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How to Get Motivated: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

Do you know what motivates you? Does it ever seem like some people are more motivated than others? And what's the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation anyway? 

Whether you're trying to motivate yourself to write a term paper, to lose weight, or you're an employer endeavoring to motivate an employee, it's critical knowing what turns on the green light in the brain. And motivation is unique depending on temperament, values, past experience, and goals.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Intrinsic or Extrinsic MotivationFor example, one Sunday afternoon, I was feeling devoid of motivation. I tried all the usual things to jumpstart myself but nothing worked. Grabbing a snack in the pantry, I noticed some crumbs on the shelves that I quickly brushed into my palm to toss. As I was about to open a package of rice crackers, a mouse scampered across the shelf. I jumped back, then tore into cleaning, scrubbing, and organizing the entire pantry that day!

External motivation at its best.

Just minutes before I couldn't convince myself to be productive, then a four-legged creature sparked my brain and shifted me into high gear. Why? What changed? To understand how this mouse jumpstarted my motivation, a story from my past will help.

How Our Past Influences Our Present and Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

When I was a kid, my family spent summers at a rustic cabin on Big Birch Lake in Minnesota. The cabin was so rustic that its main inhabitants were mice. Picture this: I’d go to sleep at night as a child listening to mice scurrying inside the walls and playing tag along my bedposts. Fearfully, I’d hug my covers and tuck the sheets tightly around my body to prevent any mice from sharing the covers with me. Finally, I’d drift off to sleep; then, a mouse would greet me in the morning! 

Little girl scared in bed; fear is a big motivator

Fear is a big motivator. We move toward pleasure or away from pain and discomfort; toward external rewards or away from something unpleasant like a mouse. Or we are moved to take action by internal motivation, such as a passion for running a marathon or a piqued interest in mechanics,  art, or music.

Why Is Your Past Important to Motivation?

Past experiences influence our responses to our environment in the present, depending on what we experienced, how emotionally charged the experience was, how we reacted, and the conclusions we drew.

Past experiences program our brain to tell us whether the environment is safe or threatening, whether it’s pleasant or not, and whether we should fight or run.

The difficulty with this impact is that as children, we were often helpless, so of course, threats seem bigger, and the emotions are usually stronger. However, when we have emotional triggers as adults, we might still be experiencing feelings as if we were children. My unconscious mind had tons of memories of fitful nights and continuous startles, so it considered the mouse a threat, even though intellectually, I may have known it was only a nuisance.

So, let’s get back to the present. That mouse in the pantry made me jump—again. But this time, I had a sense of control, and the power to do something positive, so I dug in and got to work. I sealed up every dry good in a plastic or glass container and reorganized the pantry, labeling everything. Then I stood back and admired my work with pride (order is a high pleasure and intrinsic motivator for me.)

So the lessons here were simple:

  • Finding solutions in stressful situations and getting motivated helps to give you a sense of power.

  • Taking action by completing simple, digestible tasks increases your confidence and diminishes problems.

  • Allowing yourself to bask in the sense of accomplishment makes success even sweeter. You get to assign “good” emotions to a situation that previously only had “bad” feelings associated with it. Now, when I go to that pantry, I only see organized, mouse-free storage. 

So with the above example, the mouse presented external motivation, and my love of order inspired internal motivation. Typically, if you can engage both, motivation is at its best.

Related reading:  "Self-Sabotage: It Happens to the Best of Us!"

What Does Intrinsic Mean?

Intrinsic is just what it sounds like: internal, within oneself, coming from inside. Intrinsic also means natural, essential, or originating from within. Our core values and principles are Intrinsic as well as human rights.

Extrinsic is anything outside of us. For instance, when someone receives a trophy for a championship, the trophy and their placement among other competitors are extrinsic. In competition, pride in one's best performance or the sheer joy of the activity itself is intrinsic. 

