How to Build Intrinsic Motivation

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Imagine waking up each morning to the relentless sound of your alarm, your day already mapped out by a strict set of rules. “You should exercise,” “You should finish that report,” “You should respond to all your emails,” – a never-ending list of tasks, obligations, and responsibilities, structured by societal expectations and external standards.

Your motivation is fueled by the ‘shoulds,’ and every moment of your day is dictated by them. The desire to do things because they make you happy or bring you fulfillment is overshadowed by a rigid set of rules that you ‘must’ abide by. It’s as if your life has become a box, and anything that doesn’t fit into that box is deemed inappropriate or wrong.

And what happens when you fail to live up to these standards? That’s when the shame spiral begins. You feel inadequate, guilty, as if you’re constantly falling short. Instead of looking at failure as an opportunity for learning and growth, it becomes a source of self-condemnation, a weight pulling you deeper into a sea of self-doubt and criticism.

Living according to rule-based motivation is exhausting, leaving you feeling like you’re running on a treadmill, constantly moving but getting nowhere. It’s a cycle that can seem impossible to break, but there’s a more fulfilling way to live: through value-based, intrinsic motivation.

Think about the possibility of experiencing a different approach. One where you are driven not by “shoulds,” but by “wants” – not because you are compelled to by societal standards, but because you genuinely desire to. Picture yourself guided by a set of deeply personal values, ones that align with who you truly are, rather than a generic rulebook that seems to have been thrust upon you.

Imagine waking up to a day where tasks and activities are not mere obligations, but meaningful engagements that resonate with your core values and beliefs. Envision a day when failure is not a trigger for a shame spiral, but an opportunity to learn, grow, and align more closely with your authentic self.

This shift from rule-based to value-based motivation is not just a dream, but a tangible reality that you can embrace. It is the essence of intrinsic motivation – a way of living that stems from your own values, leading to a deeper sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.

You might be wondering how you can make this transition. This is where Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) comes in. With its focus on mindfulness, acceptance, and commitment to change, ACT offers practical strategies to help you cultivate intrinsic motivation and live in accordance with your unique set of values. In the next sections, we will delve into these strategies and explore how they can be applied in your daily life to bring about a profound shift in your motivation and overall wellbeing.

Understanding Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior driven by external rewards or outcomes. This can include tangible rewards like money or grades, or intangible ones like praise and recognition. For instance, an individual might study hard to receive high marks, a worker might put in extra hours to get a promotion, or a child might clean their room to receive praise from their parents. These are all examples of extrinsic motivation, where the motivation to act is sourced from something outside of the individual.

In the context of extrinsic motivation, rules serve as the external framework that dictates behavior. They create a clear-cut understanding of what is expected, and often, these expectations are tied to specific rewards or punishments. “If you complete this task, you will receive a reward. If you fail to do so, there will be consequences.” This cause-effect relationship creates a controlled environment in which individuals operate, and their actions are directed towards achieving the desired outcome or avoiding an undesired one.

In the workplace, for instance, rules might determine a reward system based on performance indicators. In education, the grading system forms a set of rules guiding student behavior. These rules can be effective in driving behavior, but it’s important to understand that they fuel extrinsic, not intrinsic, motivation.

While extrinsic motivation can be useful in certain situations, an over-reliance on it can lead to several problems.

  1. The Overjustification Effect

The overjustification effect is a phenomenon in which an individual’s intrinsic motivation to perform an activity diminishes when extrinsic rewards are introduced. For example, a child might enjoy drawing pictures. If they start getting rewards for their drawings, they might begin to draw only for the reward rather than for the joy of drawing itself. Once the reward is removed, the child might stop drawing altogether, even though they initially enjoyed the activity. This effect shows how extrinsic rewards can sap the joy out of activities and decrease intrinsic motivation.

  1. Dependency on External Factors

An over-reliance on extrinsic motivation creates a dependence on external factors. This can lead to a lack of self-direction and self-determination. In the absence of external rewards or punishments, individuals may feel unmotivated and directionless. It also means that motivation can be highly variable, waxing and waning based on the presence or absence of external stimuli.

