Are You Intrinsically or Extrinsically Motivated? And Why It Matters
Have you ever taken time to think about what motivates you in life?
Is it money and power? Praise and recognition? Or maybe you’re motivated just by the thought of overcoming new challenges?
Given the complexity of the human mind and differences in personal values, there are countless things that can serve as motivation for different people. However, according to psychologists, there are two main types of motivation we use when setting out to accomplish our goals: intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what makes intrinsic and extrinsic motivation different and why understanding how you’re motivated matters.
Differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
The basic differences between the two types of motivation are relatively easy to understand.
Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is often fueled by an inherent curiosity, love, and enjoyment of the activity you’re doing, whereas extrinsic motivation is driven by a desire to achieve an external reward or avoid some sort of punishment.
For example, if you join a summer rec league because you love the game and being outdoors or to challenge yourself to get better, that’s intrinsic motivation. On the flip side, if you play to win the biggest trophy or a cash prize at the end, that’s extrinsic motivation.
Need another example? Think back to when you were a kid cleaning your room… Did you clean because you were trying to avoid being yelled at by your parents or because you simply enjoy the feeling of a tidy, organized space?
In this case, you’re effectively doing the exact same thing: cleaning your room. But in the first scenario, you would’ve been using extrinsic motivation as you completed the activity to avoid a punishment. However, the second scenario is an example of intrinsic motivation because it stems from an internal desire to enjoy a clean space.
Why you do what you do and what you hope to gain (or avoid) from accomplishing it is what determines if you’re extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.
Does it matter how you’re motivated?
Now that you know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, you might be wondering if it really matters how you’re motivated, as long as you’re accomplishing your goals.
And to that I say, kind of. In general, it seems that intrinsic motivation leads to more natural enthusiasm and curiosity, which can increase the likelihood that the behavior becomes a long-term habit… But that doesn’t mean extrinsic motivation doesn’t have its place.
For instance, some people experience enhanced feelings of competence and self-esteem when they receive positive feedback, which can lead to greater interest in repeating positive behaviors. There are also situations where combining curiosity-driven (intrinsic) motivators with monetary-driven (extrinsic) motivators can boost overall performance.
However, other evidence suggests adding external rewards onto activities that are already intrinsically motivating can lower intrinsic motivation over time… And children who expect some type of reward for participation express less general interest in activities that don’t include external incentives, which can lower enthusiasm, diminish performance, and create a dependence on outside validation.
Can you hack motivation?
A quick internet search for “motivation hacks” will provide you over 15 million different results claiming to be the right path to productivity.
While some of these strategies may be very effective, it’s important to keep in mind that building new habits takes time. Incremental change is usually a more sustainable approach than trying too much, too soon.
With that being said, here are a few motivation strategies that lead to long-term success:
Start small, maybe even tiny
In his bestselling book, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, behavioral scientist Dr. BJ Fogg outlines an approach that takes “baby steps” toward behavior change.
The beauty of this strategy is in its simplicity. Rather than taking on daunting, monumental changes, you’ll instead be focusing your efforts on changing in tiny ways.
Here’s a quick summary of how it’s done…
- Find an anchor moment: An existing daily event or routine (like brushing your teeth) that reminds you to perform your tiny behavior.
- Make the behavior tiny: Your behavior should be so small, like performing 1 push up, that it’s nearly impossible to fail.
- Celebrate instantly: Once you complete your tiny habit, celebrate your accomplishment with affirmations like “I crushed it!” or “Nice work!” It may seem silly to celebrate such a small milestone, but it helps your brain associate your new behavior with positive emotions… which boosts the likelihood that you continue the behavior.
Like I mentioned, this is a quick summary. If you want to dive deeper into the beauty of baby steps, I highly recommend checking out BJ’s book, Tiny Habits.
This is a pretty tried-and-true strategy if you can find someone dependable and trustworthy.
The whole idea is to have someone who will check in on you or even do the habit with you (ex. jogging partner), to ensure you actually go through with your habit. Basically, it’s like peer pressure, but for positive outcomes.
However, one potential downside of this strategy is that you outsource a bit of the responsibility, rather than building a deep sense of internal accountability. But hey, if it works for you, go with it!
Track your progress
Setting a measurable goal and regularly checking in on progress is one great way to establish self-accountability when it comes to habit formation. By monitoring your habit change daily, you not only get a subtle reminder to actually do the thing, but there’s also a nice satisfaction that can be gained from seeing your progress over time.
As the great poet Maya Angelou once said, “If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”
Like all good science, the study of the brain, motivation, and behavior change are constantly evolving. Given there are scenarios where extrinsic rewards can either be additive or detrimental to intrinsic motivation, it appears further research is needed to better understand what factors go into making it a positive or negative dynamic. And while there may be several effective “motivational hacks” out there, what works great for someone else, may not work great for you.
If you’ve found a formula that works and it feels like you’re thriving in most aspects of your life, maybe don’t overthink it and just do you.