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What Is Intrinsic Motivation? 8 Science-Based Steps To Boost Your Productivity
Intrinsic Motivation
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What Is Intrinsic Motivation? 8 Science-Based Steps To Boost Your Productivity

Are you accomplishing things for the wrong reasons? It's important to recognize the root of your motivation so you can succeed on your own terms.

How would you describe motivation? Would you focus on a feeling? A form of inspiration that has to be present to begin a task? Or would you view motivation as a state of mind, a character trait, something a few possess in abundance, while others appear to lack?

Motivation is largely misunderstood, but doesn’t have to be elusive, unknowable, or mysterious. This article will explore motivational science in-depth, in particular the benefits of intrinsic motivation, a psychological term for a form of motivation that is inspired by innate satisfaction.

Are you looking for more fulfillment in the actions you take? Do you want to understand the best way to become more productive and motivated? By integrating the wisdom from the fields of psychology and self-development, you’ll be supercharged and determined to pursue your goals — whilst enjoying the process. Let’s begin.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Work is that which you dislike doing but perform for the sake of external rewards. At school, this takes the form of grades. In society, it means money, status, privilege.

Abraham Maslow

Early approaches of psychology focused on treating pathology and mental illness, but the humanistic movement of the 60s started to explore the opposite end of the spectrum — what does it mean to flourish? The study of motivation is integral to exploring and finding answers to this question.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a world-renowned motivational theory with a significant cultural influence. The five-tier pyramid of psychological needs, first outlined in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation,” outlined what it takes for an individual to reach their full potential.

Self-development theory (SDT) is one of the major modern frameworks for exploring motivation. In their theory, cofounders Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci first defined intrinsic motivation. They refer to this as the spontaneous tendency “to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn.”

Ryan and Deci suggest “perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation.” Part of human nature is curiosity, self-motivation, and agency. Intrinsic motivation isn’t dependent on external rewards, such as money, validation, or recognition. Instead, the process itself is inherently satisfying. Unfortunately, this type of motivation can reduce as we approach adulthood, and the pressure to “succeed” increases.

When people are motivated by external forces, they typically avoid punishment or seek reward. This is extrinsic motivation. Studies have found that extrinsic motivation encourages short-term results, but can be detrimental over the long run. Think of the difference between studying to pass an exam, in comparison to learning due to genuine interest.

What are the benefits of intrinsic motivation?

Ryan and Deci explain the benefits of intrinsic motivation include greater persistence, improved psychological well-being, and enhanced performance. Furthermore, intrinsic motivation has been linked with increased creativity and is an essential ingredient in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state theory.

Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, or “being in the zone,” is the effortless and enjoyable sense of timelessness and absorption in a task. Think of an experience where you were so engaged in a task, you lost all sense of time — that’s flow. It’s been linked with greater happiness, emotional regulation, fulfillment, and even self-actualization.

The benefits of intrinsic motivation are far-reaching. With a lot of focus in recent years on mindfulness, and being present, the ability to enjoy tasks, or find them fulfilling in their own right, leads to better overall wellbeing. If the rewards come, they will be savored, but they’re not the only thing worth working for.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

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To recap, the basic difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is that the former is based on the enjoyment of the task itself, while the latter is focused on the desired outcome. Early research viewed them as distinct forces, independent of each other. In addition, extrinsic motivation has often been considered as having a detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation, known as the overjustification effect.

However, there’s likely more overlap than once thought. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can positively influence each other, in what is known as a “synergistic combination.” You could see this as the sweet spot — an activity that is inherently satisfying, that also offers a reward. Keep in mind, rewards can be tangible, such as a salary or bonus payment, or intangible, such as praise or recognition.

Viewing intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation as complementary forces, if done skillfully and consciously, could enhance productivity more than focusing only on intrinsic motivation. This is particularly effective in the workplace, for leaders or CEOs looking to inspire their team to reach business goals whilst feeling fulfilled in the process.

Which scenario is intrinsic motivation?

Mindfulness can encourage creativity when the focus is on the process and not the product.

Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

Any activity can be fuelled by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation, for simple enjoyment or reward. For example, you could read a book due to the enjoyment of reading, or read to gain knowledge to pass an exam. You could play sports for fun, or you could compete to win prizes. You could socialize to spend time with those you love, or network to make connections to further your professional career.

As mentioned above, there is an overlap. A good example is the side hustle. Let’s say you love to paint. It’s an activity that gives you joy. The activity is inherently satisfying, but you decide you’d like to earn extra income through your painting skills. Now, if you’re looking to create a million-dollar masterpiece, you might find the extrinsic motivation results in more pressure, and less enjoyment, of the process itself.

