Building intrinsic motivation

Earlier today, I received a very touching message from a dad.

“Thank you for everything you do. You’re an inspiration and I’ve started to introduce my daughter to your work. I want her to grow up knowing strong women are doing amazing things.”

An awesome dad on the Internet.

Reading this made me feel incredibly happy. Lots of the work I do is not the kind of quick win that gives you that instant dopamine rush. It usually involves some of the slower, longer-term kind of grind, such as writing content and building communities. So today, after reading this, I’m feeling extra motivated.

But that’s not always the case. Some days, I wake up feeling trapped in a prison of procrastination. It feels almost impossible to get anything done.

How do you get back on track when it seems like your motivation is gone? How do you motivate yourself? Beyond the usual pep talk, I want to give you a quick overview of the current research so you can apply science-based strategies that put you back in control.

The science of motivation

I have already written about the neuroscience of procrastination, but the neuroscience of motivation is slightly different. Research suggests that motivation finds its roots in the dopamine pathways in our brain.

When we do something that feels good, that’s dopamine kicking in. And, in the case of motivation, imagining the reward we’d get by acting gives us a little shot of dopamine, just as if we actually acted already.

According to psychologists, there are two main types of motivation.

Extrinsic motivation: the most common sources of extrinsic motivation are external rewards, such as earning money, winning a prize, or getting good grades. Extrinsic motivation can also be negative, for example being scared of getting fired or of having a fight with your partner. While extrinsic motivation works great in the short term, it will only last as long as you consider the external rewards to be satisfying. Not interested in money anymore? There goes your motivation.

Intrinsic motivation: according to science, intrinsic motivation is the desire to seek out new things and new challenges, to test and analyse your abilities, and to achieve your goals in and for themselves—for example, learning something new. It was first discovered in animals engaging in playful and curiosity-driven behaviours, even without a given reward. With intrinsic motivation, the reason why you act is internal. While intrinsic motivation takes longer to build, it also has longer-lasting positive effects on performance.

Building intrinsic motivation

How do you build more intrinsic motivation into your life?

According to research, you need two main ingredients to build intrinsic motivation: the first is self-determination (believing that you have the choice and the freedom to act however you want to), and the second is a feeling of increased competence (believing that the task will teach you something new and make you a better, more performant person overall).

The first is obviously very hard to teach. But what’s great about the second—this feeling of increased competence—is that it can also help you pick the right goals to pursue. In the long run, the tasks that will make you grow are also going to be the easiest ones to motivate yourself to act on.

Proactive motivation

Instead of waiting for intrinsic motivation to just miraculously appear, there are a few steps you can take to motivate yourself through internal motivation factors. I call them the 3 Ms of Motivation.

  1. Manage your mood: there is absolutely no way to feel intrinsic motivation if you are in a bad mood. Before trying to find ways to motivate yourself to complete a task, take a bit of time to practice self-care and deal with your negative emotions. This could be through meditation, treating yourself to a nice, healthy meal, or having an interesting conversation with a peer.
  2. Measure your progress: if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Measuring your progress can be as simple as maintaining a spreadsheet where you count the number of words you have written, the number of days you have coded, or the number of times you went to the gym. Creating a streak can be extremely motivating—you won’t want to break it. Generating graphs can also make your progress easier to visualise.
  3. Make it public: this is one of the most efficient ways to be motivated. Working on a goal with intrinsic motivation *and* adding the extrinsic motivation of a public commitment is a powerful combo. This could be as simple as telling a friend about your goals or tweeting your intent.

Manage your mood, measure your progress, make it public. Three simple steps that can greatly help you get motivated, and more importantly, stay motivated so you can achieve your goals.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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