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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

Reference

More by this author

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) happiness and self confidence Why Confident People Are Also Happier People How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life What’s the Meaning of Life? A Guide to Live with Meaning What Is External Motivation And How to Make Good Use of It?

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Published on September 25, 2020

5 Powerful Self-Care Ideas for When Life Is Stressful

5 Powerful Self-Care Ideas for When Life Is Stressful

Stress doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone, invariably in different ways. Regardless of how stress shows up in your life, I think we can all agree that it’s present. When it does show up, it takes over the show. It then becomes difficult to stay in the present moment or show gratitude for what and who we have in our life. In the eye of the stress storm, everything is tossed around into oblivion. This is probably when self-care finally comes to our mind.

How Does Stress Show Up?

On a physical scale, stress tends to be behind many of our typical ailments, such as headaches, insomnia, muscle tension, or body aches and pain.[1] When we’re in stressful situations, our body activates our fight-or-flight response. According to the American Institute of Stress, when the body is in this mode due to stress, “the body’s sympathetic nervous system is activated due to the sudden release of hormones. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, triggering the release of catecholamines, which include adrenaline and noradrenaline. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.”[2]

Why is this important? While our fight-or-flight response is extremely helpful when we’re in situations that risk our survival, not every situation is that dire. However, the body doesn’t know how to differentiate between such scenarios. Rather, we become accustomed to seeing every stressful situation as dire, and essentially locked into this fight-or-flight response automatically. This causes us to burn out because our body is constantly fighting or fleeing from threats that are not causing us any real harm.

On a mental and emotional scale, according to the Mayo Clinic, “Stress symptoms can affect your body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior.” Everything is interconnected. When our physical body takes a toll due to stress, this has a domino effect on how we process our thoughts and feelings. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see correlations between depression and anxiety when it comes to dealing with stress.

How to Combat Stress?

Below are five self-care ideas for combating stress in your life. Consider implementing them into your daily routine for the best results.

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1. Start a Brain Dump Writing Exercise

When you’re overwhelmed with thoughts, it can become very difficult to stay present and focused. This could affect you at work, in school, or in your relationships. It’s as if your mind were filled to the brim with thoughts that are constantly competing for your attention. If left unattended, this can affect your performance or your state of being. Stress is just brewing!

One exercise to get this under control is called a Brain Dump, and it’s exactly how it sounds. Start by getting comfortable with a pen and paper or your favorite journal. Without any special formatting or introduction, just start writing any and all thoughts that come up. Consider your paper a blank canvas onto which you’re going to spill every thought, no matter how small or unimportant. This can look like a laundry list, a jumble of words, or a paragraph. Don’t think too much of how it looks. The idea is to give your thoughts an exit. Once they’re on paper, they’re no longer swimming in your head for attention.

Once you have them written down, leave them as they are. We have a tendency to want to fix our thoughts. Instead, allow them to simply exist as they are — they’re not right or wrong. Consider coming back to this exercise daily or whenever you feel like you have a lot on your mind.

2. Sweat It Out

There is nothing more therapeutic than moving the physical body when it feels the weight of stress. Energetically, we carry our day in our body! If we’ve had a particularly difficult day, that energy is going to feel tense and unsettling. This is why it’s so important to move and really break a sweat!

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America,[3]

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“Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem.”

Find what exercise regimen works for you, and commit to it for a few days per week. Scientists have also found that even 10-15 minutes of aerobic exercise can have a tremendous effect on your body. Go for a run, take a spin class or a power yoga class, or dance the stress away in Zumba. Whatever gets your heart rate up and breaks a sweat is one of the perfect self-care ideas to keep the stress away.

3. Seek the Care of a Therapist

Sometimes writing out our thoughts and feelings doesn’t seem quite enough. This is common and to be expected. After all, we are complex human beings who want to understand and process our emotions on a deeper level. This is why having a regular therapy session is so beneficial!

In the presence of a professional, we can open up about what stressful situations we’re going through. We don’t have to keep our emotions bottled up, and we know that our honesty will be protected and safeguarded.

Additionally, when we’re feeling stressed, we often want to simply vent and get things off of our chest. Having someone on the receiving end who will simply listen and hold space is a truly healing gift. We can often leave the session feeling more empowered, seen, and offloaded of the stress we brought in.

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Lastly, we may be able to receive guidance from our therapist on a particular situation we’re struggling with. Having someone else’s perspective on something we’re too emotionally close to can be just the right solution.

Here are more self-care ideas from a therapist: Self Care Tips During Difficult Times (A Therapist’s Advice).

4. Interrupt Your Day

This may seem like a derailing technique, but give it a shot! Interrupting your day means introducing something entirely new or random into a routine that is very monotonous or typical.

If your work or school day is the same sequence of events every single day, bringing in an interruption can be quite conducive to your productivity and creativity. This can look like pausing in the middle of the day for a yoga stretch at your desk or in your office. It could be playing your favorite playlist in-between meetings or taking a walk outside for lunch. Not only does this stir up new energy for your day, but it can also de-stress your day.

As I said in the earlier tip, when we’re too close to a situation or conflict, we have a harder time breaking away. We’re so emotionally and mentally invested that we don’t see how that proximity is affecting our health. So, interrupt yourself when you’re feeling stress coming on, and do something fun, random, and refreshing.

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5. Get Some Energy Work Done

Energy work is anything that is being done to improve the circulation and energetic flow of the body. This could be a massage, Reiki session, chiropractic adjustment, or acupuncture. As I said in a previous tip, moving the body helps move the energy that is blocked or stuck. This is why exercise is so important. However, sometimes we need a session where that work is done for us by a licensed professional. In such treatments, we have the luxury to relax and receive the benefits of the treatment. It’s a beautiful way to self-care!

Final Thoughts

Stress is unfortunately a common part of our life. It affects everyone, but to what extent it affects you is personal. One thing is for sure, and that is that stress has a tremendous effect on our physical, mental, and emotional state. This is why regular exercise is so important, as well as mental stimulation and emotional release. These self-care ideas won’t necessarily guard you from ever feeling stressed, but they will help you manage it better.

More Self-Care Ideas

Featured photo credit: Alisa Anton via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Mayo Clinic: Stress Management
[2] The American Institute of Stress: How the Fight or Flight Response Works
[3] Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Physical Activity Reduces Stress

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