with just one motivating attribute as well.
For example, exercise because it’s fun. Or because it energizes you. Or because it lifts your spirits. Or because it makes you feel strong and determined.
Just. Pick. One.
That’s the last thing to consider when framing your meaning for a desired activity:
Forget about all the extrinsic benefits (such as better health, a better future, money, fame, power) and just focus on ONE intrinsic and instantly rewarding Why.
- Exercising to get healthy, lose weight, build muscles, and look good in my underpants.
- Learning a new language to be able to travel the world, impress others, feel good about myself, and meet new people.
- Studying hard to get a good grade, get a better job in the future, impress classmates, and because it’s interesting.
- Eating healthy because you want to have more energy, better health, live longer, and because you feel like you “should”.
- Exercising to feel more energized for the rest of the day.
- Learning a new language to meet new people.
- Studying hard because it’s so interesting.
- Eating healthy because it makes you feel great.
Bottom line: Effective Whys feel like a gift - ineffective Whys feel like a chore
Choosing an effective Why is all about framing your behavior in a motivating, autonomous, and empowering way.
An activity should feel fun, enjoyable, and intrinsically rewarding. It should give you immediate gratification, not promises of a potentially better future in 10 years.
If you want to do something regularly, it should make you FEEL good. It should be associated with positive emotions. It should be something you look forward to.
It should be your choice. It should fulfill your needs. It should reflect who you are as a person.
Bottom line: It should feel like a gift you’re giving yourself, not like a chore that you “should” or “have to”.
Examples From My Own Life
Since learning about this stuff, I’ve implemented it for a couple of my own habits. So far it’s working really well.
Here are a bunch of examples:
I take cold showers because they make me feel determined. (They help me grow this characteristic as part of my character. Remember: Actions come first, feelings come only afterward.)
I go for a run or a walk because it gives me a powerful mood boost. This helps me have a productive and enjoyable day.
I give myself the gift of meditation to feel more present and grounded. (This one is harder than the others for me. I still kind of dread sitting down and meditating.)
Last but not least, I don’t even have a Why for eating healthy anymore. I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s just part of who I am. I can’t help myself. I can’t stop. Eating healthy just resonates with me.
Anyway, hopefully these examples give you some ideas of what your Whys could look like.
(By the way, your Whys can change over time. They may fluctuate from week to week or even from day to day. Don’t feel like you need to find a perfect Why and stick to that forever.)
Let me know which Whys motivate you the most.
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Nils, you blow me away every time with your posts. Epic, excellent and incredibly detailed – so super helpful.
Thanks, Laura! 🙂
it’s all about the WHY. if your passion isn’t fired into your action, it’s always gonna be at least somewhat half assed. thanks for the great post!
Another great post Nils! This is something I’ve noticed in my own life too, like you with your healthy eating, I workout like clockwork because I enjoy how I feel in the moment and look forward to that feeling. Sure, I know there are other benefits I’ll get over time but my immediate reason why is because I love how the workouts make me feel (strong & capable). Knowing your reason why can make all the difference. Keep up the great work man!
Wow Nils! Excellent, just as others said above. Being a recovering “shoulda, woulda, coulda” girl, I suppose the autonomy why is the strongest for me. Also, the movement away from pain & suffering, had enough of that already! Take care and good work, keep it up, it has an impact on this soul today and I imagine all the others that read quietly.
Thanks so much for the kind words, Rachel!