Newer Ideas on Motivation (Intrinsic vs Extrinsic)

This post on Study Hacks takes a look at the classic theories of extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic, and updates in the field, and it got me thinking.

If you’re not familiar with this terminology, roughly, intrinsic motivation is doing something for the sake of it, and extrinsic is doing it for what it will give you (a reward or benefit).

The classic theory states that extrinsic motivation can replace intrinsic motivation and destroy it. (Experiment: have someone play a game that they enjoy, then pay them to play it, then stop paying them, and they stop playing the game.)

Apparently newer work in the field has differentiated various types of extrinsic motivation including integrated regulation. This is classic extrinsic but with two other factors – that your reasons (the rewards) are in alignment with your deeper values, and that you get to choose how to approach the task rather than it being determined for you. These two factors bring it closer to intrinsic motivation.


This explains a gap in my ability to explain to people who are not self-employed how I find motivation to do things that are boring, like accounting, while holding to intrinsic motivation as my goal. My motivation feels intrinsic, but it seems unnatural to want to do bookkeeping. I didn’t have words to name why my motivation wasn’t forced. But now I do: I have deeply-held values around honesty and integrity that influence wanting to be responsible with my money and pay my taxes accurately. Plus, I have worked out methods that are simple and work for me. Those aspects seem to meld together to produce something like intrinsic motivation: while I may not describe it as “fun”, exactly, I enjoy getting my ducks in a row and feel gratified to complete the task. I don’t dread it, procrastinate, or force myself to do it.

Internal regulation sounds like a developmental/maturation issue. If you define intrinsic motivation as “do what you want all the time”, it sounds childish. And yet there is a way of being “adult” that is not about following rules and trying to be a “good person”, but about actively choosing a self-aligned response to an external world that is often outside our control. We have to earn a living and pay taxes. But we can choose how we do both.

Two skills are necessary – first, to know yourself deeply and be connected with your values. Second–the wherewithal to determine your own path. When faced with a task, we often automatically start behaving as if we must complete it in the same way others have, or in a way we believe we are expected to. We do not consider what approach would work best for us. One of my missions in teaching about business is to instill in people the idea that they can take whatever path works for them. It’s vital to keep developing strategies until we find the ones that work for us.

This ties in to creativity–all creativity is a series of self-directed choices. In it’s pure form, art is choice for the sake of choice and everything that follows from that. What color will I use? What line will I draw? What story will I tell? These are the same choices you have in business (and life). The ability to be creative and self-directed is a natural part of growing into our potential.

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