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Intrinsic motivation: How to maximize your inner drive

Would you eat a pair of socks for a million dollars?

What about a thousand dollars? How about a certificate saying you're the best sock-eater in the entire world?

These external rewards might all tempt you, to a certain degree, to open up your sock drawer and start tucking in. But even with these enticing rewards on offer, you might have difficulty getting the job done. You might have to visualize the end goal while powering through a rather unpleasant experience.

But what if you just really enjoyed eating socks? What if you just wanted to see whether you could do it or not? If that's the case, you're going to smoothly sail through without a moment's hesitation. You'll happily eat those socks without a complaint, and you'll actually be pretty darn good at it, too.

This is the power of intrinsic motivation - the drive that pushes you to do things without a promise of external rewards.

Forget socks for now - understanding this motivation can help you find the tasks you can really excel at. It'll help you find the career you can do your very best work in. It'll help you identify the skills and attributes you can thrive in, and establish which ones you should divert your attention away from.

It'll even help you have more fun in your leisure time, too, because you'll know what really lights you up, turning wasted time into alive time, where you can reach a state of flow while having fun at the same time. Here's how it works.

Table of contents

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the sort of motivation that comes from enjoyment of a task itself, rather than the result of doing it. It's motivation that comes from within yourself, rather than externally.

Intrinsic motivation is the drive to seek new challenges, experiences through an inherent curiosity or desire for personal growth.

In behavior driven by intrinsic desire, there might not be a reward involved at all. You might decide to take care of a plant, or learn about a historical event, or play a video game, just because you enjoy it. Doing these kinds of things doesn't really result in any tangible rewards, but you're still motivated to do them because - well, why not?

But this isn't just about leisure time. Your working life can involve intrinsic motivators too, if you're well-matched to the type of work you're doing, or if you're in the right mindset to do it. You might get fired up at the thought of a difficult project, or a new method of working. You might just really love the fact that your work makes a positive difference in society, even if you personally don't gain much from it in terms of money, social standing or career progression.

Have you ever met one of those lucky people who absolutely love their job? Maybe you are one of those people. They bounce into the office, thrive at their work, and tackle any challenge thrown at them. These are some of the common signs of intrinsically motivated behavior, and often show themselves when someone's in their 'dream job'.

What could be better than getting paid to do what you love?

Most intrinsic motivation definitions suggest a link between it and curiosity, spontaneous exploration, and positive well-being. It's generally seen as a good thing to have in most circumstances, as long as the behaviors it drives are healthy (you might have an intrinsic motivation for drinking beer for breakfast every day, which you probably wouldn't say is a great thing to do).

Intrinsic motivation theory is part of the broader self-determination theory, a fascinating part of psychology that seeks to understand where the motivations behind our behaviors come from. Rather than seeing motivation as a singular, unchanging drive that all humans share, it states that we all have differing sources of it at different times.

One of the great aspects of intrinsically motivated tasks is that you're more likely to perform well at them, compared to those where you're chasing a specific reward (what's known as 'extrinsic motivation' - more on that below).

Sure, a nice pot of money, increased power, or social recognition can be a strong motivator to get things done. We all have a price. But intrinsic motivation occurs when the task itself is the reward - and that's when truly great things can be achieved.

What are the three sources of motivation?

Remember the Self-Determination Theory we mentioned above? This theory, explaining where motivation comes from, states that intrinsic motivation comes from three different sources.

These sources are core desires that pretty much everyone has. Without them, we can feel empty, lost, isolated and depressed - our subjective well-being takes a bit hit. So we're motivated to seek out activities that address these desires and help us avoid those negative states.

The three psychological needs that drive our motivations are:

  • Competence - the feeling that we're good at something, and able to learn and master a skill.
  • Autonomy - having 'freedom of will', the feeling of that we're in control of our lives and the outcome of our actions.
  • Relatedness - also known as belongingness, this is the feeling of having social connection with a person or group.

What are the three types of intrinsic motivation?

The desires we saw above are the core needs we all generally want to satisfy. These drive our intrinsic motivations, which manifest in three different ways.

Here are the three types of intrinsic motivation and the ways we tend to satisfy them:

  • Intrinsic motivation for accomplishment is when you engage in an activity for the pleasure of overcoming a challenge or creating something.
  • Intrinsic motivation for stimulation is when you do something because it's pleasurable, novel or exciting.
  • Intrinsic motivation for knowledge is engaging in something for the enjoyment of learning or developing a deeper understanding.

