If you’re like most Americans, your motivation at work (or in other areas of your life) is likely tied to rewards that aren’t completely related to your actions. You work forty hours a week for that Friday afternoon paycheck, instead of for a job well done. You promise yourself a new wardrobe as a reward for losing weight or giving up smoking, instead of relishing your healthier body. You work hard in school, or motivate your children to work hard in school, for the sake of earning high grades, not for the sake of learning new skills.
Extrinsic motivation, the use of unrelated, usually external, rewards, isn’t wrong. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly right, either. The problem with extrinsic motivation is that, when you don’t look beyond that end goal, you miss a lot of opportunities along the way. You perform just well enough at work to avoid trouble and to earn your paycheck, but you never achieve your full potential. It’s hard to achieve greatness when you’re only motivated by outside rewards.
Imagine what you would be capable of if you turned your focus to be benefits of your current task. You’re learning how to use a new type of software not because your manager told you to, but because you are interested in learning how it works and how it will improve your career skills. You work hard so that you can feel pride in what you’ve accomplished. The reward is related to the task, so it’s easier to relate the positive feeling you get from the reward with the work you put into meeting a goal.
This is what is known as intrinsic motivation. Your internal desires for pleasure, learning or acting with morals motivates your performance. It’s effective because it doesn’t rely on any external rewards. It takes a complete shift in thinking from what you might be used to. That takes time and conscientious practice, but it’s worth it. People who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to learn new skills and retain knowledge. They’re more likely to move ahead in their careers, and to make lasting changes in their lives.
You weren’t always extrinsically motivated. Think back to kindergarten; learning was fun! You couldn’t wait to get to school and learn to count or to learn your letters. You didn’t know about report cards; you were learning purely for the sake of learning, and you were enjoying yourself while doing it. Somewhere along the line, most people forget how much fun learning can be, and that’s where most people start to focus on extrinsic motivation. Not getting grounded for a poor report card becomes more important than really learning the material. That sets the tone for the motivational techniques you use as an adult. If you want to reclaim that excitement, you need to release the idea that hard work should come with a secondary, unrelated reward. Intrinsic motivation makes working towards goals fun again, and that’s something that everyone should get to experience more often.