But you might find the sweet spot is painting in a certain style that fulfills a gap in the market. Your intrinsic motivation is to paint, but the extrinsic reward of extra income. Or, you might donate paintings to local charities, with the external reward being the knowledge your work is going to a good cause.

Of course, for many people, activities that are internally rewarding remain as hobbies because there’s no need for external rewards.

Intrinsic motivation 3 1024x556

Self-development theory and universal psychological needs

What needs to be in place to access intrinsic motivation? Susan Fowler, the author of Why Motivating People Doesn't Work and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging, is an expert on motivation. In a refined and condensed perspective on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she notes the three universal psychological needs:

  • Autonomy: this is the need for people to perceive they have a choice when making decisions or taking action.
  • Relatedness: this is the need for human connection, and feeling part of something bigger than themselves. When people care, motivation flows more easily.
  • Competence: this is the need to demonstrate capability, use and improve skills, and face challenges and grow over time.

According to Fowler, these three psychological needs are more relevant and documented than Maslow’s pyramid. Theory comparison aside, Fowler identifies how crucial it is to have these needs met in order for intrinsic motivation to flourish, otherwise, people end up becoming disengaged.

Alternative approaches and modern theories of motivation

There’s no definitive word on the “best” motivation theories. This is partly because studies into motivation have fragmented across multiple disciplines, making it difficult to find consistency or widely accepted solutions. However, the emerging field of Motivation Science is exploring an integrative approach to the wealth of insights and research, from the likes of education, psychology, and sociology.

Fowler, the modern guru of motivational theory, explains that intrinsic motivation is one of six types of motivation, some of which she believes are more powerful in certain contexts:

  • Disinterested: this is a lack of motivation.
  • External: this is the same as extrinsic motivation.
  • Imposed (introjected): this motivation comes from an internalized and pressuring voice. This is fuelled by feelings such as guilt and leads to acting out of obligation.
  • Aligned (identified): this is an action that links to a value that is meaningful. It doesn’t require enjoyment, like intrinsic motivation, as the deep sense of purpose is enough of a catalyst to act. 
  • Integrated: this is a self-aware approach to motivation, where any conflicts between internal or external have been resolved, and the action is consciously identified as aligned with goals or values.
  • Inherent: last but not least is intrinsic motivation.

The biggest breakthrough in Fowler’s approach is how she highlights the value of different types of motivation in different circumstances. Although intrinsic motivation is top of the list, she provides an example where aligned motivation is more effective. In an interview with Forbes, she said:

I'm a vegetarian. I started off aligned. I had values around becoming a vegetarian, but now I would be ‘integrated’. I don't even think about it. It's just who I am, but I'll never be intrinsically motivated to be a vegetarian because I loved meat. It was through my values and a sense of purpose that I became a vegetarian 35 years ago and have never wavered in that.”

Fowler also acknowledges that when it comes to intrinsic motivation, “you either love it or you don’t.” Trying to create intrinsic motivation that doesn’t already exist isn’t straightforward. So how do you increase intrinsic motivation, and use this knowledge to boost productivity?

How to increase intrinsic motivation in 8 steps

Considering Fowler’s approach, increasing intrinsic motivation is a two-fold challenge. The first is to become aware of what’s meaningful, to create clarity around what activities you enjoy. After all, you won’t know where intrinsic motivation will appear unless you take the time to explore.

The next is knowing when a different approach might be more effective, or finding other creative solutions. Below are 8 steps to assist you in increasing intrinsic motivation and becoming more motivated, inspired by the research discussed. Not only will these steps help you become more productive in any area of life, they’ll allow you to more effectively lead others too.

1. Explore your “metamotivational beliefs”

As mentioned in the introduction, motivation is misunderstood. Metamotivational is “beliefs and understanding of how motivation works.” Kou Murayama, PhD, is an associate professor at the University of Reading, and the head of the Motivational Science Lab. He explains how their research shows most people’s beliefs are inaccurate when it comes to intrinsic motivation.

“Specifically, when we asked participants to work on a boring task and to make a prediction about how interesting the task would be, their prediction was inaccurate,” he writes. “Their predicted task engagement was less than their actual task engagement, indicating that people tend to underestimate their power to generate intrinsic rewards when faced with boring tasks.”

Keep this in mind when approaching goals. Is it possible, once you get started, you’ll be able to create a greater sense of intrinsic motivation than you believe? The research suggests this is the case. Start by exploring your beliefs around motivation to get a sense of where you’re at. Do you see yourself as an “unmotivated person”? Do you believe you’ll be distracted?

This is a starting point in your motivational itinerary. The following steps will help develop new beliefs and mindsets towards motivation in a skilled way.

