Intrinsic And Extrinsic Motivation

December 30, 2014

by Ravi Raman

I am writing this post while sitting in a Tiny House in the snowy hills of British Columbia in rural Canada. My wife and I are here for about six weeks and spend practically every day Nordic Skiing. It takes zero effort for us to get motivated to ski, despite the fact that it is one of the most strenuous forms of exercise known to mankind. We look forward to it. There are few things in my life that I’m so naturally included to do as this – perhaps running or writing or cooking – but not much else.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is a wonderful thing. It is very different from its cousin, extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation requires a reward or penalty to create motivation. For example, the fear of letting down a team, a coach, or a parent can be a tremendous motivator. These are extrinsic forms. Intrinsic motivation just happens because you want to do something naturally. Sort of like breathing, or eating a meal or playtime for a child.

Some things that I used to do many years ago required extrinsic motivation – like skiing or running or writing or eating healthy or doing any form of exercise. These things have now shifted to require no external stimulus. In academic circles, the study of motivation can be framed in a theory called Self-Determination Theory:

People are centrally concerned with motivation — how to move themselves or others to act. Everywhere, parents, teachers, coaches, and managers struggle with how to motivate those that they mentor, and individuals struggle to find energy, mobilize effort and persist at the tasks of life and work. People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations, or the opinions they fear others might have of them.

Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within, by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values. These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless, they can sustain passions, creativity, and sustained efforts. The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and personality.

The power that comes along with intrinsic motivation is profound since it does not require rewards or enticement to continue along. Think about your hobbies. How much effort does it take to convince you to keep them up? When I was a kid, I would spend hours reading comics, organizing stamps and baseball cards. These hobbies were intrinsically motivated activities for me.

I found the same thing to be true during my corporate career. When a worker is doing work directly aligned with their values and beliefs (the tricky part is to get clear on what those are), they will naturally be motivated to work and work hard without much oversight. They will be intrinsically motivated. When they hate their work or just don’t believe in the value of the task being given to them, every bit of work will require some form of enticement or fear of punishment. The former is a sustainable way of working, the later is not.

The good news is that there are ways to build up your intrinsic motivation, and apply it to whatever goal you have – be it getting ahead at work or losing weight.

Ways to Tap Into Intrinsic Motivation

1. Cultivate More Hobbies

You never really know what things will interest you. We fall into sports and hobbies as children based on what we happen to have around us or what is convenient for us and our parents. However, by branching out and committing to learning new skills and new things, you may find something that completely aligns with your interests. For example, I recently discovered Nordic Skiing and am totally addicted to it. It takes me zero effort to get motivated to go out for a ski. Just a few years ago, I had never even given it a try. What activities are out there that you could be a great fit for?

2. Pick Activities That Align With Your Values

This one is tough. Do you know what your value are? What do you care about most in life? For example, if you believe in animal rights and animal welfare, you probably don’t want to pick up rodeo bull riding as a hobby. However, if you truly value creativity, perhaps you should give drawing or painting a try? Activities that naturally align with your values will have a high chance of being a great fit for you, even if you aren’t very skilled at them (at first!).

3. Use Extrinsic Means First

Getting started with an activity can require a bit of motivation and effort, particularly when you are new. For example, when I first started Nordic Skiing, I was sorta interested in learning, but I was more interested in spending a long weekend with friends at a ski resort. That sounded like fun to me and gave me the opportunity to learn a new skill. I had peer pressure (my friends were also learning how to ski) and rewards (apres-ski drinks and food every day!) in place to motivate me to commit to the trip and to learning a skill that I’d surely be pretty bad at to start. After a handful of lessons, I no longer needed extrinsic motivation to go ski….I was hungry for it all on my own! Peer pressure and rewards just got the ball rolling.

With any task, activity or hobby you are looking to do, think hard about it and how motivated you are to do it. Is it something that requires a lot of extrinsic motivation – that is to say, external rewards or peer pressure? If so, how can you better align that task with your own goals and values to make it more intrinsically motivating?

It is the activities that are intrinsically motivating that will have higher staying power, and eventually become habits that will require little effort to get started, but still provide you with all satisfaction.

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