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Last Updated on April 22, 2020

What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It?

What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It?

If your boss gave you a 50% raise, how would you feel? Will this make you happy? How about more driven and motivated to prove yourself?

What about the situations when you go to the store and are able to cash in your credit card points? Did this make you more likely to keep spending, so you can keep collecting points?

Most people would say “yes” to the above questions. And that’s a perfectly fine answer. After all, there is nothing wrong with being appreciated and rewarded for your hard work and effort, isn’t that right?

These types of recognition or inducements are just few examples of what’s known as external motivation (extrinsic motivation).

External incentives can’t quite measure up to their better half—the internal kind. This is what we are constantly being told by virtually everyone—from psychologists to coaches, gurus, career advisors, entrepreneurs, and the likes. It still does the job to get us moving, but not quite at the same level as its twin, and not for long.

Simply put, extrinsic rewards don’t hold up for long, we keep hearing.

And yet, there is also no denying that external motivation works. Quite well, in fact. This is why it’s still widely used today. It’s quick, tangible, it can often be specifically measured and adjusted (think bonuses) and provides a decent push in the right direction.

Therefore, it can be rather successfully used to get things done, to reach our goals and to even get us started.

What Is External Motivation?

Let’s take a quick step back and agree on what external motivation is and how it works.

External motivation (as opposed to intrinsic motivation) means that we do something not for the sake of inner fulfilment (because we want to), but to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. It’s often that you don’t want to do something, but you must do it. It may feel more of an obligation rather than an activity that will bring you enjoyment or fulfilment.

External motivation comes from outside. It’s stems from things as money, recognition, fame, or praise. For instance, a student who does their homework because they fear parental sanctions is motivated extrinsically. In contrast, if they do it because they find it interesting or believe that this will help them practice and improve their skills, they will be internally driven.

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Both types of motivation work to get us moving. But the intensity and the desire, and most importantly—the quality of our outcomes, can be a tad different.

You can find out more about the different types of motivation here: 9 Types of Motivation That Make It Possible to Reach Your Dreams

How Well Does It Work?

Research confirms over and over that internal motivation is the preferred way to go, if a person wants to have a consistent drive to “do stuff,” to perform better, to improve themselves. In a previous post Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It), I wrote at length about why internal motivation generally tops external.

So, intrinsic incentives seem to be the winner, no doubt. But this doesn’t mean that we should abandon external rewards as being somehow “second-hand” or ineffective. Because this will be untrue. External motivation is a good performer in its own right. When used properly, it can also deliver.

However, it comes with a small print.

Firstly, external motivators are susceptible to the so-called Hedonic treadmill (aka Hedonic adaptation).[1] It simply means that we quickly get used to the good stuff. Research tells us that if you get a promotion, more money, a new car or a designer purse, the “high” has a very short life span. Soon after, you need a new push to get to that top-of-the-world feeling. It’s never ending, exactly like running on a treadmill.

There is also some research to attest that when we are extrinsically driven, the quality of our performance, persistence and creativity are not just as good as with the intrinsic motivators.[2] It likely has to do with the “want to” vs. “must” state of mind. You start from a different mindset and you end up with a different result. No big surprise there.

Finally, studies tell us that extrinsic motivation can interfere with the internal one and actually decrease it. It’s a phenomenon called “overjustification effect.”[3] Simply put, if you enjoyed doing something and started to get rewarded for it, your inner drive to do it will progressively go down. You won’t feel the same inspiration.

Regardless, external motivators can still spring you to action. After all, not everything you do can be highly enjoyable and fulfilling, right? But if you need to accomplish something that you may not quite feel like doing, extrinsic rewards often can push you through that extra mile you need to get to the finish line; especially when it comes to the areas of academia (think grades) and work (job, salaries and recognition).

5 Ways to Utilize Your External Motivation

Here is how to get a better use of the external drivers to enhance your performance, reach your goals and improve your life.

1. A Quick Hit to Make Yourself Do Something.

How many times have you told yourself: “If I do X, I will treat myself to Y”? For instance, “If don’t cheat on my diet this week, I’ll allow myself a piece of cake on the weekend” or “If I work hard and get that promotion, I’ll buy a nicer car.”

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The truth is, when we see the “carrot” close in sight, it can make us more determined to get it.

It’s called immediate gratification and it ties to a concept in psychology and behavioral economics, known as “hyperbolic discounting.”[4] It’s our tendency to gravitate toward immediate rewards (“I’ll take $50 today) vs. benefits expected sometime in the future ($100 in 6 months). In experiments, people consistently take the “now” option over the choice to have more but later.

Same applies to motivation—although internal incentives can give us much more (including tangibles) in the long run, there is still level of uncertainty, because you often have to play the long game and wait for your passion to pay off, especially financially. There is also the question as to whether you can feel truly fulfilled to do things solely for your own gratification, even when no one recognizes your efforts, skills or accomplishments.

