How to Use Internal and External Motivation to Catapult You to Your Goals

Do you find yourself stuck even when you have an important goal? Do you procrastinate and then heap guilt and shame on yourself, making you feel even worse? Perhaps you are backsliding because you can no longer motivate yourself and completely stalled out. What do you do?

The first step toward reaching our goals and overcoming obstacles is understanding how we are motivated.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

How to Use Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation to Reach Your Goals.It turns out that there are two types of motivation: internal (or intrinsic) and external (or extrinsic). Internal motivation is more psychologically rewarding than external motivation because it is rooted in our values, charged by emotions, and linked to what drives us internally.

What's the Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

Internal motivation is when you are motivated to accomplish something just because it feels good. Your desire aligns with what is most important to you, naturally generating fulfillment and pleasure. These behaviors are intrinsically wired to your inner workings!

On the other hand, external motivation comes from outside of us, like a good grade on a college paper or a looming deadline at work. You’ve most likely heard of the carrot (maximizes pleasure through a reward) and the stick (minimizes pain via a consequence, threat, or punishment.)

Internal motivation is like finding the “carrot” inside of you! External motivation feels like someone else is dangling a carrot in front of you (i.e., getting a bonus for hitting sales targets). Internal impulses are more compelling than external motivations because they are already within you, making them feel less forced and more natural.

Related reading: "The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals."

Two clothing designers working together and enjoying their work.

Why Internal Motivation Is More Effective than External Motivation

Internal motivation has been shown to be more effective than external motivation or rewards, mainly for two reasons. First, internal motivation is driven by emotions and values, making it easier to maintain over time. Secondly, internal motivation doesn't require conscious thought and has its beginnings in the limbic system of our brain. According to behavioral scientists Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch, "After a certain period of time (weeks or months), an internalized standard becomes part of our automatic thinking."

Our brains, through evolution, have found ways to conserve energy and be more efficient. One of the most significant examples of this efficiency is through automation or habitual behaviors that no longer require conscious thought. Internal motivation creates self-sustaining habits that become easier to act on long-term.

Even though intrinsic motivation can be more effective, you can utilize both internal and external motivation to propel you forward faster and more effectively, especially in trying times when the going gets tough.

Related reading: “How to Get Motivated: Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation.”

So Why Bother with External Motivation if Internal Motivation Is More Effective?

External motivations can be traced to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, self-control, and cognitive processing requiring conscious thought. External stimulus occurs when something happens externally that garners attention from your prefrontal cortex.

Since your brain loves novelty, a phenomenon called the "novelty principle" or "neophilia" can be deliberately engaged by keeping our goals fresh. We can intentionally spark added motivation by infusing new information or being curious about approaching a subject in new ways.

For instance, if you’re paddling down a river in a kayak, it’s best to go with the river’s natural current, wouldn’t you agree? Going against it would exhaust you and be near impossible to sustain.

Man paddling in kayak on a river as a natural internal motivator.

The added momentum given with a directional flow is internal motivation’s advantage. However, what if you went with the river’s natural flow AND attached an ultra-reliable work partner, a V8 engine also propelling you to your destination. That’s an accurate analogy for utilizing both internal and external motivation. They serve different purposes and can be helpful in the varying stages of a goal.

To achieve your goals, you can utilize external motivators, i.e., money, status, etc., but they are best combined with intrinsic motivators rooted in what’s most important to you.

Deep Dive: “The Neuroscience of Motivation—and How It Can Change Your Life.”

Internal motivation can provide direction and inspiration on how to achieve your goals because a deeper purpose propels us. While external motivators, such as a clear deadline or focusing on what you'll gain by achieving your goal, can also keep you going.

7 Brain Tips to Capitalize  on Internal and External Motivation

Brain Tip #11) Practice key actions to support your goals until they become habits. Creating mini-habits that are building blocks to results will accelerate completion.


