Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It)

A long time ago, the Chinese philosopher Confucius famously proclaimed,

“Do what you love and you never have to work a day in your life.”

Sounds like a beautiful and oh-so-simple idea.

Of course, we all know that reality is a tad different — that not everyone can find their passion or true vocation, can follow it and live happily ever after. Sometimes, life gets in the way.

But still—is it possible to find your drive? And if so, how?

Before we look for the answers, let’s take a step back and “begin at the beginning,” as the King from Alice in Wonderland famously proclaimed.

Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things—take an action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, exercise our willpower. There are two main universally-agreed upon types of motivation –internal (intrinsic) and external (extrinsic).

The intrinsic kind is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting or enjoyable—without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others. Extrinsic motivation is driven by exactly the opposite—externalities, such as the promise of more money, a promotion, or any other material advantage.

And of course, we all know about the big debate about money. It’s surely an external driver, but is it possible that it can sometimes make us enjoy what we do more? A meta-analysis that reviewed 120 years of research found a weak link between job satisfaction and money.[1] And what’s more—there is some evidence to suggest that more money can actually have an adverse effect on your intrinsic motivation.

Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, to improve, excel, and put that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.

So, let’s see what some of the best ways are to make yourself tick and how you can help yourself to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather just indulge in some dolce far niente, or in pleasant idleness, and wished you didn’t have to do anything at all.

Why Internal Motivation Tops External Motivation

“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”

Generally speaking, we all need motivation.

An avalanche of research, though, shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful that external.

Why? It’s simple.

There is a great difference when you engage in something because “I want to”, as opposed to “I must.” Just think about the most obvious example there is—work.

If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead of you, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?

Yep, that’s right—you definitely won’t topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon.

The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last. It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation.[3] It’s a fancy way of saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.

When you put in 100-hour weeks in order to get promoted and you finally are, how long does your “high” last? The walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, research tell us, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill” – i.e. you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shiner things, just to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for, when you finally get them.

Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it:[4]

“Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.

Benefits of Internal Motivation

If you are still unconvinced that doing things solely for kudos and brownie points is not going to keep you going forever, nor make you like what you do, here is some additional proof:

Studies tell us that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.[5] One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we also enjoy it and we want to do it. So, we keep going, day in and out, because we feel inspired, driven, happy and satisfied with ourselves.

Another reason has to do with the fact that intrinsic motivation is intertwined with things as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our own benefit. A famous study done by the organizational psychologist Adam Grant is case in point.[6]

By showing university fundraisers how the money donated by alumni can help financially struggling students to graduate from college, their productivity increased by 400% (!) a week. The callers also showed an average increase of 142% in time spent on the phone and 171% increase in money raised.

Internal motivation has been found to be very helpful when it comes to academia too. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermine students’ internal motivation and in the long-run, it results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”[7] In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges.

Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: Intrinsic motivation is a must-have, if you want to save yourself the drudgery we all sometimes feel when contemplating the things we should-do or must-do.

Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation

So, how does one get more of the good stuff—that is, how do you become internally motivated?

There are many things (luckily!) you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top my list.

1. Self-Efficacy

The theory of self-efficacy was developed by the American-Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura in 1982.[8] Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves. In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do.

It’s not hard to further see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and of course— enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort in what they do, to self-set more challenging goals, and more driven to improve their skills.[9]

Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy—it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it. And actually accomplish it.

2. Link Your Actions to a Greater Purpose

In one of my previous posts – How to Get Unstuck in Life and Live a More Fulfilling Life – I wrote about the importance of finding your WHY in life—that is, to be clear with yourself on why do you do what you do and what drives you.

And no matter how mundane a task may be, it can always be linked to something bigger and better. Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”

Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was:

“I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”

Inspirational, isn’t it?

Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator .

3. Volunteer

Volunteering—that is, helping others or doing things not for personal gain or profit—is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, by learning new skills, by feeling good about yourself, or by linking to some of your inner values, as kindness and humanitarianism.[10]

When you remove any external reward expectations and do something for the pure joy and fulfilment of improving others’ lives, then you are truly intrinsically motivated.

And who knows—perhaps the good feelings and the inner drive will spill-over the other areas of your life and will help you see the value of giving your best without anticipating fame and glory.

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