Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators

One of the common topics I discuss with my clients is motivation: how to maintain it, how to build it, and how to tap into it when we feel it waning.

Motivation is the driving force behind our actions. It is the general willingness to do something (and continue doing something) over time to achieve a desired effect.  The challenge is, motivation has a natural ebb and flow to it.  If we think of motivation like energy in our body, it makes sense that it isn’t always at 100%.  There will be times we are very focused on our goals and see clearly the way ahead.  This helps move us forward.  There are other times when we feel like we are wading through mud.  We can’t see what is ahead, and we don’t have the strength to keep moving forward.  

When I was just starting out on my alcohol-free life (reading Annie Grace’s The Alcohol Experiment), the pain of not changing was much greater than the pain of having to change.  And so the desire to feel better, feel different and overcome my habit was what motivated me to move forward each day without alcohol.  It wasn’t a challenge to tap into that energy – I felt like I was overflowing with it.  I woke up an hour early with energy and focus, knowing that I had a whole new day to improve my life.  I read tons of books and listened to hours of podcasts.  I meditated every morning and evening and filled a journal with all of this inspiration.

But a few months later, I felt a distinct dip in my motivation.  It was the end of what they call the “Pink Cloud” of sobriety.  It’s not that I wanted to start drinking again, but I didn’t feel that powerful and self-sustaining energy I had at the beginning of my journey.  Luckily I had done a few things in my early days that ultimately helped sustain me through this time.  One of those things (I’ll tell you the rest in Part 2), was that I made an account of all of the reasons why I needed to quit drinking.  This list of reasons was essentially a written sum of my motivation.  It was all the things I loved and wanted more of.  All of the things I feared losing.  All of the things I knew I was destroying.

An excerpt from my journal on day 1 of my alcohol free life. (February 2019)

There will be times when you doubt your journey, second guess your decision, and don’t feel the energy to continue along your path.  It doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong path, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.  It simply means you’re human.  During these times you will have to get creative and intentional about how to continue making forward motion.

The first thing to understand is that there are different types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.  They are ways of describing the variety of things inside of you and outside of you that motivate you toward your goals (in my case, thriving in your alcohol-free life.  Yours might be similar, or perhaps there’s a different substance you’re trying to quit, or a behavior, or a person).

Extrinsic motivators are things (people, ideas, activities, etc) outside of yourself that motivate you to continue along the path you’ve chosen.  These things might be your family or partner, who has seen you go through the pain (and have themselves experienced the pain) of your drinking and they have invested at least part of themselves in making sure you don’t drink again.  There’s your job – your boss and team – who expect you to show up in the very least not drunk, hungover, or late for work.  External motivators are usually other people, but can also be systems, expectations, responsibilities, etc.  They are things that connect you to the world outside of your body.

For me, a very strong extrinsic motivator was my son.  At the time, he was only 3, but part of the reason I wanted to quit drinking was that I knew I could be a more present, patient, and kind mom to him if I wasn’t a habitual drinker.  I also knew that drinking made me exhausted and destroyed my sleep (just like my 3-year-old did), so if I ever wanted to feel rested again I had to get rid of one of them…

Extrinsic motivators get a bad rap.  People often say these are less powerful than the motivations that point inward (intrinsic) but that’s not true.  Having and depending on strong extrinsic motivators is a sign that you aren’t a completely selfish human being with no regard for the rest of the world.  It’s a sign that you’re a connected, empathetic person who cares about your impact on other people at least a little bit.  Extrinsic motivators can also be our saviors in times when we aren’t able to tap into our intrinsic energy.  But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

Intrinsic motivators are the things we do for ourselves, and not because anyone else told us to, but because we know it is the right thing to do, or it feels good, or both.  For me, intrinsic motivation was rooted in the knowledge that I wasn’t living according to my own belief system.  I didn’t like knowing that I had a habit that I couldn’t control.  I believed myself to be healthy, but the poison I was imbibing on a daily basis said otherwise.  In the end, my main intrinsic motivation was to stop lying to myself.  For others, intrinsic motivators might be to get healthy, to improve their sleep or their complexion, to stop embarrassing themselves at parties (that may be a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic), to be able to enjoy activities without wondering when they can get their next wine refill.

At times they can be stronger than extrinsic motivators, but not always.  There will be times when, as I mentioned above, you just can’t see past your next step, and you just don’t have the energy to keep going.  This is exactly when you need to have a firm understanding of your extrinsic motivation.  Because there will always be times when one kind of motivation isn’t enough for you, and in these times you will need to draw on the other while the other refreshes itself.

When I look back to the time when I first felt my motivation tank (about three months after I stopped drinking), I believe it was because I was experiencing a shift in my intrinsic and extrinsic motivations.  It wasn’t a sign that I was on the wrong path or destined to fail.  It was simply time for me to turn inward, assess the work I had already done, and reevaluate the reasons for my continued journey down this path.  

I will end here because there is a lot to say on the topic of motivation and we only have so much time in our day to read articles.  But if this reading has resonated with you at all, perhaps you’re also feeling a dip in your motivation to achieve the thing you set out on once upon a time.  It might be time to sit down with this feeling and get to know it a bit.  Take account of what motivated you to begin on this path, and how that may be different now.  Make a list of the extrinsic and intrinsic motivators that started you on the journey, and then ask yourself if these are still relevant, still worth your time, still important to your path.  My guess is that your list needs to be updated.  If so, then make a new list.  It would make sense if your motivations had changed in the last few months (hello COVID).  It would be, in fact, insane, if they hadn’t shifted a bit.  So, take the time to listen inward, get curious and nonjudgmental about where you are in your journey, what still matters to you, and what, if anything, no longer motivates you.  Make this new, refreshed list easy to access and reflect upon.  Take time to write about each one of the points over the course of the next week.  

In part 2, I will talk about 5 components that make up motivation: capability, willingness, commitment, rewards, and the connection to a greater purpose.