Motivation is a powerful force. Without it, there would be no change in the world, no drive to better oneself. I wouldn’t be in the shape I’m in now. I’d be eating fast food three times a day and working a menial hourly job. This website certainly wouldn’t exist. When used properly, there is almost nothing more psychologically powerful than motivation. But where does it come from? What does it mean, and how does it work? Let’s try and dig in to the psychology of motivation.
Motivation is generally separated into two categories, the first being extrinsic motivation. Broadly speaking, this is motivation from an outside source. This type of motivation is commonly seen as an external force rewarding or enticing some action: If you finish the paper, you’ll pass the class. If you make this sale, you’ll earn a bonus. If you score a goal, your team will cheer for you. These are examples of positive motivation (i.e., for a reward), but there is negative motivation as well: Clean your room so your parents won’t yell at you. Show up on time so you won’t get fired. Extrinsic motivation is a good way to start a task, or to get a little push, but ultimately it is not sustainable. A task can start to feel like work when it’s supposed to be fun, or you can learn how to get the reward for the bare minimum of effort (like I did in high school). If you try to live your life by how you will be externally rewarded or punished, you won’t get very far.
That’s where intrinsic motivation comes in. As the second category of motivation, this is where the motivator is internal: I will do this task because I enjoy it. This task makes me happy. This type of motivation, while harder to achieve at the outset, is much more effective and sustainable because it plays to the human need for self-determination. A person needs to feel autonomous and in control of their own life. Intrinsic motivation can also increase feelings of competence and relatedness with other human beings. In a situation where a person is relying on their own feelings of competence and independence to define success, there can be huge boosts to performance and self-esteem.
This motivational dichotomy plays out in almost every aspect of life. I can specifically recall the difference in motivation in college or high school between a class I enjoyed and a class I didn’t. I had the same experience playing sports as a kid — I didn’t really choose it myself, so, to my regret, I put in the bare minimum of effort. I scored one goal in a soccer game and then quit at the end of the season. I can say the same about my performances in various jobs. No one puts effort into working retail, so I worked just hard enough to not get fired. That meant a lot of three hour lunches at the bar. Now, though, I have a career in a field that I enjoy and is always changing, and I find myself driven to learning new tasks almost every day. Any day I can write a new piece of code or learn a new client-side injection is a good day, and those are tasks well outside my normal work. I am always much more successful when I am working towards a goal that I choose for myself than a goal that is given to me.
For me, this is also absolutely true with my fitness. I can look at “fitspiration” memes online all day and not feel the desire to work out. I could be nagged or cajoled, and I would only get more stubborn. I’d dig my heels in and refuse to give in to what someone else wanted me to do. I always had a problem jumping through hoops, and to me, working out was just another hoop and I was too out of shape to jump it. But then, I got my intrinsic motivation: I became a father. And just like flipping a switch, the question formed in my mind and hasn’t left since: What kind of a man do I want to be for my son? The answer to that is enormous and complex and constantly changing, but the part that hasn’t changed is that I want to be healthy for him. I want to feel like an active role model, to take him hiking and camping, and have him play soccer and (hopefully) genuinely enjoy it and not give up like I did. That motivation has been driving me for over two years now, and hopefully won’t stop.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you should go out and have a kid just to be motivated to do something. What works for me will not work for everyone, nor should it. Some people will get the best results with an external reward. Ironically enough, now that I have a baseline, I’m much more open to extrinsic motivation. Sure, I’ll go run that race with you. Why wouldn’t I? I get a t-shirt at the end.
So what I’m saying is this: recognize the different types of motivation, especially when it comes to fitness. Extrinsic motivation might be good at getting you started, but if you want to be in it for the long haul, you’re going to need to find a reason to love it. Find a goal for yourself. Find what makes you happy and what drives you, and don’t let anyone stand in your way.
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