Brain Tip #22) Use an internal driver to help push through tough times. Keep a picture of something that inspires your passion
or purpose, such as your family or mission. Or, if you’re goal is to have a fit and trim body, remind yourself how great it will feel to achieve your ideal weight.

Make the attainment of your goal more real with a great visualization tool. By visualizing a positive outcome of your goal in great detail. For instance, imagine yourself standing in front of a mirror while trying on a new outfit in a clothing store. You’re ecstatic about how you look and dance around with joy. Then as you leave the store, you run into a friend, and they exclaim how fantastic you look!

Brain Tip #33) Engage in activities you find fun and enjoyable since you’ll naturally be inclined to do them. When an activity is boring or tedious, combine or alternate it with something you immensely enjoy like playing basketball with friends.
Group of multiracial young friends playing basketball outdoors.

Brain Tip #44) Keep yourself renewed and excited by creating new mini-goals to stimulate the frontal cortex.
When the old ways become routine, change it up. Abandon what doesn't work and try a new way to reengage learning. Using the example above, you could research a new exercise routine, join a new yoga class, or purchase an interactive video of a dance you’ve always wanted to learn.

Brain Tip #55) Anchor your successes by writing them down.
By recording small accomplishments regularly, you’ll feel like you’re making headway, and you will feel the positive effects of dopamine.

Brain Tip #66) Share your progress and successes with family, friends, colleagues, and co-workers. Validation can increase the pleasure effects through compliments, recognition, and encouragement.

Related reading: “Why Sharing Your Progress Makes You More Likely to Accomplish Your Goals.”

Brain Tip #77) Shift between internal and external motivation. Alternating between internal and external motivation can help you take advantage of various sources of energy that change over time. You can adjust your strategy depending on how much effort is needed.

Internal motivators are more sustainable over time. Internal motivation is a cornerstone of your intrinsic engine of success, which can serve you long-term instead of just short-term. Studies show that while external motivators have limited use, they can provide a short burst of energy to get something started. In contrast, internal motivators can hold on for the long ride. Think about all the things in life that people do just for fun! One example is running a marathon, just because you enjoy running and love how it makes you feel.

A woman running in the desert on a bright day.

So what are some internal motivators? Internal motivators are often highly personalized and can include thinking about the meaning behind what you're working on or how you'll feel once you achieve your goal. Internal motivators can also be related to less lofty but no less important tasks, including tracking time spent on work or specifying the next steps for projects. One example is setting mini-deadlines so that focused bursts give you momentum over extended periods.

Internal and external motivators work best when used together. Internal motivations provide direction and inspiration, while external motivators provide energy and excitement about an upcoming task or activity that we get closer to accomplishing.

Internal motivation provides sustainable fuel for your goal-achieving engine while momentum keeps propelling you forward. Internal motivation comes from a limbic perspective, crucial to our survival as a species over time.

Happy businessmen doing a fist-bump and celebrating an achievement.

What Can You Do to Utilize Both Kinds of Motivation?

The brain has an amazing capacity for internal and external motivation, making it easy to pursue goals. To accomplish tasks quickly, use the power of the brain.

Internal and external motivation work together to create momentum that can help power through any changes needed in your life. To accelerate transformation and achieve your goals faster, utilizing both kinds of motivation can support rapid achievement.

Internal motivation is a powerful force in creating momentum and sustaining it over time when used with external motivators.

Try tapping into your full-speed motivational engines. Welcome challenges with an intrinsic value; then use external motivators to help keep you going when the initial buzz wears off. Plan accordingly!

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

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer’s passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills and a step-by-step process that removes the obstacles to growth, loving connection, and communication. Her popular One Year Makeover and Return to Serenity programs provide a personalized approach to transformation. By utilizing brain science, clients integrate unresolved pain and restore inner peace and well-being through a fun learning experience. Jennifer also creates cultural transformation in companies with leaders and teams. Jennifer is happily married to her beloved husband and is the mother of three grown children.

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

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