Research shows not all motivation is created equal. Meet self-determination theory.
What drives you?
It can sound like a simple question: it isn’t. For hundreds of different activities in our lives — from choosing a job, to spending time with our partner, to writing an article — we can all have very different motivations for the same action.
People are fond of reporting vague, huge, and morally sweet drives. To support my children/ageing parents. To provide for my community. To save the local ecosystem.
These are all great as an overarching “why”: a north star that adds structure and purpose to your life.
But let’s be real, they don’t drive every action you take. You don’t make pancakes to save the planet. You pick up the frying pan because you’re hungry.
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The theory that drives us
Motivation has been investigated in the field of work psychology for a long time. The most well-evidenced and widely accepted theory today is Self-Determination Theory.
In short, the theory splits between two core types of motivation: external and internal.
You do some things as a means to an end. For money, self-esteem or clout, for example. These are external motivators.
You do other things because you truly identify with them. You derive a sense of inherent purpose, identity, or pleasure from the action taken. These are internal motivators.
This theory can help you understand:
- what type of drive you have for your work, relationships & hobbies
- why you are motivated / de-motivated
- how to motivate yourself more for the same task
- what naturally motivates or de-motivates you.
External/internal motivation exists on a sliding scale, which breaks down into 6 distinct motivational types. We’ll start with the most external motivation, and work inwards.
Along the way, think about: Which drives you at work? In your relationship? With your family? For your pet project?
Rule of thumb: The more internal the motivation, the better it is for your productivity.
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What it is: Apathy. Lack of motivation or any action taken. Happens when you have no immediate internal or external reason to do the thing.
Example: Not completing your homework for tomorrow because you don’t like the subject, and the teacher won’t collect it anyway.
Why it’s good/bad: Amotivation isn’t the devil. It’s a good thing you’re not motivated to do everything, like spray-painting a stranger’s cat purple. Selective motivation keeps us sane — not scattering in a thousand directions at once.
Sometimes, though, we can be reluctant to start things we swear we do care about. What happens here? Often, we procrastinate out of fear or comfort.
Here’s a trick to getting over that: make it scarier to not do the task. Hold yourself accountable with an external risk.
It’s incredible what you can manage when you’re held to a deadline, could lose something — be it money or status — or disappoint someone. A chased man runs faster.
Which brings us to…
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#2 External Motivation
What it is: The carrot and the stick. Behaviour is only done to receive a reward (eg. money, sweets) or avoid punishment (eg. insulted, fired, beaten).
Example: Working a retail job solely to pay the bills; appeasing a threatening partner to avoid being hit; registering to vote to avoid a fine.
In external motivation, the behaviour only has value to you because it’s tied directly to a reward or punishment. If this was no longer there, you would no longer do it.
Why it’s good/bad: External rewards work for brief and simple tasks. For more complex & creative endeavours, however, external motivators undermineintrinsic drive.
You can clean the dishes for sweets; but not become a world-class pianist. Greed and fear only take you so far: in fact, they straightjacket the freedom of mind required for high-quality, complex, deep work.
How can we become more invested?
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#3 Introjected Motivation
What it is: Introjected motivation drags in your ego. Think of it as an internal reward or punishment. If you do it, you’ll feel proud. If you don’t, you’ll feel you have let yourself down or aren’t “living up” to expectations.
It’s almost like an internal parent: I’m not angry! Just disappointed.
Example: Going to the gym to feel good about your productivity level today; working hard in high school to avoid feeling ashamed by a bad grade.
Why it’s good/bad: Introjected motivation is stronger than an external reward or punishment. However, it can also contribute to greater stress and burnout. Especially in uncertain COVID-19 times, where some events are beyond your control: basing your entire self-worth upon results is dangerous.
Our next, healthier option is…
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#4 Identified Motivation
What it is: An action is taken because it is consciously valued by you, and links to your personal goals.
Example: Stretching daily to be able to do the splits; practising the guitar to get good enough to play a favourite song.
Why it’s good/bad: Out of all six, identified motivation can be the trickiest to clearly define. You may ask: hold on, what separates those examples from external rewards? How is wanting to play one song any different than getting a sweet?
Well, rewards tend to be fairly universal wants. Money, food, praise, sex.
Goals are unique to the person. Not everybody would find doing the splits a rewarding goal, nor playing one specific Thom Yorke song. It’s your choice! This personal assignment of value — independently chosen goals — bestows greater freedom, is internalised more, and is thus intensely motivational.
Accordingly, identified motivation is linked to more interest in school, more effort given in work, and more positive coping strategies in response to failures and setbacks.
