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Wednesday, February 01, 2023
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A few years ago we started a tradition in my family—every New Year’s Eve we write letters to ourselves with goals we want to achieve in the coming year. We tuck those letters away in our cookie jar, opening them next New Year’s Eve, reading them and seeing how far we have come. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes we share, and sometimes we keep them to ourselves. We then proceed to write new letters for the coming year, and the cycle continues.

This New Year’s Eve when I opened my letter I noticed two types of goals I had sought to accomplish—the “want-to” goal and the “need-to” goal. Much to nobody’s surprise I had achieved my “want-to” goal. However, I am still not quite there yet with my “need-to” goal.

We have all been there—whether it be at our jobs where our bosses are giving us quotas we must meet by a certain time, at school where we must complete our work, our doctor telling us we need to monitor aspects of our health, or a child who is told they need to clean their room. These goals we are “told” or “forced” to achieve are more difficult to accomplish than the ones we set out to do because we want to. That being said, the “must-do” goals often have more at stake for us, and are often more important than the ones we simply want to achieve. The question becomes: How can we motivate ourselves to achieve these “must-do” goals at the same level of achievement as those “want-to” goals?

To better understand this, we need to recognize that there are two different types of motivation—external motivation and internal motivation. External motivation requires more self-control and willpower because these are things that are expected of us that we may not want to personally achieve, or see a personal need to accomplish. External motivation is often used when one is performing tasks to look good for others. On the other hand, internal motivation comes from within us and is often determined by our own set of values. It still requires self-control and willpower, but it is not that we are forcing ourselves; rather, we are interested in it, therefore we are more energized and excited to stay motivated to accomplish that said goal. It is as if we have a personal stake in achieving that goal.

In order to be more successful in life, we need to try and change the external motivation into internal motivation. The more we properly internalize, the more likely we are to have positive outcomes and success. Finding the personal incentive for accomplishing the “must-do” goals can benefit us in the long term. Let us reframe our thinking from needing to accomplish certain goals for some external purpose to internalizing how they will help us better ourselves, and how they align with our own personal values and morals.

When I set out to accomplish something, there is an internal incentive created. Even if that incentive took time and effort to cultivate. I may not have wanted to do it initially, and quite frankly, I may have had to convince myself to do so, but I spend time creating a mindset of excitement and energy surrounding that goal.

The clinical term for this is called Motivational Interviewing. This is a therapy technique designed to empower people to change by drawing on their own personal meaning and importance. The idea is similar to that of goal setting—the more we draw on our personal desires to make this change, the more successful we will ultimately become and the more change we will be able to accomplish.

When a doctor tells a patient that they need to cut back on eating red meat and they need to exercise daily because of a family history of cardiac conditions, one can be resistant because the initial thought may be, “I am being forced.” We can, and should, reframe our thought from “the doctor said I need to” and instead think of what personal outcomes can result from changing your diet and health routine. Spend some time thinking about what is important to you, and how doing this will internally benefit you. We should work towards aligning it with your own life goals and values.

When your child refuses to clean up their messy room, reframe the idea. Have a conversation with them about what a clean room would mean for them. How would they personally benefit from tidying up? Maybe your child values floor space to build their Legos. Helping them internalize how cleaning will benefit them will likely turn this “need-to” goal into a “want-to” goal.

If you end up still struggling and feeling resistant, ask yourself why. Perhaps that will help you grow more emotionally, and may help you become more mindful of your own self. Ultimately, if you choose to do things with love, energy and excitement, you are more likely to achieve your goals, and better yet—more likely to feel an internal satisfaction and growth.


Rachel Salamon is a licensed clinical social worker in New York. She works with adults and children of all ages and backgrounds, providing individual and group therapy in Westchester and Long Island. Rachel prides herself on helping clients implement behavior modifications to improve their overall mental health. She is trained in CBT, STI and PCIT. Rachel is currently accepting clients and can be reached at RSalamon.[email protected]

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