Why do we do the things we do, or don’t do? What drives our behavior? If you’ve ever wondered about what motivates you to act—whether it’s prying yourself off the couch for a workout, or doing your laundry—well, you’re not the only one. Psychologists and researchers have studied motivation for years, and have proposed several frameworks, one of which is looking at whether our motivation is driven by something outside ourselves (extrinsic) or comes from within (intrinsic).
Extrinsic motivation means our behavior is based on the promise of a reward, or to avoid an unpleasant situation. Rewards can be tangible, like money or a prize, or intangible, like praise and recognition. Eating healthy salads so you can slim down for a friend’s wedding (and get boatloads of compliments) or running a 5K to win a medal are examples of extrinsic motivation. So is doing your laundry so you don’t have to wear stinky clothes.
Intrinsic motivation is the drive to do something because of how it makes you feel — it brings you joy or excitement, makes you feel accomplished and proud, or you simply find pleasure in doing it—versus getting something for doing it. The behavior itself is its own reward.
Finishing a puzzle because you find it fun and challenging, working out because you feel energized … reading this article to better understand the psychology of your own motivation— are all behaviors driven by intrinsic motivation.
What lights your fire
Both types of motivation have their value. And extrinsic motivation isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can be really useful, for instance, if you’re struggling to complete a super tedious work project, and the only thing keeping you going is avoiding the wrath of your boss, or getting fired. Even rewarding yourself with a piece of dark chocolate after nailing a tough workout is a perfectly good motivator… every so often.
But when it comes to maintaining healthy behaviors, research shows that intrinsic motivation is what will motivate you over the long haul. And there are a couple of reasons for that.
Say you’re trying to stick to a workout routine or follow a healthier diet. If the motivation is extrinsic, meaning the drive to perform is based on potential rewards or validation (fitting into your old jeans, getting lots of compliments), that motivation is easily derailed and can fall by the wayside.
Research also shows that when a reward (losing weight, or even something health related like lowering your blood pressure) is future-focused, we tend not to make the behavior (working out, making healthy food choices) a priority in the midst of our busy day.
Why intrinsic motivation rules
On the other hand, if nailing a tough HIIT workout makes you feel self-confident and strong, well, those feelings (intrinsic rewards) will keep you coming back to the bike and the mat. Research shows that when you link a healthy behavior like physical activity to how it will improve your life right now (you’ll feel happier, calmer, have more energy, get deeper sleep), it becomes more meaningful, and way more motivating.
When any activity or experience, whether it’s immersing yourself in a good book, running a 10K, planting a garden, or volunteering at your local animal shelter fills you up in a good way, no external incentives are needed to get you going. When your actions lead to feelings of joy, confidence, and self-esteem, it’s enough to sustain your interest.
When it comes to fitness, intrinsic motivation is what will get you to stick to your routine. And guess what? You’ll probably see positive results along the way.
Get to know your “why”
In order to rev up your engine and get things done, you need to know your why. Think about what’s important to you in terms of how exercise makes you feel. Do you love feeling physically stronger, and more confident? In a happier, more relaxed mood? Does exercise calm you down and help relieve anxiety and stress? Maybe it’s all of the above.
Focusing on your “why”, whatever that is, will provide insight into why you get things done — or you don’t — and do wonders to fire up your willpower. Knowing what pushes your buttons and lights you up can help you make significant, and lasting, lifestyle changes.