We Do What We Know Is Bad for Us, Why?

We all know what a bad habit is. Smoking, eating unhealthy foods, excessive alcohol consumption and living a sedentary lifestyle are just some of the things that are drummed into us as behaviours we ought to avoid in order to increase our overall well-being.

Yet a study by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in the year 2000, avoidable behaviours such as poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol were some of the underlying causes of nearly half of the deaths in the United States:

  • Tobacco: 435,000 (18.1% of total US deaths)
  • Inactivity and bad eating: 400,000 (16.6%)
  • Alcohol consumption: 85,000 (3.5%)

If we know bad habits are so detrimental to our health, why do we continue to do them?

Why we can’t resist bad habits

We all indulge in behaviours that we know aren’t good for us and there are a couple of reasons why we continue these habits regardless.

Bad habits give you the comfort you need

The first is our need to feel comfort and doing whatever it takes to reach this state.

Every action you take has a purpose behind it, even if you’re not consciously aware of what this is and the most common hidden purpose is comfort. Our brains are wired to be reward-based and our ‘reward’ is the feeling of comfort that, in turn, triggers a release of dopamine or the ‘feel good’ hormone. This causes us to crave more of it and so we associate this good feeling with the bad habit.

This explains why we continue to indulge in bad habits and find it hard to stop; it feels comfortable and we essentially get to exist in our ‘safe zone’. In other words, you get attracted to the reward despite knowing it’s bad for you.

Smoking that cigarette on your work breaks causes your brain to associate that habit with freedom from work and relaxing, or drinking alcohol may be associated with letting yourself go and having a good time after a hard week. The thought of exercising and making some kind of effort is overridden in the brain by the ‘easier’ thought of sitting on the couch and watching your favourite TV programme. So you can see how easily the habit is connected with reward.

Everyone else is doing the bad habit too

We also tend to rationalize our bad behaviours if society as a whole finds it acceptable. If a vast amount of people are doing the same thing, then it must be okay for us to do it too. It’s not difficult to find socially acceptable bad habits. Snacking, skipping exercises and even smoking are things that lots of people do.

This causes an inward rationalisation when it comes to unhealthy habits such as “just one more won’t hurt” or “I’ll do better next week, I’ve just had a stressful day today”. These in-the-moment justifications tend to be driven by the guilt of knowing we’re probably not making the best decision in the long run.

We also look outwards for examples that validate our bad habit decisions such as “my grandfather smoked every day and lived until he was 90.” Our minds love to find evidence that backs up our decisions, whether good or bad.

The consequences of continuing bad habits

Most people know the consequences of these types of habits. Warnings are plastered on cigarette packets about getting cancer. Governments beam healthy eating campaigns and the need to be more active through adverts and TV programmes. But what are the real long term consequences of constant bad habits?

  • Cancers, diseases and cell damage
  • Unhappiness and depression
  • Negative physical well-being leading to pain or lethargy
  • Increased physical problems in later life

Most of these can be subtle and gradual meaning we don’t notice them and easily dismiss our decisions in the moment. But being mindful of the decisions we make today can keep our wellbeing topped up and constant while investing in our future selves.

For more examples of common bad habits and how to should stop them, check out this article: 13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away

How to stop these bad habits

It’s hard to stop habits that are so ingrained in our daily lives. With stress sometimes being the main trigger to a bad habit, the solution lies with reprogramming our mind. I have covered this in my other article How to Program Your Mind to Kick the Bad Habit, here let me briefly talk about the solution:

  1. Frstly, be mindful of what these habits are and how often we do them. What exactly triggers the habit? Is it an unconscious decision to do it? Question why you have developed this habit in the first place.
  2. Secondly, make a commitment to yourself that you want to eliminate this bad habit. Now you understand what may be triggering it, can you find something positive to replace it? For example, you reach for the chocolate after a hard day. Can you find a healthier reward snack? Or reduce the amount of times you’re allowed to have chocolate? Perhaps if stress is your trigger, try going for a run and give the brain another reason to release dopamine instead.
  3. Thirdly, be consistent. The key to forming new habits is consistency. Yes, it’s hard for a while but your brain soon adapts to new ways of doing things until it starts to feel natural to you. Turn your reward system into a way to celebrate sticking to your new positive habits instead.