  1. Short-term Compliance vs Long-term Behavioral Change

Extrinsic motivation is often effective in securing short-term compliance but less effective in promoting long-term behavioral change. Once the reward is removed or becomes less appealing, the motivated behavior is likely to cease. For example, a student might study hard for a test to achieve a good grade, but if the grade is no longer a motivating factor, the student might stop studying.

  1. Lack of Personal Satisfaction

Since extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors, it often lacks personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Achieving a reward can bring temporary pleasure, but it does not equate to the deep sense of fulfillment that comes from doing something out of intrinsic interest or personal value. This lack of personal satisfaction can make tasks feel draining and unfulfilling, and it may contribute to burnout in the long run.

While extrinsic motivation has its place, an over-reliance on it can have detrimental effects. It is essential to understand its limitations and to consider how a transition towards more intrinsic motivation might lead to greater satisfaction, resilience, and overall wellbeing.

Embracing Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is the internal drive to engage in an activity for its own sake, rather than as a means to an end. It comes from within an individual and is driven by personal interest, curiosity, or satisfaction derived from the activity itself. When you engage in a task because it fulfills a passion, sparks your curiosity, or aligns with your core values, you are acting out of intrinsic motivation.

Consider an artist who paints late into the night, driven by their passion and creativity, or a volunteer who supports a local charity out of genuine concern for their community, or even someone who learns a new language purely out of interest in the culture and language itself. These are all instances of intrinsic motivation, where the activity itself provides its own reward.

Values play a pivotal role in intrinsic motivation. They are the deeply held principles that guide our behavior, reflect what we find meaningful and important, and give us a sense of purpose. When our actions align with our values, we are intrinsically motivated.

The importance of values in intrinsic motivation can be explained through the lens of Self-Determination Theory, a well-established theory of human motivation. According to this theory, three basic psychological needs drive human behavior: autonomy (the need to feel in control of one’s actions), competence (the need to feel effective in one’s actions), and relatedness (the need to feel connected to others). When our actions align with our personal values, these needs are fulfilled, fueling intrinsic motivation.

  1. Greater Satisfaction and Fulfillment

Intrinsic motivation leads to greater satisfaction and fulfillment. Because your actions are driven by what truly matters to you, you derive a sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and fulfillment from the task itself. Unlike extrinsic motivation, where satisfaction is tied to achieving an external reward, the joy derived from intrinsically motivated activities is inherent in the process of the activity itself.

  1. Increased Persistence and Resilience

Research has shown that intrinsic motivation leads to increased persistence and resilience. When you are intrinsically motivated, you are more likely to persevere in the face of difficulties and less likely to give up when you encounter obstacles. This is because you are driven by a deep-seated interest or value that makes the challenge worthwhile, rather than being solely focused on achieving an external reward.

  1. Promotes Self-Determination and Independence

Intrinsic motivation fosters a strong sense of self-determination and independence. Because you are driven by your own interests, passions, and values, you rely less on external validation or rewards. You are more in control of your actions and less influenced by external factors. This autonomy can lead to increased self-confidence and self-esteem.

  1. Positive Impact on Mental Health

Intrinsic motivation has a positive impact on mental health. Studies have found that individuals who are more intrinsically motivated report higher levels of well-being and lower levels of stress and anxiety. This is likely because intrinsically motivated activities fulfill basic psychological needs, provide a sense of purpose, and contribute to a sense of competence and self-efficacy.

In sum, embracing intrinsic motivation can lead to a multitude of benefits, ranging from increased satisfaction and resilience to improved mental health. The next section will delve into how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy can be used to cultivate intrinsic motivation, allowing you to live a more fulfilling and value-driven life.

Applying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to Cultivate Intrinsic Motivation

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that aims to increase psychological flexibility. ACT is underpinned by six core principles: acceptance, cognitive defusion, being present, self as context, values, and committed action. The principles that are particularly relevant to cultivating intrinsic motivation include being present, values, and committed action.

Being present, also known as mindfulness, involves bringing full, open, and receptive attention to the present moment. This allows you to disengage from automatic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and instead respond based on what the present moment requires.