2. Make Others (Or Yourself) Do What You What

Convincing other people to do what we want is undeniably a priceless skill. And one of the best ways to achieve exactly this is…to give them a compliment. It can be in the form of a positive feedback or praise. But it’s an immediate reward that can work wonders on people.

According to research, compliments have a similar effect on the brain as receiving cash and can improve performance.[5] Therefore, they are equivalent to a powerful motivational shot. Studies tell us that receiving acclaim can also improve performance.[6] In addition, it can make you more productive, engaged and likely to stick around with your company a bit longer.[7]

So, regardless if you are a manager who wants to give your employees a push, or to ask a friend to do you a favor, or even perhaps to make yourself do something you’ve been postponing—pay a compliment.

Of course, if you are always fishing for compliments or give yourself one too many, it may mean that you have a bit of a narcissistic streak running in your personality. Which, of course, will make you very vulnerable to the Hedonic treadmill trap.

Alternatively, if you are trying to make others do what you want by playing to their soft side, you may be overstepping in the dangerous territory of Machiavellianism.

So, when you give others or yourself compliments, and receive them, make sure there is some truth in them. Unearned praise can backfire, research has discovered.

3. Show Me the Money

Remember this epic phrase from the movie “Jerry Maguire”? Money is a controversial motivator, a multitude of studies tell us. We all have heard of the magic $75K number[8] —the threshold after which move money doesn’t bring us more satisfaction and fulfillment.

Or, to put it in Arnold Schwarzenegger words:

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“Money doesn’t make you happy. I now have $50 million, but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.”

And yet, money is still a powerful drive for many of us because of the many perks it brings to the table.

But instead of focusing on a number (“I want to have a million dollars in the bank”), think in terms of the benefits from enhancing your financials—mainly, the freedom it will give you and less stress and worry (about money). Or consider all the less fortunate people you can help if you had a little extra to spare—that can be a strong and the right incentive to go after more money.

4. Recognition and Kudos Are Not That Bad Really

Sometimes, our jobs require us to work long hours. And we often do it because we “have to”—be it because one has a deadline and needs to finish a project, to get recognized, get promoted, or simply—to keep your job. All of these are external reasons.

On the surface, it seems that the additional work is pulling you away from your free time, from the things you actually enjoy doing, from the people you want to be with. But that’s only one way to look at it.

What if you used the extra time on the job to focus on improvement—on honing your skillset, on perfecting your craft, on building knowledge? You can become good at what you do, the best even, without having to love every second of it.

Work, for all of us—regardless if you are an entrepreneur, a teacher, an accountant, or Bill Gates—will always have an element of obligation and having to push ourselves some days to get through the day or a difficult task.

But if you refine your competencies, there is a good chance you will also be recognized, promoted and respected. And who doesn’t want their work to be acknowledged after all?

5. Carrots and Sticks

The good-old carrots-or-sticks debate goes back probably few centuries back. Both are probably the most recognized and widely-used external motivator in the workplace.

“Carrots and sticks” simply means that in order to go above and beyond at what we do, employers use rewards (increase in salary, bonuses, recognition, positive feedback) or punishment (negative feedback, pay but, demotion). It’s been a hot topic with organizational psychologists for a while now as to what works better and if the rewards-punishments approach is even the best way to motivate people.

There seems to be more evidence to support the rewards camp,[9] which includes all the things we discussed so far—money, recognition, positive feedback. These get better results as far as external motivators go.

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But punishment also works. For instance, you are afraid you may fail your test, this may push you to study harder. If you are scared of getting an unfavorable feedback at your annual review, you will try to perform above average during the year.

You may not be happy or feel joy in doing these things, but the point is that the likelihood is you will do them anyway. Scaring yourself a little can be certainly beneficial—as in “If I don’t study hard, I will flunk the test” or “If I don’t start eating healthy, as the doctor said, I may have a heart attack.”

Although not the most pleasant ways to seduce ourselves into doing what must be done, punishment can also do the trick when it comes to motivation.

Final Thoughts

The point I’m trying to get across is that external motivation does quite well in certain situations and with certain people. It can be used to spring ourselves into action or make others do what we want them to. It can also yield rather predictable outcomes.

What’s more—it’s not shameful to be driven by extrinsic rewards. Of course, the internal ones are the better and more sustainable in the long run, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals if you rely on external incentives. And because they seem to be more straight-forward and can bring foreseeable results, we all can and should use them to our advantage.

You simply have to be mindful that doing something purely for the glory, fame or money is not going to last. Remember the hedonic treadmill?

Maybe true success can only be found at the crossroads of the two types of motivation—internal and external. That is, enjoy what you do and reap the benefits of recognition and respect.

