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Which is Better for Creating Long-Lasting Positive Habits: Implicit or Explicit Motivation?

Often, the most effective way to achieve your goals is through a mixture of internal and external motivation.

The Common Belief in Implicit Motivation

There is a commonly accepted idea that implicit motivation—motivation that an individual generates within oneself—is superior to external motivating factors such as those from friends, family, finances, or health professionals. This school of thought argues that we should be able to produce motivation, self-discipline, and behavioral changes internally.

Challenging the Notion with Recent Research

A recent study  is challenging this notion. Over five years, researchers followed over 1,000 participants with heart disease who received daily reminders or incentives to become more active. The researchers found that the participants increased their daily steps by more than 1,500 after a year, and many were still sticking with their new habit six months later. The study concluded that short-term incentives for exercise can lead to sustained increases in activity.

The Effectiveness of a Mix of External Rewards

In the study, researchers found that a mix of external rewards was the most effective for changing people’s behaviors. While a simple daily reminder was effective in helping people move more, offering financial incentives or point-based rewards, such as in a game, was even more effective. Combining the two incentives produced even greater results.

Immediacy and Consistency of Rewards

These findings aren’t groundbreaking, but they challenge the commonly-held notion that internal motivation is superior to short-term external motivations, and that one shouldn’t need to be influenced externally to do something. The most notable feature of this study was that most of the rewards, whether financial or points-based, were given on a daily or weekly basis. Participants who reached their daily goal step count were awarded points, money, or both, that very same day. The immediacy of their rewards, along with constant reminders of progress, helped to keep participants on track. Daily reminders of progress can make goals seem more manageable and bite-sized, as individuals can become demotivated at the prospect of a long-term goal that won’t be achieved for many months or years. For example, walking 10,000 steps a day feels much more doable than walking 3,650,000 steps in a year (nearly 3,000 kilometers!).


Is there a positive habit or behavior that you want to develop or a goal that you’re passionate about achieving? Research suggests that you can effectively incentivize yourself to make changes by offering short-term external rewards. In the study, participants had a specific step-count goal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use similar methods to reach your own goals! An important success factor was that the rewards came from someone else—so recruit a friend, join an accountability group, or better yet, find a personal trainer or coach who can implement a system that works best for you. Often, the most effective way to achieve your goals is through a mixture of internal and external motivation. A personal trainer can help you achieve that perfect balance to get you where you want to be, quickly and safely. And if you are a personal trainer or coach, consider implementing more short-term incentives for your clients—you’ll likely be surprised by the results!

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

​​Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, Certified Personal Trainer and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited

NIH/National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. (2024, April 8). Short-term incentives for exercise can lead to sustained increases in activity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 25, 2024 from