Carrot or Stick? How to Stay Motivated to Go By Bike

May 4, 2018

By: Kaitlyn Bailey
MSc, University of British Columbia 

I get it, sometimes the allure of driving is strong –maybe it’s raining outside, or you’re feeling tired. Even though you always feel great once you are biking, when you have other (maybe more convenient) options at your fingertips it can be difficult to motivate yourself.

There is a theory about different levels of motivation developed by two psychologists. It’s called the Self-Determination Theory (1), and it might provide some valuable insight into how to stay motivated to choose biking over other forms of transportation.

The Self-Determination Theory ranks sources of motivation along a continuum with the highest sources being the best sources of motivation for sticking with a new behaviour in the long term.

According to the theory, the lowest source of motivation is from external rewards. This is the carrot-or-stick-type motivation, when you receive a reward for doing a behaviour or punishment for not doing it. A company in New Zealand launched a program where they paid their employees $10 a day to bike to work (read more here). This is an example of an external reward. External rewards can be a great way to stay motivated in the short-term, especially if you are trying out a new behaviour for the first time. With lots of prizes, such as a grand prize trip to Portugal, Bike to Work & School Week is another example of motivating yourself using external rewards (register here).

The trouble with external rewards is that they eventually end, or lose their appeal. So what do you do once Bike to Work & School Week is over? Well, the next level of motivation is what I call “guilt motivation”. You continue the behaviour because you feel guilty if you don’t. Maybe you feel like you ought to be using your bike more because you need the exercise or because your car is creating too many emissions. Similar to external motivation, researchers have found that this works for a little while, but usually doesn’t keep people motivated in the long-term.

A stronger way to stay motivated is to be working towards a goal. If you want to lose weight, or save money, you might choose biking instead of driving to reach your goal. How do you use this source of motivation? First, set a goal that will encourage you to use your bike more. Next, write it down and put it somewhere you will see it when you are considering whether or not to bike (maybe above your key hook).

An even better way to stay motivated is to make the behaviour part of your identity. Be proud to be an active commuter. Share photos of you biking instead of driving on social media. If you bike to work, proudly wear your helmet into the office so that your coworkers recognize you as someone who rides their bike. Making the behaviour part of your identity will keep you motivated even once you’ve met your goals.

And finally, what is the strongest source of motivation? I’ll give you a hint –it is also the simplest.

Enjoyment! That’s right, the most surefire way to keep motivated to choose your bike is if you love riding it. To ensure that you love biking buy the right equipment. It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, but get something to keep you dry in the rain and warm in the cold. And then pay attention to all of the things that you love about biking –the feel of wind against your skin, the smell of flower blossoms and wet pavement, or the sounds of birds chirping. Maybe for you it’s the feeling you get after you’ve been biking, when your body feels alive and ready to start your day.

Regardless, biking because you love it is the best way to stay motivated to keep doing it!

1. Ryan & Deci (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1): 68-78.

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