A piece in Aeon magazine beautifully sums it up:[10]

“Success does not require recognition, but it is better on the whole that people hear your music, read your words, taste your food, than not. Moreover, though we should not place too much emphasis on the opinions of others, to have no regard for them whatsoever is supremely arrogant. Recognition is a kind of success, even though it is not the ultimate measure of it.”

More Tips for Finding Motivation

Featured photo credit: Candice Picard via unsplash.com

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Evelyn Marinoff

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

What Is an Existential Crisis and How to Cope with It How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It? Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It) What’s the Purpose of Life? A Guide to Live with Meaning

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Last Updated on July 9, 2020

How to Stop Being Passive and Start Getting What You Want

How to Stop Being Passive and Start Getting What You Want

Have you ever wondered what keeps you stuck in a state of passivity each day? You tend to know exactly what you need to, but you never have the energy, motivation, or willpower to do it. You know you need to learn how to stop being passive, but how do you do that?

You are not alone. Being passive can leave you stuck in a bit of a rut that is difficult to escape from. This article will help to shine some light on your predicament by not just exploring the methods of how to stop being passive, but also the finer and very important details about what causes passive behavior, as well as an important distinction between positive and negative forms of being passive.

Let’s dive straight in.

What Causes Passive Behavior?

Passive behavior is often the leading cause of people feeling stuck either at work or in their life. It occurs when your life situation is unhappy, but the only thing you “actively” do about it is complain. This, of course, doesn’t change anything. Passive behavior in this sense leaves people feeling stuck, hopeless, and miserable for the vast majority of their life.

Passive behavior can emerge from a number of different sources, but there are three main ways that tend to be the most evident.

Lack of Motivation

Perhaps the most common and most obvious cause of passive behavior is the simple fact of being unmotivated. In the conventional sense, motivation gives rise to action. When you feel motivated, you go and do the things that you set out to do. When you don’t feel motivated, you don’t act.

You might wake up one morning and be eager to get a nice, long, satisfying workout in, so you head to the gym. On another morning, or for a number of consecutive mornings, you might not feel motivated at all. As a result, you don’t get a workout done.

Not being motivated and not always doing what you set out to do is fine. It is part of the natural ebb and flow of life and all of its contents. However, it is a myth that motivation needs to be preceded by action. The secret of successful and seemingly “always motivated” people is that they know that that is a myth. They also know that, quite often, it is usually action that leads to motivation[1].

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Don’t believe me? You have probably experienced it many times yourself. You have forced yourself into your workout gear and then suddenly felt ready to go. You forced yourself to begin writing a report and then all of a sudden you’re in full flow. You forced yourself to meet friends just for one drink and ended up having the time of your life. Action, and then motivation.

Motivation sometimes leads to action, but motivation only comes around every so often. However, motivation that follows action is always in your control. It may seem counterintuitive, but whenever you feel unmotivated and passive, just do something. Anything. And you will usually find that motivation and productivity follow closely behind.

Lack of Goals

Another common force behind passive behavior is the lack of any meaningful goals that you are striving towards. If your life consists of going through the motions, doing the same boring tasks every day, and eating the same sort of stuff, not only can it quickly begin to feel like Groundhog Day, but it can also begin to eat away at your life energy. Anyone with experience of these sorts of patterns will be able to directly relate.

When your only goal is to make it through another day or make it to the weekend, that is a massive portion of your life that you are throwing away. Discovering and creating meaningful goals in your own life can radically change all of that.

Ideally, because you spend large portions of your life at work, you will want to start by finding some meaningful goals within the work section of your life. You can strive towards creating something amazing and valuable for your customers or brainstorming ways that your business can become further integrated into the community. There are a number of ways to create meaningful goals at work. If you really cannot find any, then a goal might be to find a place or line of work where you can.

Thankfully, though, life doesn’t exclusively consist of work. Meaningful goals can be spread out across all areas and interests of life. Maybe you set yourself a goal of setting up a local football team in your neighborhood. Maybe you volunteer for a charity that means a lot to you.

Meaningful goals almost always involve other people, and this kindness, generosity, and good-will not only grows in others and your community, but it grows inside of you, too. The growth of these qualities in your life inevitably leads you out of passive behavior.

Analysis Paralysis

You might be shocked to realize that anything that involves analysis is one of the leading causes of passive behavior. Yet, it is this “analysis paralysis” that occurs to varying degrees in various people over time that is a big contributor to passivity and ultimately not getting what you want out of life[2].

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Analysis paralysis is so common in the modern era due to the infinite sources of information that we have available to us via books, websites, podcasts, YouTube, etc. Because of this, a child who didn’t know any better would probably spend hours upon on hours watching YouTube videos, studying textbooks, and analyzing different expert’s opinions on how to ride a bike rather than actually just getting on one and learning through experience.

