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Last Updated on September 21, 2022

Why Intrinsic Motivation Is So Powerful (And How to Find It)

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Why Intrinsic Motivation Is So Powerful (And How to Find It)

Motivation is one of the main reasons we do things — take action, go to work (and sometimes overwork ourselves), create goals, and exercise willpower.

There are two main, universally agreed upon types of motivation — intrinsic motivation (also known as internal motivation) and extrinsic motivation (external motivation).

Regardless of its type, motivation is still important to get you moving, improve, and put in that extra effort when you feel like you don’t have a single drop of energy left to keep going.

So, let’s see some of the best things you can do to keep the fire going, even when you’d rather indulge in pleasant idleness.

Let’s first define what intrinsic motivation is.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

To define intrinsic motivation, let’s take a look at the definition offered by the American Psychological Association:

Intrinsic motivation – an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained.[1]

Internal motivation is, by inference, when you do something because it’s internally fulfilling, interesting, or enjoyable. When you are internally motivated, you act without an expectation of a reward or recognition from others.

Why Intrinsic Motivation Tops Extrinsic Motivation

“To be motivated means to be moved to do something.”[2]

Generally speaking, we all need motivation. Significant research done in the domain shows that when it comes to finding the lasting drive to “do something,” internal incentives are much more powerful than extrinsic rewards.

Why? It’s simple. There is a great difference when you engage in something because “you want to,” as opposed to “you must.”

Just think about the most obvious example there is: work.

If you go to work every day, dragging your feet and dreading the day ahead, how much enjoyment will you get from your job? What about productivity and results? Quality of work?

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Yep, that’s right; you won’t be topping the Employee of the Month list anytime soon. The thing with external motivation is that it doesn’t last.

It’s susceptible to something psychologists call Hedonic Adaptation.[3] It’s a fancy saying that external rewards are not a sustainable source of happiness and satisfaction.

When you put in 100-hour weeks to get promoted, and you finally are, how long does your “high” last?

Research tells us that the walking-on-a-cloud feelings wear off quickly, making you want more. Therefore, you are stuck on a never-ending “hedonic treadmill,” i.e., you can progressively only become motivated by bigger and shinier things to find out that they don’t bring you the satisfaction you hoped for when you finally get them.[4]

Or, as the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman wonderfully puts it: “Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.

Benefits of Intrinsic Motivation

Studies reveal that intrinsic motivation is a generally stronger predictor of job performance over the long run than extrinsic motivation.[5]

One reason is that when we are internally driven to do something, we do it simply for the enjoyment of the activity. So, we keep going daily because we feel inspired, driven, happy, and satisfied with ourselves.

Another reason is that internally motivated attitudes are intertwined with things such as higher purpose, contributing to a cause, or doing things for the sake of something bigger than ourselves or our benefit. Research confirms that the use of external motivators, such as praise, undermines students’ internal motivation and, in the long run, results in “slower acquisition of skills and more errors in the learning process.”[6]

In contrast, when children are internally driven, they are more involved in the task at hand, enjoy it more, and intentionally seek out challenges. Therefore, all the research seems to allude to one major revelation: intrinsic motivation is a must-have if you want to save yourself the drudgery we sometimes feel when contemplating what we should do or must do.

Unlocking Your Intrinsic Motivation

Let’s say you need to dig a ditch. For many, this may seem like a chore they would neither choose nor enjoy without being paid or forced to. Both of which are extrinsic motivators if you’ve been following along. But what if you were digging the ditch to create a swimming pool that would provide you and your family with years of enjoyment? This would certainly change things for you and most others.

While these might appear to be extrinsic thoughts, they are a form of what psychologist Abraham Maslow called “growth motivation”—motivation that leads to growth from over and above basic needs.[7]

According to Maslow, all of us have a hierarchy of needs. He proposed that motivation results from a person’s attempt at fulfilling five basic needs: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization. He further theorized that these needs could create internal pressures that influence a person’s behavior. Growth motivation is a part of our self-actualization and our desire for self-fulfillment.

So, how does all this “psychobabble” fit in with your intrinsic motivation?

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The psychobabble is the key to unlocking your intrinsic motivation. Once you understand where your internal growth comes from, you can shift your focus to this area rather than any external reward. In doing so, you will notice that work becomes pleasure and pain becomes progress, with all of it leading to growth within yourself.

It is truly a magical place that will lead to years of success and happiness for you as it has for me. But how, you may be asking?

Here’re five quick tips to help you kickstart your intrinsic motivation:

  • Start by looking at all components of each situation or task you face.
  • Break it down into individual components: why, how, and what?
  • Focus on the aspect that will bring you internal satisfaction or enjoyment.
  • Make this the cornerstone of the activity.
  • Reflect and practice gratitude for at least this component—if not everything.

6 Ways to Enhance Your Intrinsic Motivation

So, how does one get more of the good stuff — that is, how do you become internally motivated?

There are many things you can do to become more driven. Here are the ones that top the list.

1. Self-Efficacy

The American Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura developed the self-efficacy theory in 1982.[8] Efficacy is our own belief in whether we can achieve the goals we set for ourselves.

In other words, it’s whether we think we “got what it takes” to be successful at what we do. It’s not hard to see the link of self-efficacy to higher self-esteem, better performance, and enhanced motivation. People with high self-efficacy are more likely to put extra effort into their actions, self-set more challenging goals, and be more driven to improve their skills.[9]

Therefore, the belief that we can accomplish something serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy — it motivates us to try harder to prove to ourselves that we can do it.

