Understanding motivation

I have been listening to ‘The Gentle Discipline Book’ by Sarah Ockwell-Smith as I try and understand my children better. I got to the chapter on understanding motivation. In the book, Sarah talks about how when we reward children we are assuming they have no intrinsic motivation to do things and they can only be motivated extrinsically.

So many of us are brought up with rewards and punishments e.g. if we do a good job then we get a reward and if we don’t, we’re punished in some way. The science shows that if we use these methods on kids it can backfire, making them only want to work for the reward…but this isn’t just true for kids, right? How many of us say ‘well if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t’ or I only run for the bling! Honestly, this is how I think we fall into ‘should’ goals or toxic ‘I-will-be-happy-when’ goals

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic motivation

When it comes to understanding motivation there are two types – intrinsic and extrinsic. We all experience both and are motivated by both, but to differing degrees. Intrinsic motivation comes from within us; we are motivated by our own thoughts, beliefs and feelings. We do it because it’s personally rewarding. Important forms of intrinsic motivation include: 

You might enjoy an activity or you might have a desire to learn and so you practice a new skill (both of these things children do). We might clean our homes to help us feel more organised, exercise to relieve stress or read a book because we enjoy the story. 

It is also worth noting that researchers found that when we are intrinsically motivated, the quality of our actions is better which leads to better performance, particularly in the long term. You may be more committed to the task/goal and have greater resilience. 

Extrinsic Motivation

When you’re extrinsically motivated, your behaviour is motivated by an external factor pushing you to do something in hopes of earning a reward — or avoiding a less-than-positive outcome. You might do an activity because you feel you have to – we might clean our house because someone is coming, we might exercise because we feel we should, or we might read a book to prepare for an exam. 

Because extrinsic motivation is governed by external factors, you will find that they are all out of your control. No matter how hard you work to please your boss, they still might not recognise your efforts or pay you what you deserve, someone might still think your house is a mess or your weight may remain the same despite exercise.  

Which is better intrinsic or extrinsic motivation? 

So am I saying that intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic? That we should only be motivated by our own values and thoughts? Well, that would be amazing wouldn’t it? The human brain isn’t wired that way though – sometimes we need some extrinsic motivation for when we have to complete those tasks that *have* to get done

For many of our goals and projects we are motivated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors e.g. we love our job but if we work hard and our boss recognises this then that is even better! There are times when extrinsic motivation acts as an intrinsic equivalent. This happens when a person can internalise the reason for doing something because the reason aligns with their own values.

Both forms of motivation are good, all you need to do is understand what drives your motivation when it comes to each of your goals. If I look at my to-do list this week, there’s a mixture of motivation: 

  • Clean the house (intrinsic – because I like a tidy house)
  • Prepare for a long car trip with the kids (extrinsic – to hopefully have a calm journey and get some recognition that the kids enjoyed it)
  • Write and record blogs, videos and podcasts in advance and schedule (intrinsic – purpose)
  • Get outside with the kids (intrinsic – values)
  • Catch up with coaching clients (extrinsic – because I am on holiday next week)

All of the tasks will get done one way or another, but for different reasons. I am motivated to do them all, even though I can’t control the outcome in each case. 

Increasing your motivation

Remember that both types of motivation are good and useful for different tasks. However, it is important that you don’t depend on external factors all of the time. Instead, when aiming to complete a goal, focus on your intrinsic motivation (your why) and do your best so that you influence those external factors as much as you can. If you want to increase your intrinsic motivation there are an additional three factors: 

  1. Autonomy. You can only be intrinsically motivated when you have the autonomy to choose. There has to be a free choice with no conditions attached. 
  2. How connected and respected we feel – known as relatedness. 
  3. A sense of achievement or competence. When we complete a difficult task or master a new skill we feel accomplished and more confident, this makes us more likely to do it again. 


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