2. Reflect on previous experiences

If you’re unsure about how to increase intrinsic motivation, a great starting point is to reflect on moments in your past where you’ve felt rewarded or nourished. What activities gave you a sense of fulfillment or joy, regardless of the outcome? What projects would you happily do again, even if you knew they wouldn’t be a “success” in the conventional sense?

3. Identify your driving forces

When reflecting, explore if there are common themes or patterns. Perhaps you notice that you are most fulfilled when your task is intellectually stimulating and that mental challenges motivate you and cultivate a flow state. Or, perhaps you’re most intrinsically motivated when working with a team to achieve a common goal.

After you’ve explored, make a note of all of your “driving forces,” the common threads that inspire you, regardless of the outcome. These can then become the foundation for future goals and projects.

4. Uncover the meaning of all actions you take

Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search For Meaning, discovered the importance of meaning during his own spell of great suffering, having been sent to concentration camps during the holocaust. Frankl founded logotherapy, a type of depth psychology closely linked with meaning.

Frankl’s philosophy explores the way in which our “why” in life can motivate us to overcome any “how.” His work is all the more profound due to its insight that, no matter how adverse our circumstances, hope, determination, and resilience can lead us to growth and a deeper connection to ourselves.

Using Frankl as inspiration, take time to consider your big “why.” This goes below the obvious. For example, you might be motivated to take on a big work project due to the desire to create a better life for yourself, to provide for your family. Or your “why” might be the desire to support others.

5. Tap into your storytelling ability

Storytelling is fundamental to the human condition. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: “Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings.”

From the hero’s journey to rags to riches, the stories we tell ourselves, and those we tell others, have a significant impact on increasing intrinsic motivation. To use this to your advantage, get creative and find a narrative that inspires you. Do you work best as the underdog? Or do you feel the fire of motivation when having to display courage?

6. Reverse engineer driving forces and meaning

Extra clarity around your driving forces and “why” offer the chance to reverse engineer for ongoing projects or challenges in your life. What does this mean? Rather than only looking at new projects and building them around driving forces, you can add driving forces to increase intrinsic motivation in all areas of life.

Intrinsic motivation isn’t static. An extreme example would be someone who has attempted to eat healthy for years, but struggled, who suddenly has a health scare that prompts them into action. The cause doesn’t have to be so extreme; but if you assess areas of life you’d like more intrinsic motivation, can you take control by injecting meaning into them?

In Self-Development Theory, Ryan and Deci note that internalized extrinsic motivations — for example, the values, goals, and approaches of an organization — lead to greater self-motivation. Internalization is the process of “taking in values, beliefs, or behavioral regulations from external sources and transforming them into one’s own.”

As an action step, think of ways you can internalize extrinsic factors. For example, if you work at a job that doesn’t overly excite you, what if you could look to serve the team you work with? What if you internalized values of togetherness and support, and made that your driving force?

7. Visualise how you’ll feel

Another way of increasing intrinsic motivation is to visualize a scenario in the future where you’ve performed a task — choosing to focus on how you’ll feel, rather than the outcome. For example, rather than visualizing a presentation going extremely well, as you ooze confidence and say everything perfectly, visualize walking off the stage with a sense of pride and fulfillment, regardless of how everything went.

You can apply this for all types of tasks. If you’d like to learn a new language, but don’t find the motivation to set aside time, imagine what life would be like with this added skill. Perhaps you imagine yourself on holiday, having conversations with locals, or see yourself sitting outside on a sunny day, reading your favorite philosopher in their native tongue. How would that feel? That feeling is your fuel!

8. Adopt a growth mindset

Last but not least, the best way of increasing intrinsic motivation is to adopt a growth mindset. In simple terms, this is a shift in perspective, to one of always learning. No matter the journey, no matter the outcome, no matter if you succeed gloriously or face rejection after rejection, the most powerful form of intrinsic motivation is the assurance that you’ll learn more about yourself, and grow through the process.

What would your life look like if this became a priority? How would your motivation change if you placed the desire for growth ahead of the avoidance of suffering? If your “why” gave you the motivation to overcome any “how”?

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.


In conclusion

By increasing intrinsic motivation and letting go of desired outcomes, you’ll develop more resilience and the desire to take on life’s biggest challenges. If you’re ambitious or looking to become more productive, finding balance is the key. Being present doesn’t mean neglecting outcomes.

Instead, the beauty is in letting go. By being more engaged and focused, by feeling more fulfilled and creative, what we do and create naturally becomes richer. By focusing on intrinsic motivation, by creating our success story, aligning with values, and reverse engineering driving forces, you’re able to make more of each moment.

So, build castles in the air for the fun of it, have a plan, have a vision, dig deep to find added purpose in all you do, and know your work is not lost, whether the rewards come or not. The beauty is, in letting go, the results take care of themselves, and the rewards are even sweeter.

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