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Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation. What drives you?

Last week I touched on motivation and this week I want to delve a little deeper into the topic.

Let's look at my gal Zoey. Here is a picture of her performing her trick "sit pretty." Do you think Zoey likes the way "sit pretty" makes her feel?

I would wager a bet as to "NO!" Zoey is "sitting pretty" because she knows a treat is coming her way!

My pups are VERY extrinsically motivated.

Everyone is motivated by something. Psychologists have determined there are two types of motivation that explain our behaviors and how we pursue our goals: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. We may gravitate towards one motivation more than the other, but often there is a mix of both driving our behavior.

Defining the terms

Intrinsic motivation refers to those activities you do because you find them personally rewarding. It's an internal form of motivation and plays off your internal interests and values. You perform a behavior or strive towards a goal for personal satisfaction or accomplishment.

Examples of intrinsic motivators include doing a workout because it feels good, solving a puzzle because you enjoy a challenge, taking a course because you find the topic interesting, or choosing healthy meals because you enjoy cooking them.

Extrinsic motivation is an external form of motivation. It's any reason you do the work other than the joy of doing the work itself. Anything that you are promised for doing the work and anything that you get as a result of doing the work are all extrinsic motivators. You strive towards a goal, perform a behavior, or engage in an activity to earn a reward or avoid punishment.

Examples of extrinsic motivators and rewards are things like monetary bonuses, pay raises at work for hitting specific goals, working for good grades, competing in sporting or fitness competitions for trophies, or losing weight to look better in your clothes.

Make sense?

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation coexisting

When I first started my undergraduate studies and learned about different types of motivation, extrinsic motivation was novel to me, since most of what has always driven me was "feeling" based (and yes that has gotten me in trouble sometimes!)

Let's look at a few examples how my internal feelings have led and motivated me.

I have been exercising since my 20's because of the way it makes me feel. I married my husband because of the way he makes me feel (of course I also thought he was a great guy, smart, kind, generous, etc. but overall I loved the way I felt when I was with him.) I eat and don't eat certain foods because of the way I feel during and after eating the foods. I chose a new career path because I love helping others reach their health and fitness goals. I took Spanish because I have a sense of satisfaction when growing and learning. I keep in touch with the people I care about because I enjoy their conversation and feel thankful to have them in my life. I could go on!

Awards, recognition, fame, etc. none of the classic extrinsic motivators ever meant much to me. Or so I thought.

When I transitioned to a full-time undergraduate student early 2016, I started achieving Dean's List every semester. One semester I overloaded myself and had to change one of my classes to audit (I bit off more than I could chew that semester). Well, guess what "audit" meant for me? No Dean's List. I was really upset. I mean REALLY upset!

In reflection and hindsight, what I find most interesting about this shift within me, is that I chose my undergraduate program because I was fascinated with the curriculum. I was busting at the seams with excitement to be a part of a program that encompassed several of my FAVORITE subjects. Exercise, Nutrition, and Psychology. For those that are hockey lovers, this is a hat trick of awesomeness for me!

I was intrinsically motivated at the start of my studies, but as I got a taste of the rewards that went with being an engaged, hardworking student, then I hit the gas pedal and my drive soared! The recognition of Dean's List every semester (except the one semester I mentioned) and the combination of graduating with Cum Laude honors, really motivated me and gave me a "boost" into my graduate program.

As some of you know, I was really struggling emotionally as an undergraduate student, so would I have been so driven to enter graduate school if I didn't have the rewards and recognition from the University, my husband, family, and friends? Honestly, I am not sure!?!

This example is to show you how intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation can morph into each other and coexist.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic: Which is better?

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation come into play with many lifestyle behaviors and as you embark on a health journey, having both are important.

If intrinsic motivation is non-existent, then using extrinsic motivation can help you start, and build momentum until you feel intrinsic motivation start to take over. If intrinsic motivation is waning, then extrinsic motivation can be the carrot to keep you going the trajectory to reach your goal. And if only intrinsic motivation is present, generally that is enough for you to keep going, since if something "feels good" and you're driven from within, the behavior is likely to continue. This is backed up by much research incorporating the framework from Self-Determination Theory (SDT); the theory of human motivation.

Ultimately, extrinsic motivation can be useful at times, such as starting a lifestyle behavior or throwing in a carrot (reward) to keep momentum going towards a goal, but tends to fade in the long term if not used in combination with intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is from within and tends to last long term because it is personally rewarding and feels good.

I know what some of you may be thinking. It's not always a straight forward path and easy to recognize what motivates us and will help keep us going!


I want you to think of shifting from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation, since this is where I see many of my clients get hung up when trying to start (or sustain) a behavior/lifestyle change.

  1. Take a sheet of paper and create a table with three columns with headings reading: lifestyle change, intrinsic, and extrinsic.

  2. Take a moment to think about a couple key changes you have made or would like to make to your lifestyle. For example, increasing exercise, cooking more at home, or getting more sleep. Write your "key changes" underneath the "lifestyle change" column.

  3. For each lifestyle change write down your external or extrinsic reasons for making this change. Next, think about how to turn this external reason into an internal reason or intrinsic motivation.


Let's use "increasing exercise" as the "lifestyle change."

  1. Extrinsic motivators to increasing exercise would be to lose weight and tone up.

  2. Intrinsic motivators to increasing exercise would be to feel mentally refreshed and confident in my body.

How to use this information and make the transition!?!

Next time you're exercising, put aside the calorie counting, the number on the scale, and the thoughts of how you will look after losing weight. Think about how you feel while you're exercising.

Maybe it's not always 100% enjoyable (because you're working so hard!), but how did you feel when you were done? Did you feel a sense of accomplishment? Did you enjoy the energy level you felt afterwards?

Take Home

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation play a significant role in human behavior.

Turning your focus from extrinsic motivators towards intrinsic motivators may help you see the value of making these changes for yourself, which may increase chances to long-term success. This shift in perspective could be a game changer, so give it a try!

If extrinsic motivators aren't used to bribe or control, but used to reward and signal a job well done, then interest in the behavior or act may continue. If this extrinsic reward boosts your feeling of competence after completing a task or behavior, your personal enjoyment of the task or behavior may increase. Also, if you've been fueled by intrinsic motivation for awhile, and your momentum is waning, adding in external rewards may help you stay the trajectory!

So what motivates you most in your life, career, and heath journey? Do you gravitate towards internal or external motivation when working towards a goal? Or do you have a motivation continuum?

Thanks for reading and make it a great day!

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