How would you spend the time if money wasn’t an issue? Would you be doing exactly what you’re doing, or in a totally different line of work?
This is a tough question to answer, but an important one when it comes to understanding how to stay intrinsically motivated.
We all start out by being motivated towards external rewards. Getting good enough grades. Pleasing parents. Admission into good colleges and then organisations.
However, if things like money or status are the only things motivating us out of bed in the morning, sooner or later we may find ourselves either struggling to care, or at risk of burnout from having our identity tied up in our accomplishments.
Steve Jobs said those who are intrinsically motivated are able to make a “sustained contribution over time”. People motivated by intrinsic factors are also more likely to do hard things with a delayed gratification element, such as starting a business or writing a book (just examples).
This post aims to highlight the differences between two major sources of motivation. It goes on to offer some suggestions for moving from being more extrinsically motivated to more internally-driven.
And it’s in bullet-points today, because I’m in a bullet-points type of mood.
Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation
Here are a few of the defining features of each kind of motivation:
- When you are motivated by extrinsic factors, you are doing something for a physical reward; a tangible recognition of your effort. The obvious example is a paycheck, but extrinsic rewards can also fall into the psychological category. For example, getting praised is an extrinsic reward.
- An intrinsic reward is a bit harder to identify. It includes such intangibles as a sense of achievement or a conscious satisfaction.
- Basically the key thing to remember is intrinsic rewards are those that originate from you, and extrinsic rewards are those that originate from something beyond you.
- Feeling motivated to act can be a lot easier when extrinsic rewards are the fuel. Think how quick you are to motivate yourself when you get a chance to please the boss, or how easy it is to get to the gym before a hot date. Motivation can seem bottomless – at least for as long as you can physically sustain the effort.
- To find intrinsic sources of motivation, you have to do self-discovery work – things like introspection, and values clarification. In my observations and experience, we resist doing this work, kidding ourselves that financial rewards and having social status are all that are important.
- When you have found a thing or things you are intrinsically motivated to do, what other people think about it becomes secondary. It is it’s own source of satisfaction. You do it for yourself, but usually things that we find intrinsically rewarding serve the greater good.
- With work that is intrinsically motivating, you’re somehow able to stay motivated although there is very little, if any, external encouragement or reward.
More on the nature of intrinsic motivation
Researchers have attempted to break down the elements of intrinsic motivation. Here is what they have come up with:
- ‘Sense of meaningfulness’: You feel that you have an opportunity to accomplish something of real value and something that matters in the larger scheme of things. There is a sense of purpose and direction.
- ‘Sense of choice’: You have autonomy about your work activities.
- ‘Sense of competence‘: You feel that you are producing good, high-quality work. You feel a sense of satisfaction and pride.
- ‘Sense of progress’: Your efforts really seem to be accomplishing something. There are convincing signs that things are working out, giving you confidence in the choices you have made and confidence in the future.
Benefits of intrinsic motivation
If you are still unclear on the benefits of intrinsic motivation, consider the rest of the Steve Jobs quote:
“I think most people that are able to make a sustained contribution over time – rather than just a peak – are very internally driven. You have to be. Because, in the ebb and tide of people’s opinions and of fads, there are going to be times when you are criticized, and criticism’s very difficult. And so when you’re criticized, you learn to pull back a little and listen to your own drummer. And to some extent, that isolates you from the praise, if you eventually get it, too. The praise becomes a little less important to you, and the criticism becomes a little less important to you, in the same measure. And you become more internally driven.”
Learning how to be self-supervised, which is effectively what happens when you are intrinsically motivated, has benefits that extend to other life areas. It makes you less vulnerable to insecurity, and more resilient in the face of adversity.
How personality plays into your unique challenges with staying motivated
- Each of us have different challenges with being motivated. You get “blind action” people (those who are biased towards action), those who are internally driven but ineffective, and everything in between. Each challenge has a solution which starts with honest self-appraisal.
- Some individuals are biased to act (the blind action people). They are usually the most rewards-focused, or extrinsically motivated.
- A lot of what is written about how to stay motivated, for example by using productivity hacks, is addressed to that kind of person. Ironically, this type of person is the least in need of advice on how to stay extrinsically motivated. Such people are the ones most in need of self-awareness work.
- People that aren’t focused on external rewards are probably those that struggle the hardest in motivating themselves to work for money or praise. They just don’t care as much, being more concerned about subjective criteria such as how they think and feel about what they are doing. Such individuals usually already know what matters to them. However motivation might be affected by things like a lack of confidence or self belief.
- Even the most extrinsically motivated people might reach a point where money no longer matters, and all the praise from the boss in the world won’t make a difference to how apathetic they feel about their work. That’s what I would refer to as an “extrinsic motivation crisis”. It is often the gateway to a more intrinsic way of living.
How to develop intrinsic motivation
We all want ideally a mix of both kinds of motivation. Unfortunately, there isn’t a magic formula to staying motivated, as it depends on your unique challenges (see above). However, here are a few pointers which are geared towards developing intrinsic motivation:
- Do deep inner investigative work to figure out your values and better understand your strengths.
- Know that whatever you deem to be intrinsically satisfying need not be “good” by other people’s standards. I was motivated to write my book due to being internally driven by my values of compassion, learning and truth. It was satisfying because it was a product of getting to a deep understanding of subjects that interest me. It wasn’t really about helping others, although of course that is a great bonus if it does.
- To stay motivated, you’ll need to learn to master your mind. Even if you have found a cause or causes that you are intrinsically motivated by, don’t expect to have a bottomless supply of motivational energy forever. Intrinsic motivation is vulnerable to things like self-doubt and negative self-perception – those negative habits of the mind that creep up on all of us at times.
Just as your boss may decide to pay you less and reduce your extrinsic reward, you might decide to withdraw your intrinsic motivation at any time if you are sloppy with your psychology and physiology.
I would offer this: Sleep well, exercise, eat well, be in a routine, feast your mind on positive influences, read and learn, reduce escapism to a bare minimum, have useful conversations, and keep seeking. Practice mindfulness, take responsibility for your perspectives and actions, and accept whatever life throws at you instantly so as to stop wasting time struggling and resisting.
I talk about all this in my book, which I encourage you to read if you are interested in self-discovery.
The secret to staying motivated over a lifetime is moving over to a more intrinsic kind of motivation.
This doesn’t mean you’ll become a poverty stricken peasant. On the contrary, often those at the top of their fields are driven by intrinsic factors.
Take an honest assessment of your motivation levels. If you are not longer feeling motivated by the things that used to motivate you, then it might be time to reassess what matters to you.
If you need some help with figuring out what motivates you, I’d point you to my book as it offers a self-awareness process that you can use to help you answer that exact question.