Ever wish you could work out more? Eat fewer desserts? Write a novel? Quit smoking? Start a project and actually see it through to the end?

According to Charles Duhigg, author of “Smarter, Better, Faster,” we all can do those things. It just depends upon our perspectives.

Your Locus of Control: Internal or External

If you get a D on an essay in school, the story you tell yourself about the reason why reflects your locus of control. Was it because your teacher is lousy? Or maybe she’s prejudiced against you for some reason (your gender, your race, the way you look, she liked your sister better, etc). Or maybe because you crashed your car, or broke up with a significant other three days before the paper was due, you were distracted and “just couldn’t focus.”

If your explanations sound like this, you have an external locus of control. In other words, the outcome of the D was not your fault: it was outside your control. Because it wasn’t your fault, there’s nothing you can do differently the next time. You’re at the mercy of your circumstances.

But if after you get the D on the essay, instead you say, “I started at the last minute,” or “I should have finished the novel before I wrote the essay; all I did was read the Cliff’s Notes,” or, “I never asked the teacher for her criteria for a better grade”—now you have an internal locus of control. It hurts to take the blame for a poor outcome… but now there’s something you can change to improve your situation in the future. You can start writing sooner, or read the whole book, or consult with the teacher beforehand. If you believe you have some control over the outcome, motivation becomes possible.

But not guaranteed.

Motivation: Intrinsic or Extrinsic

It may be that you don’t particularly care if you get a D on an essay. Maybe you already got into the college you wanted anyway, so from this point on, grades don’t matter. Or maybe you’ve decided school isn’t for you—you’re going to just go get a job, so nobody will read your transcripts and your grades are a moot point. Or maybe the pressure to get good grades comes from your parents… you don’t like it when they’re angry, but you don’t necessarily care enough to change your behavior, either. If any of these are the case, even if you recognize that the D was your fault (you have an internal locus of control), the motivation to get good grades is entirely extrinsic. You only care if it will directly affect some other outcome you desire. If it doesn’t, you couldn’t care less.

But if you want to get a good grade because you want to do your best at everything you do, and the reward of seeing the A on the paper and having your teacher say you did a good job is enough for you, then you are intrinsically motivated. You believe you are capable of achieving a better grade next time, and you also want to achieve the good grade for its own sake.

How to Create Intrinsic Motivation

Many of our goals typically don’t have any extrinsic pressure attached to them (or if they do, the pressure isn’t strong enough to impress us.) For instance, nobody else cares that much if we cut back on sugar or start exercising more (or perhaps they do, but we don’t care that they care, so the net effect is the same.) Sure, we’d love to start a business or write a novel… but if we don’t, no one else will mind.

If this is the case, the only way these things will actually happen is if we develop an intrinsic motivation strong enough to drive habit change.

A prerequisite for intrinsic motivation is an internal locus of control. We won’t be motivated to try to change if we don’t even think change is within our power.

For many of us, this is a fundamental paradigm shift. You can look at the exact same situation (the D on the essay, let’s say) and interpret it differently: “It’s the teacher’s fault.” “It’s my circumstance’s fault.” “It’s my parents’ fault.” “It’s the system’s fault.”

Or, “It’s my fault. I made the choice, and I reaped the consequences.”

Again, the former shields us from the pain of responsibility; but it also means we cannot change.  Our minds won’t let us. Only the latter can motivate us to do something differently.

How to Create a New Habit

We all have a finite amount of time, energy, and money, and any big change will consume at least one, and possibly all three of these resources. It will mean sacrificing some other activity or behavior that had taken up that resource in the past, in order to make space for the new behavior. Of course, this requires motivation… because it won’t be easy.

Once you’ve got the internal locus of control, and you’ve got the intrinsic motivation, creating a new habit depends upon deconstructing its components (and I get this from Charles Duhigg’s earlier book, “The Power of Habit”): every habit has 1) a cue; 2) a behavior (what we typically think of as the habit itself); and 3) a reward.

Why do some people exercise every day, for instance? They may be intrinsically motivated people in general (they probably are—that’s how they built the habit in the first place), but by the time they’ve exercised daily for years, willpower (or motivation) is no longer necessary: instead, the cue and the reward drive the habit loop. The cue may be a particular time each day that reminds them it’s time to exercise, or seeing their running shoes lying next to their bed in the morning. The reward these people get from daily exercise is also different from what most people think of as exercise goals. They don’t exercise to look a certain way, or lose a certain amount of weight—those rewards are too delayed to drive a habit loop. Habits are only reinforced with immediate rewards: the endorphin rush. The feel of power in your muscles; the increased sense of well-being; the mood boost. Anyone who has a daily exercise habit has ultimately associated exercise with instant gratification, believe it or not!

According to neuroscience research on forming new neuronal connections, creating a new habit takes between 21-60 days. For that length of time, the intrinsic motivation will be critical to keep you moving forward. But after that period, the cue itself will trigger the behavior, just like Pavlov’s dogs salivated to the sound of a bell, whether or not it was followed by dinner! You just have to get to that point.

The Upshot:

To create a new habit, you must:

  1. Believe change is within your power (i.e. have an internal locus of control);
  2. Consider that change valuable enough to invest your resources of time, energy, and/or money into the process of creating it (possess intrinsic motivation);
  3. Find a cue to trigger the formation of a new habit (or usurp an old cue for a bad habit and use it for something good instead—i.e. if you used to have an alcoholic beverage every night at a certain time because it helps you relax, decide to substitute some chamomile tea at that time instead!);
  4. Find a way to reward yourself instantly for the new habit (and this can be something inherent to the behavior itself; you just have to pay attention to find it); and
  5. Recruit your intrinsic motivation to get you through the period of 21-60 days it takes to create a new habit… at which point the motivation itself will no longer be required.