The principle of values involves identifying what is most important to you—what kind of person you want to be, what is meaningful and significant to you. This forms the internal compass that guides your actions.

Committed action involves making committed efforts to act in ways that align with your identified values. It’s about living in a way that reflects what matters most to you, even when faced with obstacles or challenges.

  1. Clarifying Values

The first step in cultivating intrinsic motivation using ACT is to clarify your values. You can do this by asking yourself what truly matters to you, what kind of person you want to be, and what qualities you want to bring into your actions. Reflecting on these questions can help you identify your core values.

Here are a few actionable strategies to help you clarify your values:

Reflection Exercise: Set aside some quiet time to reflect on what truly matters to you. Consider various areas of your life such as relationships, career, health, personal growth, and recreation. What does a fulfilled life look like in each of these areas? Write down your thoughts.

Values Journaling: Start a values journal. Each day, write about situations where you felt most aligned with your authentic self. What were you doing? How did it make you feel? Over time, you will see patterns that reveal your underlying values.

Visualize Your Eulogy: This may sound a bit morbid, but it’s a powerful tool. Visualize what you would like people to say about you at your eulogy. It helps identify the qualities you want to embody and the impact you wish to have on others, which are tied to your values.

Values Clarification Worksheet: There are many such worksheets available online. These usually provide a list of common values (e.g., honesty, creativity, generosity). Go through the list, highlighting those that resonate with you. Then, narrow down the list to your top 5-10 core values.

Exploring Discrepancies: ACT also involves exploring discrepancies between your behaviors and your values. Recognizing areas where you’re not living in line with your values can provide valuable insights into what those values are and how you might start to align your actions with them.

Regular Check-ins: ACT emphasizes regularly revisiting and reflecting on your values to ensure they still resonate with you and align with your actions. This can be achieved through journaling, mindfulness exercises, or discussions in therapy sessions.

Remember, identifying your values is a personal and ongoing journey. Your values may evolve over time, and that’s perfectly okay. The goal is to keep exploring and aligning your life with your values, creating a source of intrinsic motivation that feels authentic and fulfilling.

  1. Mindfulness and Acceptance

Mindfulness involves bringing awareness to your present-moment experience, including your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It allows you to notice when you are acting out of habit or external pressure, rather than in alignment with your values.

Acceptance, on the other hand, involves making space for unpleasant thoughts, feelings, or sensations, instead of trying to avoid or suppress them. By practicing acceptance, you can prevent these experiences from controlling your behavior and instead act in ways that align with your values.

  1. Commitment and Behavior Change

The final step involves making a committed effort to act in ways that align with your values. This is not always easy, especially when faced with obstacles or challenges. However, by maintaining a strong connection to your values and making use of mindfulness and acceptance skills, you can navigate these challenges and remain committed to your values-based path.

Transition from Extrinsic to Intrinsic Motivation: A Balanced Approach

While the benefits of intrinsic motivation have been emphasized, it’s important to acknowledge the role of extrinsic motivation, especially at the beginning of the change process. Often, extrinsic rewards or pressures can serve as an initial spark to jump-start behavior change. For instance, a doctor’s advice to lose weight for health reasons or the desire to earn a bonus at work can kickstart a journey towards healthier living or improved performance.

Extrinsic motivation can thus be a useful tool to initiate change, especially when intrinsic motivation is low or yet to be developed. The key, however, is to not let extrinsic motivation be the sole driving force but to use it as a stepping stone towards cultivating intrinsic motivation.

As you begin to engage in the new behavior, intrinsic factors can start to play a more prominent role. For instance, after initially starting to exercise due to a doctor’s advice, you might begin to enjoy the activity itself or the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. You might also start to value the health benefits and the increased energy levels.

The process of shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation involves recognizing and reinforcing these intrinsic factors. This could be through mindful attention to the positive feelings associated with the activity or through deliberate reflection on how the activity aligns with your values.

This gradual shift towards intrinsic motivation is further facilitated by developing competence in the activity. According to Self-Determination Theory, feelings of competence and autonomy are key drivers of intrinsic motivation. As you become more skilled in the activity and gain more control over it, your intrinsic motivation to engage in the activity is likely to increase.

