Why Internal Beats External Motivation Every Time

Read how to use intrinsic motivation and why it works better than if-then rewards.
“If you do a good job, you get a [fill in reward here].” Sound familiar?

We’ve been led by carrots and sticks our whole lives — or at least I have.

If you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert. If you turnover the ball less than 5 times, you don’t have to run sprints. If you meet your sales quota, you get a bonus.

You get it.

But we’ve been fed lies.

Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us details the research that shows that those kinds of extrinsic rewards just don’t work — in fact, they can be lethal to motivation.

Why extrinsic motivation doesn’t work

Self-determination theory, a psychological theory of motivation “concerned with supporting our natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in effective and healthy ways,” holds that humans have three innate psychological needs:

  1. Competence
  2. Autonomy
  3. Relatedness

That’s why the goals people set for themselves are generally healthy, Pink’s research concludes. These goals are usually in line with their values and help them work toward mastery.

Therefore, “[r]ewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus,” explains Pink. “That’s helpful when there’s a clear path to a solution. They help us stare ahead and race faster.”

But when we’re specifically talking about right-brain creative goals and we try to lead others to a determined end-destination by way of carrot and stick, the external motivator usually squashes any intrinsic motivation.

When the concentration shifts from enhancing one’s skills to getting that carrot, a bunch of other problems can come up:

  • Diminished performance
  • Crushed creativity
  • Cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
  • Short-term thinking

If we’re just trying to get the carrot, it’s likely we’re not seeing how this challenge plays into the bigger picture, thus we’re not likely growing from it.

How to intrinsically motivate others (and yourself)

“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another,” writes Pink. “And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

Friends, siblings, children, employees, significant others — all identifiers long to be connected to one another but in control of their own lives.

So let go of the reigns a little bit. Don’t micromanage. Try not to nag. Live and let live — meet those humans where they are, instead of demanding that they end up at your same destination.

We can hope and dream for others, but we cannot ‘do’ for them without crippling their autonomy. Recognize them as a fellow human and respect their humanity by giving them the room for their decisions to breathe and their lessons to be learned.

You can model thorough discernment practices and a growth mindset, and you can even pray for them. But trying to lead them by carrot and stick might actually have negative effects.

As far as motivating yourself, if-then rewards are less likely to get you to your end destination than if you make it an effort to achieve mastery and integrate it into your daily habits.

Get creative and enjoy the journey — don’t focus so much on the destination, because when you get there, your more meaningful success will be the person you’ve become on the way to meeting your goal, not just what the carrot might have been.

So next time you’re setting a goal for a creative task (or asking someone else to accomplish something), focus on three essential elements:

  1. Autonomy — allow room (for yourself and others) to direct the way in which you/they achieve the goal
  2. Mastery — capitalize on the urge to get and be better at something that matters
  3. Purpose — acknowledge the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

If your motivational efforts are allowing you (1) to direct your own life (and allowing others to direct theirs) while (2) trying to expand your abilities (3) within the context of living a life of purpose, you’re well on your way to retaining your intrinsic motivation and to accomplishing your goals.

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