What's the Difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

So let's identify the differences between intrinsic and external motivation. Anything originating from the inside is intrinsic, typically associated with something that is inherently rewarding. Anything originating from the outside is extrinsic.

Intrinsic Motivation  Extrinsic Motivation
Experiences an internal feeling such as emotional satisfaction or fulfillment obtained from excellence, mastering a skill, or learning something new. Seeks a reward outside of oneself, i.e., a validation, pat on the back, or bonus at work.
Compelled to resolve a negative feeling within oneself. Desires to avoid a negative consequence, i.e., punishment such as a speeding ticket so the person drives within the speed limit.
Excels for the pleasure of doing their best work or simply enjoys the activity, i.e., playing soccer. Competitively seeks success, i.e., a promotion at work or a trophy from winning a soccer championship.
Studying topic for the love of learning; the subject is a personal passion. Studies to achieve a good grade or to win the approval of a teacher, professor, or parent.
Volunteers for the sheer joy of helping others and the warm feeling created inside; give a donation from a place of caring. Volunteers at a soup kitchen to receive accolades from others; only gives a donation for a tax write-off.
Exercising because they love the feeling of being fit or to avoid the feeling of self-loathing when they are overweight and flabby. Exercises obsessively to impress others; exercises to avoid criticism from others, real or imagined.
Hikes for the thrill of adventure and exercising in nature.

Hikes to please a spouse who loves outdoor hiking.

So you can see motivation can be pretty straightforward. Yet, how do you use this knowledge to enhance your motivation?

How to Motivate Yourself and Stay Motivated

One of the things that I've discovered working with so many clients over the years is the human tendency to resist or go against our natural inclinations.

For instance, I had a client who hated going to the gym, and often procrastinated, and then when he didn't force himself to go, he guilted and shamed himself. When I asked why he disliked the gym, he was quick to respond that he loved the solitude of running in nature by himself, it was like meditation and renewed him like nothing else. He disliked being social and chatting with people at the gym. Even though he already had self-awareness, he didn't listen to his truth. He became a regular exerciser when he permitted himself to follow his own preferences.

No matter how much you think you can force motivation, the fact is that if you're going against what is right for you, it will be much harder and often ends in frustration and failure.

So here's my advice: Choose activities and work you love. Find an exercise that fits your temperament. Pay attention to what entices you and brings you joy. And if you still come up empty, ask intelligent questions of yourself to awaken the answers.

Related reading: "The 11 Questions to Ask Yourself When You Feel Uninspired."

So what about those things like studying or a long-term project that is tedious? We can't always do what we love, can we? Then the solution is to break up the work with activities you do love. Don't expect yourself to sit for hours on end doing something arduous.

Get in touch with what internally motivates you.
I have a colleague that gets really jazzed whenever she completes something, so for her, breaking larger projects into smaller milestones keeps her motivated. However, I love juggling several projects at once; they seem to feed on one another, and my creativity peaks. Observe yourself and find out what makes you tick.

Another thing to explore is what time of day you're at your best. Do the more difficult tasks then. Afterward, reward yourself with an activity you enjoy. Remember when I said that you can utilize both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to keep things flowing? You can actually use positive and negative intrinsic motivation AND positive and negative extrinsic motivation—then you'll really get cooking!

A married couple high-fiving while doing push-ups

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Applied

Let's illustrate how this might work with something most people can relate to: you want to be healthy and fit. And you need to lose 20 pounds, so you set a realistic goal to accomplish this feat in seven months.