While the benefits of intrinsic motivation are clear, it’s important to note that extrinsic motivation isn’t inherently bad or unhelpful. Indeed, in many areas of life, a balance of both types of motivation is necessary and beneficial.

In certain situations, extrinsic motivation can be more effective, such as when tasks are mundane or uninteresting, but still need to be done. It can also be helpful in providing a sense of direction and structure, especially in the initial stages of a new task or project.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, can sustain long-term engagement, fuel passion and creativity, and lead to greater satisfaction and wellbeing. Therefore, it’s about striking the right balance and using both types of motivation in a complementary manner, depending on the situation and the task at hand.

By understanding the strengths and limitations of both types of motivation and being able to shift flexibly between them, you can enhance your ability to motivate yourself effectively in different situations. This balanced approach can lead to improved performance, greater satisfaction, and overall wellbeing.

In sum, transitioning from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation is not about completely discarding one for the other, but about learning to use both effectively, starting with extrinsic motivators to initiate change, gradually cultivating intrinsic motivators, and balancing the two for sustained motivation and growth.

Case Study: Emily’s Path to Authenticity

*This is a fictional name and scenario for educational purposes.

Let’s consider the example of Emily, a woman deeply affected by the judgments and opinions of others. As a public relations officer, Emily is well-liked and highly regarded in her professional circle. She’s consistently praised for her ability to cater to the needs and expectations of others. However, Emily finds herself continually anxious and stressed, as her happiness is tied to others’ perceptions.

With the help of ACT, Emily embarks on a journey of self-discovery. She begins by exploring her personal values. Through this exploration, Emily realizes that she highly values authenticity, personal growth, and independence. These values contrast sharply with her current lifestyle, which is dominated by the need to appease others.

In response, Emily sets several goals to align her actions with her newfound values. She starts by seeking ways to express her authentic self. One goal involves setting boundaries at work, expressing her own needs, and learning to say ‘no’ when necessary. Though this creates discomfort initially, Emily feels a deep sense of relief and satisfaction as she begins to live in accordance with her value of authenticity.

Emily also enrolls in personal development courses to nurture her value of personal growth. Lastly, she makes strides towards independence, striving to separate her self-worth from others’ opinions. She begins meditating and journaling to develop self-acceptance and strengthen her internal locus of validation.

Emily’s journey is not without its challenges. She faces criticism, experiences self-doubt, and grapples with the discomfort of breaking away from her people-pleasing patterns. Yet, through ACT, Emily learns to accept these uncomfortable feelings and thoughts without letting them dictate her actions. As she continues to act in line with her values, she experiences a profound shift. Emily’s motivation to please others gradually recedes, replaced by the intrinsic motivation to live authentically and grow personally.

Emily’s story showcases how, through ACT, individuals can break free from the constraints of extrinsic motivation, such as the need for social approval, and cultivate intrinsic motivation aligned with their personal values. It’s a process that may require significant courage and perseverance, but the rewards are a life of genuine fulfillment and inner peace.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the journey from rules-based extrinsic motivation to values-based intrinsic motivation can be transformative. Though extrinsic motivators such as societal norms, expectations, and rewards often guide our actions, they can also limit our potential and hinder our overall satisfaction. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation, which is closely tied to our personal values, can offer a more authentic and fulfilling way of living.

The journey of discovering and living according to our values is ongoing and unique to each individual. There is no destination or end point. Instead, it’s about continuously striving to align our actions with our values, finding satisfaction in the process itself, and evolving with every step we take. So, embark on this journey with courage, curiosity, and openness, and you will discover a new depth of motivation and satisfaction in your life.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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1 Comment

  1. Richard

    Great article and case study. I believe ACT is more difficult to achieve presently due to a culture of instant gratification, narcissism and rampant distraction especially social media. I suspect a support group would also facilitate true integration of these ideas providing the practitioner was skilled in human motivation. Behavior modification comes to mind in regards to purpose, reason and reward. Thanks Dr. Rose, for a thoughtful and applicable article revealing a path to a more satisfying and rewarding life intrinsically.

    Reply

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