Think back to the last things you did of your own accord. Did you read a book and learn something, just for the fun of it? Did you play a video game because it was exciting? Almost everything you do that's not externally rewarded falls into one of these three categories, so knowing the difference can be really useful for gaining insight into your own decision making.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation occurs when your desire for taking action comes from within yourself. Extrinsic motivation, then, is the opposite: it's motivation based on external factors.

Extrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for a specific outcome, such as praise, material rewards, beating a competitor, or safety from pain or punishment.

Extrinsic motivation can be positive or negative. Rewards are positive, but avoiding punishment, shame or unwanted attention can be equally motivating.

If you're wondering what is an intrinsic motivator and what's an extrinsic one, just try to pinpoint who's really being affected. If it involves someone or something other than yourself, in any way, it's extrinsic.

Here's an example: imagine you're on vacation and choose to visit a beautiful destination that's highly visually pleasing. Are you capable of simply visiting, looking, and enjoying the moment? Or can you not resist the temptation to take a photo to share on social media? If you can keep your phone in your pocket while admiring the view, that's intrinsic motivation.

Some have suggested a third type of motivation alongside these - addiction. While this would cause an individual to behave in a certain way, it can be seen as a physical disease or a symptom of psychological stress, so it's not very useful to consider when we're trying to understand the drivers of our daily decision making.

Is everyone intrinsically motivated?

Everyone's motivations are different, and these motivations change through life. It totally depends on the desire in question and the environment in which the activity lies. So no, not everyone is intrinsically motivated to do things in the same way. But most people have at least one or two things they're intrinsically motivated to do - something that gives them pleasure or satisfaction regardless of anyone else involved.

People do have traits and tendencies, and once we've built up habits they can often be hard to break. Research suggests, however, that our personalities are not set in stone, and most behaviors can be consciously changed with the right amount of attention.

Some habits and tendencies do stay with us a long time - in fact, research shows that positive reinforcement in childhood increases intrinsic motivation and builds positive self-esteem later in life. If you use positive reinforcement with children - for example, praising creativity and hard work instead of only punishing poor performance - it's more likely they'll understand their own competence and gain confidence in trying new things and potentially making mistakes.

Working only for the praise of others is, of course, not intrinsic motivation, but initial praise can open the possibilities in someone's mind that they can enjoy a task and do well at it, and that they don't have to wait for someone else's permission to start work on it.

In the creative arts, most artists start their journey through intrinsic desire. While they're amateurs, they won't really have many external rewards for, say, writing music or working on their paintings. If they're good enough to become successful, though, their motivations can change, whether they like it or not.

It's why 'difficult second album syndrome' exists in the music world - a band finds success with the first album they made, driven purely by internal creative force, but struggle to replicate the magic in their second piece, because their motivation has been switched to extrinsic. They're under pressure to please fans, critics and their record label, which makes it much harder to truly utilize their inner drive and produce meaningful art.

How do I get intrinsic motivation?

Thankfully, everyone is capable of building up their intrinsic thinking and firing up that motivation from within. Motivations aren't static - they evolve through our lifetimes as we change and grow as people. And intrinsic motivation isn't really a broad skill you can apply to whatever you want - it totally depends on what area you'd like to improve it in.

You might find that certain life events change your motivation to do things. A brush with serious illness, for example, might spur you into paying more attention to your health habits. The birth of a child might change your life priorities, as it so often does. Or maybe empathizing with a character in a novel could spark a revelation about your interpersonal interactions, causing you to wake up each morning wanting to be kinder to strangers.

Building systems and 'outsourcing' your motivation is one way to gain better control over it. Here's an example.

Most of us want to be healthier. One of the classic motivation challenges of the modern age is going to the gym. If you've not been for a while, it can be difficult to drum up the desire to make the effort to go, especially if nobody else is relying on you to go with them, and you're not booked in for any classes. So you can get trapped in a low-energy state and easily find excuses not to attend.

The systemic way to overcome this problem would be to first focus on the extrinsic rewards of a gym visit: feeling good, looking good, and improving your health. Use that as motivation to book a class, induction or personal trainer session. Leave out your gym kit the night before so you don't have to spend too much energy preparing. Commit to a short, easy session so you're not dreading it beforehand.

And then you'll go, and instantly be reminded of how good it feels.

Repeating this process a few times will bring your motivation along that spectrum from extrinsic to intrinsic, and you'll begin to want to go to the gym. You won't need the opinions of others to spur you along - the desire will come from within.

Now that you've built one healthy habit, can you use this 'intrinsic thinking' technique to move your other behaviors over into the self-determined side?

Coaching and therapy are other ways you can boost your intrinsic motivation, too. Getting an outside perspective on where your desire for action comes from can be super helpful for figuring out how to harness it, so consider consulting an expert to help you gain better insight.

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