First, brainstorm all the negative outcomes you'll have if you don't fulfill your goal of losing weight and getting healthier:

  • My health will deteriorate.
  • This extra weight will continue to prevent me from vigorous hikes.
  • My self-talk will continue to harass me.
  • I'll gain more weight and feel worse.
  • My self-esteem will take a hit.
  • I'll feel lousy about myself with all the guilt and shame I feel.
  • When we swim, I'll be mortified to be seen in public.
  • My teen son said he was embarrassed by me being out of shape.
  • I'm setting an unhealthy example for my kids.
Next, brainstorm all the positives if you achieve your goal:
  • I'll feel better about myself.
  • My spouse will be more attracted to me.
  • My health will improve.
  • I'll fit into those favorite pair of jeans.
  • I'll be a stellar example for my kids.
  • My spouse and kids will be proud of me for sticking to a diet and losing weight.
  • My spouse will stop worrying about my health.
  • When I go to the doctor next time and get on the scale, I won't be embarrassed. I might even feel a sense of pride.

The more you come up with why your plan has merit and is worth the effort, the more likely you'll stick with it!

Next, decide what rewards you'll receive and give yourself when you keep to your diet and exercise plan.

  • I'll have extra money to buy a new fishing tackle (only if you like fishing, of course) when I stop eating ice cream and potato chips.
  • After one week of exercising, I'll order lunch from my favorite restaurant (only if you don't already eat there daily; it must be a treat!)
  • When I've built some momentum and lost 5 pounds, I'll share the news with a friend (when others know your goal, it increases accountability).
  • After losing 10 pounds, I'll try on my jeans and see if they fit.
  • When I complete my goal, we'll go to our favorite hiking spot and pack our favorite drinks.
  • And lastly, I'll celebrate by buying that expensive fishing lure that I've been eyeing. 

Man celebrating meeting his goal

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Motivation Examples

Let's put all of the above ideas on a chart so you can see the motivation strategies laid out according to intrinsic and extrinsic.

Negative Intrinsic  Positive Intrinsic Negative Extrinsic Positive Extrinsic
Negative self-talk and self-criticism will continue to taunt me. I will feel better about myself; my inner talk will be calmer and more peaceful. My spouse worries about my health. If I lose weight, my spouse will be more attracted to me and will stop worrying.
I feel lousy about myself and feel guilty about not taking care of myself. My health will improve. I will be living my values, and my self-respect will increase. Every time I binge or eat something unhealthy, my spouse makes a sarcastic comment that hurts my feelings. My spouse will congratulate me and admire me for achieving my goal. I might even inspire my family to exercise more.
I feel awful being so out of shape and can't wear half my clothes.

It will be such a pleasure fitting into my favorite jeans. And what a great feeling being fit!

My son is embarrassed about my weight (and a little worried, too.)

My son will 
feel relief and enjoy spending more time with me, especially around his friends.

My self-esteem will take a hit and my health will decline. I feel embarrassed and dread stepping on the scale. Getting fit will be a self-esteem booster; I'll be pleased with myself as I step on the scale. When I go for my check-up,
the doctor and nurse will comment on my need to lose weight.
The doctor will be pleased with my health habits. I'll get kudos from my friends and people will tell me how great I look.
Having poor self-care habits and being an unhealthy example for my kids makes me feel like a bad parent. Being a healthy example for my kids while modeling self-care, I will feel a sense of inner peace and pride. My kids might grow up to have bad habits that I have modeled. My kids will be far more likely to live a healthy lifestyle.
Embarrassed to swim in public. Heightened pleasure when hiking, swimming, and fishing. Our grocery bill eats up extra funds I can use for greater enjoyment. Eat at my favorite restaurant. and buying new fishing tackle

Instead of forcing motivation, get curious about yourself.

Look at the natural tendencies that compel you in specific directions and listen. Pay attention to what you dislike or dread and what you love and what makes you happy. These ingredients will assist you in being much more successful when it's essential to get motivated.

And sometimes relax, too! Downtime and rest are equally valuable as productivity and motivation.

Related reading: "8 Keys to Breaking Bad Habits."

If you'd like customized support to help you get motivated and create a life you love, email support@heartmanity.com.

Or if you'd like to dive in to learn more, try out our emotional intelligence online course.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in Brain Fitness, Mindfulness and Perspective, Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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