It is common for you to slip into this same trap as the child in many other areas of life. You want all experts to agree on something before you take any action on it. You want to memorize the instructions front-to-back before you start on step one. You want a 100% guarantee that something will work from start to finish before you try it for yourself. Of course, that guarantee never arrives, and you remain in the same place.

Forget all of that. Your brain is great for many things, but it is actually more likely to keep you stuck in the same place than it is to move you forward towards your goals. It will give you ten reasons why you shouldn’t for every one that you should. This is where listening to your intuition is important. There are countless examples of people living extraordinary lives and accomplishing truly wonderful things after they followed their intuition and ignored their “intellectual impulse” to have all of the details figured out first.

Experience is not only the greatest teacher, it is the most direct route to experiencing, learning from and enjoying reality. Whatever goes on in your head is a projection. Whatever actually happens is reality. Spend less time reading about bikes (which is passive behaviour disguised as active behavior), and start getting on that bike for yourself.

Is Being Passive a Bad Thing?

As already highlighted briefly in the introduction, it is important to distinguish exactly what is meant by “passive” in this article. Here, we are talking about passivity and how it relates to things like boredom, frustration, unhappiness, feeling stuck, and all other connotations. The passivity that we are talking about is living a relatively unhappy existence and not really doing anything about it.

Passive is not always a bad thing, though, and while the positive meanings of being passive aren’t the focus of this article, they are worth pointing out so that you don’t avoid passivity altogether.

Passive can also relate to peace, contentment, and even things like creativity and inspiration. It is very rare for somebody who is in an active state all of the time to produce anything original and not completely burnout. Great individuals throughout history that put a lot of emphasis on stillness, reflection, and the “good” form of passivity include Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Mahatma Gandhi, and many, many others.

There is an important distinction to be made between the passivity that is causing unhappiness and the passivity that is to be used in intervals to take your life to the next level. In this article though, we are focusing on the former.

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How to Stop Being Passive

Now that we have established some of the causes of being passive and the different faces of passivity, it is time to explore ways in which you can stop being passive (in the negative sense) and start to find effective methods of allowing more happiness into your life.

1. Be Proactive, Not Reactive

One of the most effective ways to stop being passive is to stop reacting to other people and situations as soon as they unfold. Your knee-jerk reaction is rarely the best course of action to take, and yet, it is a deeply-seated habit of all humans to respond angrily to anger or to see an unexpected situation as much more of an issue and struggle than it actually is.

To stop being reactive, you can start being proactive. The best thing you can do in this sense, paradoxically, is to simply watch your reactivity as much as possible[3]. What feelings flare up and cloud your judgment in certain situations? How do you respond when things don’t go your way or to plan? The closer you can watch, and the more honest you can be, the less automatic your reactions become, and the more proactive and effective your responses to situations and people will be.

You can also try to imagine different scenarios about how things might play out in the future. Thing about what might go right and what might go wrong so that you can anticipate and plan your action ahead of time. However, it can be difficult to predict the future, which is why I always emphasize starting with yourself.

2. Consider the Future and Act in the Present

Closely linked to the point above, while you can never accurately predict the future, it is always useful to give some consideration to how it might play out. What goals do you want to achieve? What circumstances do you want in your life? What obstacles might arise, and how can you either avoid them or be effective in dealing with them?

Considering all of these questions and any others that are personal to you will give you an excellent basis for action.

From this position, you can now focus all of your attention back into the present moment. The future is important to consider, but don’t live there because it doesn’t exist. All that exists is the present moment. You can only ever take care of the things right in front of you. Focus only on taking care of them, one thing at a time, and you will find that your entire future and life will fall perfectly into place.

3. Address the Emotional Side of Passivity

As we covered earlier when discussing lack of motivation and its direct influence on passivity, the reason that you are being passive is probably because you are invested in the story that you need to be motivated before you can take any action.

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Being passive, unmotivated, uninspired, or any other great word that you want to throw an “un” in front of is often an emotional issue that needs addressing. For you, addressing the problem might simply mean taking action and letting the motivation follow. It might be attaching something emotionally rewarding (a treat of some kind) with action that you want to take that, for now, isn’t emotionally rewarding in itself.

There is usually some sort of emotional gap that needs to be bridged before you can truly step out of being passive and step into the life that you want to live.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has managed to shine a bit more light on being passive, where it comes from, how it keeps your life stagnant, and what to do about it.

As you already know, reading about riding a bike doesn’t teach you how to ride a bike. Even more sneakily, it is inaction disguised as action, because deep down you know you just need to do it.

Going from passive to active living is exactly the same. You have read this article, you know what to do… now go do it!

Your new life awaits you on the other side.

More Tips on How to Stop Being Passive

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