The lines between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation can very often be blurred, but it is well worth learning the difference because one is far more powerful than the other.
Before we explore the whys and wherefores of these two types of motivation, let me explain the difference between them:
- Intrinsic motivation is doing something for a reward that comes from an internal source
- Extrinsic motivation is doing something for a reward that comes from an external source
What is Motivation?
Motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is what drives us on to do something. But what is behind motivation? What causes it? In a word – incentive.
Everything we do is for a reason. We get up in the morning, for example, to go to work. We go to work to earn money. We earn money to pay for the roof over our heads and to feed our families. We go to bed at a decent time so that we can wake up in time to go to work…and so on and so forth.
And this principle applies to every single thing we do – otherwise, what would be the point of doing anything?
But while it’s easy to see the external rewards, there are other incentives that aren’t as obvious, but which are far more powerful – those rewards which come from within.
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Intrinsic Motivation vs. Extrinsic Motivation
Before we look at how you can use intrinsic motivation to help you get what you want, let’s explore the differences between the two in further detail.
External (extrinsic) motivation is spurred on by the promise of either an outward reward or to avoid a negative consequence.
- Doing chores so as not to get punished by Mom or Dad
- Working hard in school so you get high grades
- Being diligent in the office in the hope that your boss notices and rewards you with a pay rise.
- Doing charity work for recognition
- Helping someone out so you’re seen as a good friend or neighbor
Doing charity work is always a good thing. But doing it without seeking praise from others is even better. Helping out at a food bank and then posting about it on social media in the expectation that you will be heaped with praise is a prime example of how extrinsic motivation doesn’t have to have a physical reward, but still seeks validation from external sources.
On the other hand, helping out at a food bank and not even mentioning it to anyone is intrinsic motivation – you are doing it because it feels good; the reward comes from inside yourself.
Other examples of extrinsic motivation might be:
- Taking part in a sports event in order to gain a trophy
- Completing a job for somebody in return for money
- Recycling aluminum cans because you get a few cents for each one
Internal (Intrinsic) Motivation is when the reward for doing something comes from a personal sense of satisfaction or enjoyment.
- Undertaking study for the sheer pleasure of learning something new
- Taking part in an activity because it feels good or because you enjoy the camaraderie
- Doing chores because you get a sense of satisfaction when it’s done
- Undertaking charity work for the knowledge that you are helping to make someone’s life better
- Reading a book purely for the joy of reading
So What’s Wrong With Extrinsic Motivation, Anyway?
There’s nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation as such, but its efficacy can be limited. For example, if you do chores for your parents because they pay you to do them, what happens when the money runs out or they decide that paying you every time you put your laundry in the hamper instead of the floor is not sustainable? Are you going to continue doing it?
How about at work? Once you achieve your pay rise or promotion, what’s your incentive to keep working as hard as you have been?
And how about doing charity work and boasting about it on social media? Sooner or later the ‘well done’ and the ‘aren’t you generous’ praises will dry up, and unless you’ve done it for the sheer satisfaction of helping, your incentive will have disappeared.
Extrinsic motivation just isn’t sustainable in the long term. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its place, but it is far more effective when used sparingly and in very specific circumstances.
The Case for Intrinsic Motivation
When something feels good, we want to do more of it. However, it is often harder to find incentives that come from within. Use the following strategies to nurture intrinsic motivation which will change the way you live your life for the better.
The world is yours for the taking, and there is an endless supply of things to explore. Forget studying for exams (unless you are currently studying for exams, in which case carry on!), and learn for the unadulterated joy of learning, instead.
There is an unlimited supply of subjects to capture your interest – geography, science, cooking, gardening, arts, crafts, classic books, poetry, space, the oceans – so explore what captures your interest, purely for the sheer satisfaction of expanding your knowledge.
Be the change that you want to see.
We talked about doing charity work, so take part in some. Pick an area you are passionate about and take it from there.
If the planet is your area of concern, learn about recycling, and look into volunteering in that field. If helping the homeless is close to your heart, then help out at a soup kitchen. Maybe you are passionate about poverty, in which case, donate regularly to a food bank and offer up a few hours a week or a month to help them out.
If sustainability is your thing, then learn about gardening and start growing your own food, not to save you money but for the pleasure in seeing your plants grow from seed. Donating the excess to local communities will add yet more intrinsic motivation, too.
Make your goals meaningful.
I’m not going to pretend that having a nice house, a new car, or exotic holidays are the wrong goals to aim for because there’s nothing wrong with them, and some extrinsic motivation is good – it can spur us on. However, you need some internal goals to redress the balance.
Look at your career – does it fulfill you or are you in it for the money alone? Do you enjoy working out every morning, or do you do it just to build muscles and look good to other people?
Imagine what would happen if your career could feed your family but also feed your soul. How much better would you feel about commuting to work every day knowing that you were going to enjoy it, that it was challenging you, and that you were growing because of it?
How much more enjoyable would your gym sessions be if you were doing them to feel good as well as look good, or to push yourself just that little bit more every day?
Be in competition with yourself.
Comparing yourself to others is a perfect example of extrinsic motivation, but comparing yourself to yourself is a different matter altogether.
It doesn’t matter what area you are doing it in – the gym, work, family, friendships – making sure you are a better you than you were yesterday, or last week, or last month is a wonderful motivator.
In the gym, lift an extra kilo, or run an extra mile. At home, don’t stress about something which stressed you out last week. At work, sell one more car than last week, or secure one more client, or even just talk to the colleague who always sits on their own at lunchtime. The point is, it’s all about growth, personal growth, and as long as you are growing, you are winning at life.
Not being in control of our own lives can lead to feelings of frustration and helplessness, so start taking control little by little.
Open the bills you’ve stuffed in a drawer, and contact the debtors if necessary to ask for a payment plan.
Tackle the overgrown yard by taking it one step at a time; cut the grass first, and then move on to the flower beds.
Decorate one room at a time, rather than look at the entire house and think it’s too much work. The satisfaction of getting an aspect of your life back on track will be a huge incentive to keep doing more of the same.
Humans have a need for belonging, but we all lead such busy lives that we don’t always have time to take part in any teamwork. Find an activity that involves working together with other people – whether that’s sports, volunteering, or something else you enjoy – and immerse yourself in the glow which comes from working side by side with others for a common goal.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have tangible goals, but finding the intrinsic motivation as well as the extrinsic will fan the flames for a lot longer. For every material motivation, you will be able to find an internal one, too; it just involves looking a little deeper, but once you discover them you will find that each goal becomes much more meaningful and much more sustainable, too.
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