Finding your “why” in life is incredibly important. This means that you must be clear about why you do what you do and what drives you.

What is intrinsically rewarding for you? Psychologists call this “reframing your narrative.”

Remember the famous story of John F. Kennedy visiting NASA in 1961? As it goes, he met a janitor there and asked him what he did at NASA. The answer was: “I’m helping to put a man on the Moon.”

Inspirational, isn’t it? Re-phrasing how your actions can help others and leave a mark in the universe can be a powerful driver and a meaning-creator.

3. Volunteer

Volunteering is a great way to give back to the world. It can also help boost your internal motivation by making you feel important in supporting the less fortunate, learning new skills, feeling good about yourself, or linking to some of your inner values, such as kindness and humanitarianism. [10]

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You are intrinsically motivated when you remove any external reward expectations and do Something for the pure joy and fulfillment of improving others’ lives.

4. Don’t Wait Until You “Feel Like It” to Do Something

A great piece in the Harvard Business Review points out that when we say things such as “I can’t make myself go to the gym” or “I can’t get up early,” what we mean is that we don’t feel like it.[11] Nothing that psychically prevents us from doing those things, apart from our laziness .

But here’s the thing: You don’t have to “feel like it” to take action.

Sometimes, it so happens that you may not want to do something in the beginning, but once you start, you get into the flow and find your intrinsic motivation.

For instance, you don’t feel like going to the gym after a long day at work, rather than debating in your head for hours “for and against” it. Tell yourself that you will think about it later. Once in the gym, surrounded by similar souls, you suddenly won’t feel that tired or uninspired.

Another way to overcome procrastination is to create routines and follow them. Once the habit sets in, suddenly getting up at 6 am for work or writing for an hour every day won’t be so dreadful.

5. Self-Determination, or the CAR Model (As I Call It)

Two professors of psychology from the University of Rochester in the mid-80s—Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, created the self-motivation theory.[12]

The theory is one of the most popular in the field of motivation and focuses on the different drivers behind our behavior—i.e., the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. There are three main needs the theory further states, that can help us meet our need for growth: Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness (CAR).

If our jobs allow us to learn and grow, and if we have enough autonomy to do things our way and be creative, we will be more driven to give our best, and our performance will soar. In addition, as humans are social beings, we also need to feel connected to others and respected.

These sources of intrinsic motivation, separately and in combination, can become powerful instigators to keep us thriving, even when we feel uninspired and unmotivated.

6. Tap Into a Deeper Reason

Some interesting research done in 2016 sought answers to how high-performing employees remain driven when their company can’t or won’t engage in ways to motivate them—intrinsically or intrinsically.[13]

The study tracked workers in a Mexican factory, where they did the same daily tasks, with virtually zero chances for learning new skills, developing professionally, or being promoted. Everyone was paid the same, regardless of performance. So, there was no extrinsic motivation other than keeping one’s job.

The third kind of motivation was then discovered, which scientists called “family motivation.” Workers who agreed more with statements such as “I care about supporting my family” or “It is important for me to do good for my family” were more energized and performed better, although they didn’t have any additional external or internal incentive to do so.

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The great thing about this kind of driver is that it’s independent of the company one works for or the situation. It taps into something even deeper—if you don’t want to do it for your own sake, then do it for the people you care for. And this is a powerful motive, as many can probably attest to this.

Final Thoughts

Intrinsic motivation tips the scales when finding long-term happiness and satisfaction in everything we do and improving our overall well-being.

The next time you need to give yourself a bit of a kick to get something done, remember to link it to a goal bigger than yourself, preferably one that has non-material benefits.

If you feel a bit defeated or don’t know how to find internal motivation, think back to the janitor at NASA. Because once you find your internal generator, you will be truly unstoppable.


Don't have time for the full article? Read this.

Why Intrinsic Motivation Is So Powerful (And How to Find It)

Motivation is one of the key factors in keeping us active and productive in life. There are two types of motivations: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is driven by external short-term material rewards and runs out faster than intrinsic motivation, which is driven by passion, interest, and satisfaction.

If you are not intrinsically motivated, you will most likely lose interest in your work and travel down the path of un-productivity.

If you feel that you are running low on intrinsic motivation, here are some tips to keep yourself internally motivated: engage in community services, set goals that are intrinsically motivating, realize your purpose in life, and conquer procrastination.

Having room for creativity and autonomy is another great driver of intrinsic motivation since freedom brings you joy and a greater desire to engage in your work.

Featured photo credit: Juan Ramos via unsplash.com


[1] APA Dictionary of Psychology: intrinsic motivation
[2] Contemporary Educational Psychology: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions
[3] Scientific American: The Science of Lasting Happiness
[4] Chicagobooth: Short-Term Rewards Don’t Sap Long-Term Motivation
[5] Vantagecircle: Getting Deeper Into Intrinsic Motivation In The Workplace
[6] Grand Valley State University: The Effect of Rewards and Motivation on Student Achievement
[7] Simply Psychology: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
[8] Encyclopedia Britannica: Albert Bandura
[9] Educational Psychologist: Goal Setting and Self-Efficacy During Self-Regulated Learning
[10] University of Minnesota: The Motivations to Volunteer: Theoretical and Practical Considerations
[11] Harvard Business Review: How to Make Yourself Work When You Don’t Want To
[12] Richard Ryan and Edward Deci: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions
[13] Nick Tasler: How some people stay motivated and energized at work—even when they don’t love their jobs

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Evelyn Marinoff

A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

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