Everyone experiences a low motivation tank from time to time.
Whether it’s waking up for a morning workout, studying for a test, or powering through a boring job…
Without proper motivation, it’s gonna suck.
The good news is, by learning the basics of extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation and harnessing their power, life gets easier.
Not only will you be able to keep yourself motivated, but you’ll be able to motivate others to do what you want as well (kids, employees, colleagues, etc).
In this post, that’s exactly what I’ll show you how to do.
First, we’ll look at what intrinsic and extrinsic motivation actually is. Then, we’ll discover how you can apply these science-backed principles to get what you want in life.
So, ready to become a master of motivation?
Extrinsic motivation is motivation that comes in the form of an outside reward or punishment. You’re motivated to do the task not because you enjoy it, but because of what you’ll get out of it.
This outside motivation can be either physical (prizes, money, avoiding penalties, etc) or psychological (praise, acceptance, avoiding rejection, etc).
Intrinsic motivation, as you’ve probably guessed, comes from within. It’s when you’re motivated to do something simply because you love how it makes you feel. You don’t need to be enticed with external rewards because the satisfaction you get from the behavior is all the motivation you need.
Most people assume intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation. But as you’ll see in a sec, this isn’t always true.
Here are a few examples that show the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation…
Ok so you get the idea. But that leads us to another question…
Well, it depends.
Let’s start with extrinsic motivation. External rewards/punishments are most effective when…
#1.) You’re trying to build a new skill or habit from scratch
#2.) The task is boring AF but needs to be done anyway
The cool thing is, oftentimes all you need is a little extrinsic motivation to get you going. Once you’re started, you begin naturally building intrinsic motivation and no longer need outside rewards.
This happens a lot when learning new skills or starting an unfamiliar task.
When you suck at something, you need extrinsic motivation to force yourself to do it. But once you start mastering the skill, it becomes intrinsically enjoyable.
When I first started salsa dancing lessons, my motivation was all the cute Latinas I was going to impress. But after getting the hang of it, I no longer needed an external reward…I just love to dance! 💃🏻🕺🏻
As you can see, extrinsic motivation can be pretty powerful. But with great power comes great responsibility.
If used incorrectly, it can do more harm than good…
If someone is intrinsically motivated, they do NOT need extra extrinsic motivation. (Write that down!)
Piling on unnecessary external incentives to an intrinsically motivated person will end up killing their innate motivation. In psychology, this is called the overjustification effect1.
The added pressure can make something fun seem like work.
Let’s look at an example.
Say your kid enjoys school and loves learning. That means they are intrinsically motivated and it would be a BAD IDEA to start motivating them with external rewards.
Doing so will subconsciously shift their primary motivation. They’ll start studying because they want an Xbox instead of doing it because they like learning.
Then, when the external stimulus is removed (they get their Xbox), their original intrinsic motivation will go along with it.
In other words, if someone is intrinsically motivated, leave them alone and let them do their thing!
But that begs the question…
So glad you asked. As a matter of fact, there are ways to plant intrinsic motivation seeds in yourself and others…
It all comes down to how you design the activity. Here are some guidelines for setting up tasks with built-in intrinsic motivation boosters:
Make it involve helping others. Helping others feels good. An activity that makes you feel good is the definition of intrinsic motivation.
Make it competitive. Competition is an easy way to make dull activities fun.
Create curiosity. It’s easy to get bored when you know exactly what the outcomes will be. Mix in some mystery to make a task more exciting.
Give praise. Set up the task so that praise is received for good work. The praise itself is external, but knowing your efforts are appreciated makes the task itself more enjoyable.
So whether you’re a teacher trying to pump up your students or you’re a freelancer learning a new skill—sprinkling in these intrinsic boosters into day-to-day tasks will keep motivation levels high.
Let’s say you want your kid to learn the piano. The problem is, they get frustrated because they suck and won’t sit still for more than 5 minutes.
In this case, the best course of action would be to use a mix of external rewards and intrinsic boosters to get them over the motivation hump. For example…
- Giving genuine praise when they do well
- Setting up a piano competition with their friends
- Offering the smallest external reward possible to get them to practice (e.g. an hour of video game time).
After a couple weeks, you’ll notice a shift.
They’ll start getting excited about their new piano skills. Instead of practicing just to earn video game time, they’ll do it because they enjoy how it feels to sharpen their skills. At this point, you can gradually phase out the video game reward to let intrinsic motivation take over (and avoid overjustification).
You can apply this strategy to yourself too.
Suppose your boyfriend/girlfriend just dumped you, so naturally, you head to the nearest Crossfit gym to get a 6-pack and make them regret it.
At first, the only reason you work out is to stick it to your ex (extrinsic). But little by little, you realize you have more energy during the day and love how agile you feel while training. Pretty soon, you forget about that dumb ex and are training just because you love to train.
Just when you’ve built up some intrinsic motivation, your trainer tells you about a special 2020 “Get Yolked” Competition your gym is running—whoever logs the most training hours this month wins an iPhone. You in?
Hope this helps!
(AKA The Motivation Whisperer)