Have you ever wondered what motivates you? Have you thought about why some habits stick and others don’t? The secret lies in the source of your motivation and what’s known about human behavior. In short, it’s about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. 

Motivation is what drives you to action. The source of this motivation is either internally or externally driven. 

Intrinsic Motivation

This is driven by the love of the activity itself. The motivation is internal. No reward, recognition, or accomplishment is necessary. You simply love the activity itself. You are driven to do it over and over again because it’s personally satisfying and enjoyable. Examples include reading because you love stories or exercising because it makes you feel good.

Extrinsic Motivation

This, on the other hand, is about incentives. The motivation is external. The desire to earn a reward or avoid punishment drive you. You might enjoy the task, but the results of your behavior rather than the work itself are the incentives. Examples include eating better so that you lose weight or working long hours so that you get a promotion. 

When comparing intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, each is valuable for understanding why you do what you do and knowing more about how to effectively change behavior if desired. 

Intrinsic Motivation at its Best

While there is mixed research on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, experts often cite intrinsic motivation as the more effective way to change behavior or performance. Self-motivation is a strong force. 

Intrinsic motivation is ideal for:

  • Creating or reinforcing good habits. Personal satisfaction and enjoyment will naturally drive you to repeat a desired behavior.
  • Establishing healthy routines. Experiencing the positive vibes of a well-organized life that reduces stress and chaos drives you to stick with the things that make you feel good. 
  • Improving performance. Naturally seeking out what you do best is a byproduct of intrinsic motivation and strong performance follows. 
  • Supporting autonomous work. You need little supervision to complete your work and positive feedback reinforces your natural drive to succeed.

While intrinsic motivation is powerful, studies suggest it can cause de-motivation when you pair it with an extrinsic motivator, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect. Be cautious of tangibly rewarding yourself for something you are already naturally motivated to do or your motivation may decrease instead of increase! For example, if you run because you love to run, don’t start rewarding yourself with a treat or you may be less motivated the next time it’s time to run.

Extrinsic Motivation at its Best

Sometimes you need a little push to change your behavior or performance. A tangible reward incentivizes you to try something new or adopt a more productive behavior.

Extrinsic motivation is ideal for:

  • Starting a new behavior. Dangling a “carrot” at the end of a new activity can encourage you to fight inertia and move toward something you might not otherwise feel like doing.  
  • Raising the bar. People don’t naturally seek out things that are hard, so having something to entice your desire to push your body mentally or physically can encourage harder activities.
  • Avoiding pain. The threat of pain is often enough to prompt you toward action to avoid it and, instead, reap the reward of a more positive outcome. 
  • Prompting intrinsic motivation. While you may initially adopt a new activity because of the reward, you may find the satisfaction or joy of the experience is enough to repeat the behavior without the reward in the future. 

One of the goals of extrinsic motivation is to shift the external reward to an internal drive so that your inclination to repeat an activity is more natural over time. Extrinsic motivation is often a precursor to discover and encourage the development of intrinsic motivation for longer term, sustainable habit change. 

The interplay between Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation will continue to evoke discussion for years to come. Ultimately, experts agree that both play a role in human behavior and development.