Understanding the Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Can Help You Develop Healthier Habits
Learn the secrets to staying motivated—even when no one’s watching.
Motivation is sometimes hard to come by, whether you need the get-up-and-go to actually get out of bed and tackle a morning workout before work or you’re simply trying to get your spring cleaning done before the season is over. Especially right now, you may find that your motivation has completely disappeared.
“It’s normal to not feel motivated right now,” says Paul Silvia, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and author of Exploring the Psychology of Interest. “People do not deal with social isolation really well, and they are stuck in the house, and they’re not seeing people face to face. It’s totally natural to not feel like doing anything.”
If your lack of motivation is putting you at risk of losing your job—or just losing the battle of the laundry pile—here’s how you can harness the two different kinds of motivation (extrinsic and intrinsic motivation) to meet your goals.
The simple way to think about the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation is to consider the motive that gets you moving. “People feel intrinsically motivated when they’re doing something just because it’s interesting for its own sake,” Silvia says. “They find it interesting, enjoyable and meaningful.”
If you’re intrinsically motivated, it’s super easy for you to keep going, even in the face of obstacles. “When you feel intrinsically motivated, you don’t have procrastination or perfectionism, and while you’re doing it, it’s very absorbing and very interesting,” Silvia says.
Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from a different place—whether you’re clocking time at the gym in an effort to stay healthy or completing a work project to make your boss happy (and earn that paycheck). “Sometimes they’re just doing it for a reward—quite a lot of work falls into this category,” Silvia says. “They’re doing it out of a sense of duty or obligation. It’s not something they really want to do, but something they feel [they] ought to do.”
While it may seem like intrinsic motivation is best, there are plenty of situations where extrinsic motivation can be more desirable.
“A lot of good stuff happens when people are extrinsically motivated,” Silvia says. And in fact, there are times when passion shouldn’t be in the driver’s seat. “If you think of your accountant, do you want the accountant that’s driven by a sober sense of duty or do you want the one that accounting is so cranked up and inspired, and seeking that ‘accountant high?’”
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Right now, some of those extrinsic motivators may be in short supply—you may not be motivated to shave your legs daily if everyone’s only seeing you on Zoom calls, for instance, or your fitness motivation may be running low without your favorite studio class instructor there to cheer you on. But there are tricks you can use to create a little intrinsic motivation or help find new extrinsic motivations to keep you moving.
1. Harness the three pillars of motivation. Psychologists point to three different aspects that can make us more likely to complete a task and meet a goal. “People are more intrinsically motivated when what they’re working on helps them build their skills and talents, connects them to other people, and they have freedom and flexibility in how they do it,” Silvia says. “Those three sources of motivation help people feel more grabbed by their goals.”
See if you can reframe a task to align with one or more of those pillars and increase the intrinsic motivation for completing it. For instance, going for a run can help you connect with other runners when you share your route with your fellow runners on social media or go running with a friend.
2. Set a deadline. A set-in-stone deadline can help get you motivated to get things done. “Keep it simple and focus on the end,” Silvia says. “The goal is to get something done and do it well and do it on time.”
3. Create a great reward. Most people respond to a treat of some sort, so set one up. For instance, make it “fun Friday” if you complete your tasks, suggests Annette Nunez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist in Denver, Colorado.
“Fun Fridays reduce anxiety and depression by giving you a mental break from day to day routines and giving you something to look forward to at the end of the week,” Dr. Nunez says. “Set goals for yourself during the week—like taking a walk every day, getting your work done, taking a daily shower—and if you accomplish your goal then celebrate with a Fun Friday filled with activities that bring joy to your life, from binge watching a show on Netflix, going on a hike, ordering in from your favorite restaurant, to having Zoom happy hour or coffee with your friends, to ending the workday early.”
4. Make a game out of it. Adding an element of fun and competition could help you stay motivated and keep going. “People can gamify something boring,” Silvia says. “It’s motivating to see that they’re getting better and better at it. For instance, lifting weights is a drudgery, but it’s really easy to count reps and count pounds, and keep pushing to set personal records.”
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