Sunday, March 20, 2011

External (extrinsic) motivation

So last time we talked about intrinsic motivation - the things that, as individuals, we just love doing and never put off.

If only life was made up of just doing the things you loved.

But this is reality and so we've all got chores that we need to do to achieve our goals.
...and to spur us on we have external (or extrinsic) motivation.

From the inside out, and the outside in...

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside and gets us to plough on and get stuff done that we don't particularly like. It can take the form of either the carrot or the stick, a reward for getting something done or a punishment for not getting it done.

Now people are different, some happily work for bribes and rewards while others need the threat of something happening to get them going. This often depends on the situation and context. It's acceptable for a drill sergeant to use the threat of humiliation with new recruits and develop a fear of consequence to not doing what they're told; it wouldn't be acceptable if those same techniques to be used in the class room to get students to study. Although I'm sure a few of my teachers certainly tried.

In most contexts positive reward is the best motivator.

Think of your own experiences.
I'm sure there have been times when you've had to work at something you didn't enjoy to reach a goal?
Maybe you hate studying but stuck in there and got the grade you wanted.
Maybe your job bored you but you kept working because you needed the pay.
Maybe you tidied your house, not because you wanted to but, because you had visitors.

What worked best for you?

  • The treat of negative consequences? Failing the exam and having to explain to your parents what went wrong, not being able to pay the rent, people thinking you're a slob
  • Or the rewards that you looked forward to? Being able to go to university or have the career you dreamed of, being able to save up for that new gadget, people loving your home.

Often it's a blend of positive rewards and negative consequences that get us going but you're best placed to know what works for you. Just spend some time in thinking how you've been motivated in the past and apply that experience to motivating you towards your goals.

For me most difficult things that I don't naturally love doing become more bearable when there is something to look forward to. I used to hate running but it was the best way to get into shape so I set some goals for completing 5 miles a week, 10 miles a week, 15 miles a week. Next to each of these milestones was a reward, Oblivion for the xbox, new laptop, weekend break in Munich. I'd carry around a picture of the thing I working towards - then when I just couldn't be bothered I'd look at the pic and it would spur me on.
Having said that I also carried around the worst picture I had of myself in case the positive reward didn't quite work.

With extrinsic motivation, you’ll find that:

  • It might be hard to concentrate – it's easy to put it off and find other things to do.
  • You'll do just enough to achieve the goal and will rarely care about it being perfect.
  • You’d be much more reluctant to do it if there was no reward

Intrinsic motivation is normally either there or it isn't - you either love doing something or you don't.
However external motivation is relatively easy to create around any task or goal.
Here are a few ways of creating that external motivation:-

  • Make a list of rewards
  • Focusing on the goal rather than on the process – the finished result
  • Get some external/public acknowledgement or acclaim 


  1. I always work best when I know that I'm getting rewarded. It's hard to motivate me otherwise....

  2. I think a reward is greater motivation than that bad things that come if you fail... You sure know your stuff on this..

  3. Rewards and progress meters, that's what gets me.

  4. i like rewards, rewards are cool

  5. mind if i print this out? its really good

  6. i'm not sure if i can just pick one. if forced i would have to say the rewards inspire me more.

    great post as always.

  7. This is great advice. I usually try to find value in the process so that I'm not just trudging through work to get to the other side.

  8. for me the rewards are a better motivation that the threads.

  9. wow thank you fo so much great advice :)

  10. that's a good idea-bring a reward everywhere

  11. Good one!
    Got yourself a new follower! :)

  12. Thank you for the tips!

  13. Stay motivated and you will go far! :D

  14. Good post. Very interesting read.

  15. i work best under heavy pressure, nothing else gets me burning :<

  16. Setting goals is the best way to get things done. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  17. You've got a great blog here.

    Just wanted to pop by and thank you for visiting my blog. Following you in return.

  18. I'm a procrastinator. I work under stress

  19. didn't get much done today. Maybe I need stress to push me.

  20. Cheers for this

  21. Wish I had seen this before I wrote my O-chem midterm.