It’s all about conditioning yourself to a new, positive way of thinking.

Living a happier, more positive life starts with the habits we choose to form. Be mindful of which direction your habits are pointing and start changing your mindset to one of investment into your health and well-being. It’s not just for your future self but also living in the moment in a positive and healthy way.

Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things — take an action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, exercise our willpower. There are two main, universally agreed upon types of motivation — intrinsic motivation (also known as internal motivation) and extrinsic motivation (external motivation).

The intrinsic kind is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting or enjoyable — without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others. Extrinsic motivation is driven by exactly the opposite — externalities, such as the promise of more money, a good grade, positive feedback, or a promotion.

And of course, we all know about the big debate about money. It’s surely an external driver, but is it possible that it can sometimes make us enjoy what we do more? A meta-analysis that reviewed 120 years of research found a weak link between job satisfaction and money.

And what’s more — there is some evidence to suggest that more money can actually have an adverse effect on your intrinsic motivation.

Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, to improve, excel, and put that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.

So, let’s see some of the best things you can do to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather just indulge in pleasant idleness.

Why Intrinsic Motivation Tops Extrinsic Motivation

“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”

Generally speaking, we all need motivation.

An avalanche of research, though, shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards.

Why? It’s simple.

There is a great difference when you engage in something because “I want to,” as opposed to “I must.” Just think about the most obvious example there is: work.

If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead of you, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?

Yep, that’s right, you definitely won’t be topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon.

The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last. It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation. It’s a fancy way of saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.

When you put in 100-hour weeks in order to get promoted, and you finally are, how long does your “high” last? The walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, research tells us, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill,” i.e. you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shinier things, just to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for, when you finally get them.

Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it:

“Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.

If you want to find out more about the different types of motivation, take a look at this article: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams

Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation

If you are still unconvinced that doing things solely for kudos and brownie points is not going to keep you going forever, nor make you like what you do, here is some additional proof:

Studies tell us that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.

One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we do it simply for the enjoyment of the activity. So, we keep going, day in and out, because we feel inspired, driven, happy, and satisfied with ourselves.

Another reason has to do with the fact that increasing intrinsic motivation is intertwined with things such as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our own benefit. A famous study done by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant is case in point.

By showing university fundraisers how the money donated by alumni can help financially struggling students to graduate from college, their productivity increased by 400% a week! The callers also showed an average increase of 142% in time spent on the phone and 171% increase in money raised.

Internal motivation has been found to be very helpful when it comes to academia, too. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermine students’ internal motivation, and, in the long-run, it results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”

In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges.

Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: intrinsic motivation is a must-have if you want to save yourself the drudgery we all sometimes feel when contemplating the things we should do or must do.

6 Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation

So, how does one get more of the good stuff — that is, how do you become internally motivated?

There are many things you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top the list.

1. Self-Efficacy

The theory of self-efficacy was developed by the American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in 1982. Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do.

Find intrinsic motivation with self-efficacy.

It’s not hard to see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and, of course, enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort in what they do, to self-set more challenging goals, and be more driven to improve their skills.

Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy — it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it.

You can learn more about self-efficacy in this article: What Is Self Efficacy and How to Improve Yours

2. Link Your Actions to a Greater Purpose

Finding your “why” in life is incredibly important. This means that you need to be clear with yourself on why you do what you do and what drives you. What is intrinsically rewarding for you? 

And no matter how mundane a task may be, it can always be linked to something bigger and better. Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”

Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was:

“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”

Inspirational, isn’t it?

Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator.

3. Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, learning new skills, feeling good about yourself, or linking to some of your inner values, such as kindness and humanitarianism.

When you remove any external reward expectations and do something for the pure joy and fulfilment of improving others’ lives, then you are truly intrinsically motivated.

4. Don’t Wait Until You “Feel Like It” to Do Something

A great piece in the Harvard Business Review points out that when we say things as “I can’t make myself go to the gym” or “I can’t get up early,” what we actually mean is that we don’t feel like it. There is nothing that psychically prevents us from doing those things, apart from our laziness.

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to “feel like it” in order to take action.

Sometimes, it so happens that you may not want to do something in the beginning, but once you start, you get into the flow and find your intrinsic motivation.

For instance, you don’t feel like going to the gym after a long day at work. Rather than debating in your head for hours “for and against” it, just go. Tell yourself that you will think about it later. Once in the gym, surrounded by similar souls, you suddenly won’t fee that tired or uninspired.

Another way to overcome procrastination is to create routines and follow them. Once the habit sets in, suddenly getting up at 6 am for work or writing for an hour every day won’t be so dreadful.

5. Self-Determination, or the CAR Model (As I Call It)

The Self-Determination theory was created by two professors of psychology from the University of Rochester in the mid-80s—Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. The theory is one of the most popular ones in the field of motivation. It focuses on the different drivers behind our behavior—i.e. the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.

There are three main needs, the theory further states, that can help us meet our need for growth. These are also the things which Profs. Deci and Ryan believed to be the main ways to enhance our intrinsic motivation—Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (CAR).

If our jobs allow us to learn and grow, and if we have enough autonomy to do things our way and be creative, then we will be more driven to give our best, and our performance will soar. In addition, as humans are social beings, we also need to feel connected to others and respected.

All of these sources of intrinsic motivation, separately and in combination, can become powerful instigators to keep us thriving, even when we feel uninspired and unmotivated .

6. Tap Into a Deeper Reason

Some interesting research done in 2016 sought answers to how high-performing employees remain driven when their company can’t or won’t engage in ways to motivate them—intrinsically or extrinsically.

The study tracked workers in a Mexican factory, where they did exactly the same tasks every day, with virtually zero chances for learning new skills, developing professionally, or being promoted. Everyone was paid the same, regardless of performance. So there was no extrinsic motivation at all, other than keeping one’s job.

A third kind of motivation was then discovered, which scientists called “family motivation.” Workers who agreed more with statements such as “I care about supporting my family” or “It is important for me to do good for my family” were more energized and performed better, although they didn’t have any additional external or internal incentive to do so.

The great thing about this kind of driver is that it’s independent of the company one works for or the situation. It taps into something even deeper—if you don’t want to do something for your own sake, then do it for the people you care for.

And this is a powerful motive, as many can probably attest to this.

Final Thoughts

Frederick Herzberg, the American psychologist who developed what’s perhaps still today the most famous theory of motivation, in his renowned article from 1968 (which sold a modest 1.2 million reprints and it the most requested article from Harvard Business Review One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees? wrote:

“If I kick my dog, he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.”

Herzberg further explains that the so-called “hygiene factors” (salary, job security, benefits, vacation time, work conditions) don’t lead to fulfillment, nor motivation. What does, though, are the “motivators”—challenging work, opportunities for growth, achievement, greater responsibility, recognition, the work itself.

Herzberg realized it long ago…intrinsic motivation tips the scales when it comes to finding long-term happiness and satisfaction in everything we do, and to improving our overall well-being.

In the end, the next time when you need to give yourself a bit of a kick to get something done, remember to link it to a goal bigger than yourself, and preferably one that has non-material benefit.

And no, don’t say that you tried but it’s just impossible to find internal motivation. Remember the janitor at NASA?

Because once you find your internal generator, you will be truly unstoppable.

More Tips to Boost Motivation

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