Your Intrinsic Motivation Is Gold—Here’s How to Unlock It
Remember all the "awards" that existed when we were kids?
There were awards for playing soccer.
Awards for finishing a summer reading list.
Awards for putting your stuff neatly in your cubby.
I know as a kid, I felt cheered on from every angle, applauded for all my classmates and I did. And while it certainly provided one form of motivation, all that noise tended to drown out another form: intrinsic motivation.
Unlike external motivation—which is when the approval of others or the accrual of certain signifiers (such as trophies) is the main driver for action—intrinsic motivation comes from within.
It’s that voice in your head that says, "I like this, I’m good at this, and I want to pursue it." And, unlike external motivation, intrinsic motivation needs nurturing. It can be crowded out by outside praise, overlooked, or simply forgotten.
How many times have you sought a particular goal because it was the right thing to do, or what was expected of you—while tamping down the drive to go after something else?
Here’s the thing: Intrinsic motivation isn’t just more authentic, or a nice way to get in touch with what fuels you. Turns out, tapping into your intrinsic motivation actually has real, lasting benefits that go far beyond those of external motivation.
Internal motivation is longer-lasting than external, and can make goals more achievable. In one study, a Yale professor tracked the progress of thousands of West Point students and found that those who chose to go to the prestigious military school for their own, internal reasons, rather than external factors (such as earning potential or name recognition), were more likely to graduate, stay in the military, and excel in their careers.
While all those awards and cheers and outside nudges can power you in the moment, it’s that internal drive that leads to long-term success.
So how, then, do you harness it? Start by tuning into what it is you really want, and why. Here’s where to begin.
Remind Yourself of What You’re Working For
It can be hard to put words to our intrinsic motivators, and even harder to keep sight of them—especially when whatever we’ve taken on starts to get a little hairy.
Remind yourself of the “why” by keeping physical reminders of those emotional drivers.
Author Tom Rath keeps photos of his kids on his iPhone lock screen, to remind him of the relationships that matter in life. I tape photos and quotes that reflect my feelings into a notebook, and if I’m excited about a project, I journal about why that is: What do I hope to get out of it, and why is this particular goal so exciting?
When the going gets tough, I’ll reread what first drove me. Chances are, it still resonates.
It’s no secret that learning new, exciting information as you work is key to staying motivated—one study found that kids who learned fascinating facts about animals were more motivated than children who learned boring facts, even those who were bribed with stickers.
But how often do you make a point to feed your curiosity? Let’s face it: After a while, even the most exciting of projects start to feel a little dull. Maybe you set out to build a new website out of pure enjoyment in the process, but start to lag after weeks of after-hours coding.
Stoke your natural motivation by clicking through websites you admire, or teaching yourself a new trick. You could even study up on the history of coding (like all the badass women responsible for the start of modern coding).
Learning makes things fun again, which can be a great motivator in and of itself.
Talk About Your Process
It can be easy to eschew outside input when you’re focusing on intrinsic motivation. After all, isn’t the approval of others a form of external motivation?
Well, it depends on how you approach it.
If you’re bragging about your latest accomplishments and fishing for compliments, then no, that doesn’t count as intrinsic motivation and probably won’t get you very far. But if you chat through your new project with a friend or colleague, you might start to see it in a new light.
The way you describe your actions, for example, might help you realize how cool they are. Your pal might offer suggestions that make the process easier. And, sometimes, talking about what you’ve done so far can help you appreciate how hard you’ve worked—and how good it feels.
The next time you start to feel that sweet IM waning, try texting a friend and sharing your process or roadblock. You'll get outside support—but that motivation will still come from within.
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