When it comes to achieving goals and making life changes motivation is critical. But there are different kinds of motivation. A simple categorization is extrinsic vs. intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation is any reward that is external to you. It encompasses everything from medals to cookies to money to an old friend saying “wow, you’ve lost weight”.
Intrinsic motivation is doing something simply because you enjoy the act itself, not for an outside gain. Pumping iron for the adrenaline rush or eating veggies for that healthy feeling. Intrinsic motivation is the ideal because it is long lasting and not reliant on outside influences, which are often out of your control. But what happens if you don’t have it? You can use extrinsic motivation, but it isn’t as helpful as you might think.
Extrinsic motivation causes problems because it motivates you to get the reward, not necessarily to complete the activity. As soon as the reward disappears or you find a shortcut to the reward, the task falls by the wayside. Using rewards is not always a bad thing, perhaps the activity is just a one-off. For example, you help your friend move because you get friendship points and some free beer. You probably don’t have love for the task of lifting heavy, awkward objects. When extrinsic motivation is connected to a situation that is recurring and lasting over a significant portion of your life, it can become a serious problem.
Some people try to reward themselves for going to the gym or studying with a treat afterwards. The creates the temptation just to cheat and get the doughnut/chocolate/froyo without the gym (and even if you did hit the gym, you probably ate back double the calories you just burned). This is also why diets do not last. You crash diet to lose X number of pounds, then you reach your goal, and what happens? You gain back twice what you lost. You didn’t eat healthy for the love of feeling healthy and appreciating how healthy food tastes (yes that is a real thing). You dieted to reach a goal/reward and as soon as you got there, you backslid. Any activity that you want to be a life-long commitment cannot be contingent on an external reward. Research has proven this time and time again. Truly successful people do not rely on extrinsic factors to push them towards their goals, they are internally motivated and thereby pulled to their goals.
“The problem with some of y‘all is that you want somebody else to support your dream. It’s yours. If you are willing to have it, get your butt up and make it happen”
Furthermore, and somewhat surprisingly, extrinsic motivation can deplete intrinsic motivation when applied to the same task. This is why you should never bribe your children to go to school! The bribe will cause them to enjoy school less than if there was no outer reward at all. Numerous scientific studies have vindicated that if you are rewarding yourself for activities that are already inherently rewarding (as most activities are), you will just be robbing yourself of that inner motivation! This is not to say you shouldn’t celebrate your success, just don’t make the celebration your goal. This counterintuitive effect is also why salary is negatively correlated to job satisfaction. Don’t despair, you can love your job and get paid well. Just work on finding a job for the intrinsic benefits and let the payment be a bonus. Truly successful people learn to find the inherently rewarding nature in every area of life, this is some ninja-black-belt-monk-in-the-mountains-shit.
Student: “Master, how do you put enlightenment into action? How do you practice it in everyday life?”
Master: “By eating and sleeping” replied the master.
Student: “But Master, everybody sleeps and everybody eats.”
Monk: “But not everybody eats when they eat, and not everybody sleeps when they sleep. When I eat, I eat; when I sleep, I sleep.”
As noted before, there are certain times when extrinsic motivation can be useful, such as in the one-off furniture-moving situation, especially because most of us are not (yet) monks. Most people aren’t going to find the task of lugging couches around inherently rewarding (if you do, good work and I could use your help in a month’s time…) Thus, the reason you lend a hand is for free beer and to obligate your friend to help you when it’s your turn to move, and that’s okay. Helping a friend move is an infrequent activity and not one that is going to form a significant contribution to your life. You don’t have to worry that you won’t be able to find the motivation to practice couch manoeuvring every day. When it comes to activities like exercise, healthy eating, meditation, compassion and hard work a.k.a (hopefully) daily rituals, relying on extrinsic motivation is setting you up for failure.
Another useful time for extrinsic motivation is when you are initially trying a task/activity that can be inherently rewarding, but for whatever concoction of reasons has a significant barrier to entry. So you sweeten the deal with an extrinsic motivator to get it started. For example, your girlfriend promising to make your favourite dinner if you try one yoga class with her. Then once you’re in, you can realize the benefit and inherit reward of the class and no longer need the outside motivator. You have experienced the relaxation benefit from yoga and now have the inner motivation to downward dog everyday.
An extrinsic motivator is only useful when short-term motivation is needed. You should only use extrinsic motivation as the first push on a swing-set, the rest you have to build up yourself, and eventually the momentum will do most of the work. If instead, you have someone pushing you on the swings while you stay rigid like a corpse, shortly after they leave, your swing and your fun will come to a sad end. Always remember extrinsic motivation won’t last and you shouldn’t rely on it. Intrinsic motivator is the everlasting energizer bunny, it just keeps going and going.
Here is a quick checklist to make sure you are using the right kind of motivation.
- Look at the challenging activities in your life job, friends, family, exercise, diet, school, relationship
- Try to remember why you started the activity, why you keep doing it and what your goal is from completing it. Be honest about your motivations.
- If you are rewarding yourself with extrinsic purchases for accomplishments that are rewarding in-and-of themselves, start trying to phase it out. Whether this is chocolate after the gym, wine after work or sex for doing household chores (yes housework can be inherently rewarding and so is sex for that matter)
- Start looking for ways to enjoy these challenging activities. Change your mindset. Instead of hating your job, be grateful that you can take care of yourself and even have the opportunity to work.
- If you cannot find anything to love about something (your job really really sucks, the gym you joined is full of perverts), then cut your losses and get out.
- *Bonus Points* Actively seek opportunities to take things previously seen as complicated/boring/pointless/unnecessary and to find the beauty within them. Zen monks find bliss in sweeping. The ability to see the bright side of life is a skill and it takes work, it pays off tenfold when you face a catastrophe with a smile.
Great people view every challenge, trauma and failure as a learning opportunity and are grateful for them.
Anything that depends on external motivation is at the mercy of the cruel and unpredictable world. If you use it, make sure it is short term. Finding internal motivation will take time. Let yourself have some trial and error, but don’t stop looking inward for the motivation. Once you have it, you can’t be stopped.