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Extrinsic And Intrinsic Motivation: Which Is Best For You To Follow?

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation: Which is better?

May 21, 2020


Building a better you is an exciting process and often people will look for extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in order to move forward.

You have specific goals to achieve. You have a timeline for these goals; a plan.

On paper, that plan looks pretty manageable. Great! You have written and created a morning routine. All it requires is taking a little action each day, maybe a short session at the gym each morning, or simply remembering to study flashcards each day.

Should be easy, right?

Unfortunately—and this will likely sound all too familiar—it’s not easy to motivate ourselves to take small, daily action. Especially as the weeks go by and our initial burst of motivation evaporates.

Often, no matter how hard you try, it can be difficult to think of new, effective ways to keep yourself fired up over the long haul. However, no matter how you do decide to push yourself, it’s important to understand the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. 

Motivation works differently for different people. Some people need small rewards along the way in the form of cash, food-based rewards, or simply the freedom to “cheat” and indulge in a temptation to build a habit that sticks.

On the other hand, some folks find the best way to motivate themselves is to think carefully about why their goals are so important. With a strong enough reason behind them, they can keep going no matter how tough it gets. They’re more receptive to internal, intrinsic motivators.

So… intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, which is better? Let’s find out, by taking a deeper dive into each, starting with the one we’re all familiar with.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation means pushing yourself to do hard things, using rewards or punishments that come from outside yourself.

For example, your employer uses extrinsic motivation when they offer a cash bonus for the top sales associates. It’s easy to understand— you work hard, you get a cash reward.

But extrinsic motivation doesn’t necessarily have to involve a third party. For instance, if you allow yourself a ‘cheat day’ after successfully sticking to your diet all week, that’s extrinsic motivation. Some other common extrinsic rewards might be:

  • Allowing yourself 10, guilt-free minutes on social media.
  • Having an accountability partner celebrate your success
  • Using an app that pays you to make progress (like Fitmoola!)

Keep in mind though, that motivation of any kind can always come in two flavors: carrot or stick. Extrinsic rewards like the above examples are definitely more carrot-shaped.

However, you can motivate yourself (almost as effectively) using small punishments, too. Avoid the temptation to abandon your goals, by agreeing to implement stick-shaped motivators like:

  • Restricting access to social media sites.
  • Honestly sharing your hiccup with an accountability partner 
  • Using an app that charges you a small fee if you’re not consistent (Fitmoola again!)

But does this work?

Well, the science is actually onboard with this one. A 2015 study found that folks following a diet felt it was much easier to stay motivated if they allowed themselves a ‘cheat day’ on the weekends. By setting a tangible, desirable light at the end of the tunnel, they helped set themselves up for success.

In fact, if you enjoy reading the science behind this motivation stuff, there’s actually plenty of great studies out there, that answer all kinds of great questions:

But before you start scheduling cheat days or go looking for an accountability partner, we should chat briefly about the flip side of this whole thing— intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Instead of relying on outside influence, intrinsic motivation means building a powerful internal drive that propels you forward, no matter how much you want to quit.

No one explains this better than Simon Sinek.

Simon is talking mainly about business here, but the ideas apply to personal growth as well. Look at your goals and ask yourself why you bother. What’s your why?

And, as Simon does in the video, make sure you don’t settle for simply listing the ‘results’ you want to achieve— building a better body, looking better, weighing less, etc.

Because if you want to truly leverage the power of intrinsic motivation, you’ll need to dig deep, and come up with the real reasons behind your aspirations— living longer, connecting with more people, leading a life that’s full of self-love, etc.

The closer you can get to the raw, honest truth behind your goals, the more likely you are to stay motivated over the long haul. Anytime the road gets tough, you’ll be able to tap into your why and remind yourself that losing weight isn’t about numbers on a scale… it’s about living a longer life so you can spend more time with the people you love (or whatever your own reasons might be.)

If this sounds like a more difficult process than coming up with extrinsic motivators, that’s because it is.

Figuring out why you have a deeply-rooted need to change yourself can be tough. You’re essentially playing therapist for a few hours and taking a hard look at your psyche. Tricky stuff!

But by successfully doing so, you’ll find that intrinsically motivating yourself like this is actually far more effective than using outside rewards.

Which is Better? Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

We can’t sit here and definitively tell you whether intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic, or vice versa. To be fair, each has their own pros and cons. It’s also important to remember that everyone is unique and will respond in their own way to different kinds of motivators.

Our advice? Experiment.

Definitely spend some time figuring out what your internal drivers are. If you’re more motivated by rewards (or avoiding punishment), then come up with some sufficiently desirable rewards and take your new plan for a spin! You may even try looking at services or apps that reward/punish you automatically (Fitmoola for example #shamelessplug)

If however, you’re more driven by accomplishment or that warm, gooey feeling of self-fulfillment… dig deeper. Crack that head of yours (not literally, please!) and figure out your why: what makes you tick. Write it down, memorize it, and keep it top of mind.

After a few weeks, look back and honestly reflect on whether your motivators are helping. If so, awesome! If not, keep tweaking until you find something that works.


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