But an even deeper form of motivation is up next.
. . .
#5 Integrated Motivation
What it is: The action taken is a core part of your identity. A writer writes; a coder codes. All share the serenity of knowing: this is who I am.
Example: Any time you call yourself an -er. A writer, a father, a fighter.
Why it’s good/bad: Identity is a powerful thing, and people will go to great lengths to keep their sense of identity coherent. This means integrated motivation cuts sharply both ways.
Integrating destructive personas — being a smoker, for example — may make lighting up another cigarette harder to give up. After all, you think: this is who I am. You may identify with actions so strongly, the alternate seems off-putting. Maybe non-smokers are “boring”; people who don’t do psychedelics just don’t “get it”; anyone who doesn’t vote for your guy is “crazy”.
Nevertheless, integrated motivation is the most autonomous kind of motivation you can achieve — outside of the sheer fun of the thing (up next!). It has myriad benefits: including greater productivity, higher psychological well-being, and enhanced creativity on tasks.
In short: identifying with something makes you very likely to do it, and continue to do it. Being truly, bone-deep comfortable with the path you’re taking is more important than a carrot. This is why organisations place so much energy into “culture fit” and being like a “family”: identification matters.
Finally, a special case. What motivates you to do the things that you can’t help but want to do?
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#6 Intrinsic Motivation
What it is: Intrinsic motivation is most visible in our hobbies. Some people love gardening or painting with acrylics. Others, playing the guitar. Some people truly love their work; some love hiking; partying; curling up with a book.
If you ask someone “why” they participate in a hobby, they may struggle to explain. “Because it’s fun / I enjoy it / it makes me happy / I love doing it / it’s calming / it interests me” are all giveaways: they’re driven by intrinsic motivation!
Intrinsic motivation is a thing done for the joy of itself. It’s inherently enjoyable, soothing, joyful, or satisfying.
Example: Hobbies; arts & crafts; exercise; spending time with loved ones; watching YouTube videos; practising skills towards mastery; work as a calling.
Why it’s good/bad: Intrinsic motivation is the smoothest ride. You rarely have to compel yourself to do something you really, truly enjoy.
On the flipside: staying in bed can be intrinsically enjoyable. As is sex, food, and many kinds of drugs.
Intrinsic motivation is best when experienced through channels that expand, rather than shorten, your life.
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- Motivation, whatever type it is, isn’t inherently good/bad. Amotivation has its uses in preventing you from pursuing silly and gainless tasks. Addictive things, like food or sex, are also intrinsically motivational.
- Motivation exists on a sliding scale from extremely external (reward/punishment) to extremely internal (integrated identification).
- The more internal the motivation, the stronger it is. Identified, integrated, and intrinsic motivation are linked to more positive life outcomes: for productivity, health, and happiness.
- Three conditions help internalise motivation in a task: autonomy, interpersonal relatedness, and competence. You can find out more about these here.
- The same logic applies to life goals. Research has shown that “extrinsic” goals in life, focused on external gains — becoming rich or attractive, for example — make people less happy in the long run. This is in comparison to “intrinsic” life goals, ones that better match base evolutionary needs: such as physical and mental well-being, close relationships with others, and personal growth.
Self-determination theory gives us the most solid and comprehensive understanding of human motivation, to date, backed up by decades of replicated research. I really appreciate how it boils motivation down from an abstract all-encompassing concept — like “willpower” or “personality” — into six discernable types, with proven differences between each.
It has practical applications for designing better study environments, management in the workplace, health interventions, and much more.
The motivational types provide a framework to realise which is driving you, recognise accompanying emotions, and consciously adjust to “healthier” motivational states.
For example. You may realise your favourite part of ballet class being the coffee afterwards = you’re externally motivated to go to ballet. That’s unlikely to be enough to keep you turning up to classes regularly.
But what if you set a goal of being able to go en pointe? You’ve now shifted into identified motivation with a personal goal: and are more likely to keep coming back.
One day with all this practise and immersion, you consciously identify with and see yourself as a dancer — integrated motivation. An even stronger form.
In this way, SDT and the six motivational types support better self-awareness, goal-setting, and conscious steering of your own motivation level. That’s kinda a superpower.
This has been a brief taster on motivation. There’s a rabbit hole with decades of studies out there to back it up. If this article piqued your interest, I recommend Deci & Ryan’s paper accessible for free here to dig into the nuance.
As ever, drop a question below on the topic and I’ll answer as best as I can…if you’re motivated to.