Motivation can be a funny thing. Some days, we’re full of verve, ready to tackle the tasks of the day. Other days our motivation can seem to have deserted us, leaving us without the drive to do even the things we enjoy. Whether you’re trying to motivate yourself or someone else, understanding the best way to do so will help immensely. We’re all motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Depending on the situation and the task that needs accomplishing, one can work better than another. In other cases, both kinds of rewards are needed to get things done. And sometimes, we just need a rest. If you’re struggling to get ahead, it might be because you’re finding it difficult to get motivated. Read on to find the best key to your motivation…

I like to think of motivation as the thing that pushes and pulls us through our day. When we follow it, it often pays us with feelings of accomplishment and pleasure. There are many things that push and pull us through our day — our physical needs, our desire to achieve something or even the simple pleasure of experiencing something new.

When it comes to creativity, for me, motivation is a little like a double act; an enthusiastic friend and a muse. It’s a happy calling mixed with inspiration and it delivers an insatiable itch that needs to be answered with the required scratch. But that’s not all it is, sometimes my motivation visits without his partner the muse. Similarly, motivation can desert me and inspiration turns her back too.

According to Wikipedia, motivation is all this and more…

“Motivation is the experience of desire or aversion (you want something, or want to avoid or escape something). As such, motivation has both an objective aspect (a goal or thing you aspire to) and an internal or subjective aspect (it is you that wants the thing or wants it to go away).”

For my Oxford Dictionary, it’s a little less…

Motivation ·n. 1 the reason for a person’s actions or behaviour. 2 enthusiasm.

– DERIVATIVES motivational adj.

For Daniel H. Pink, writer of Drive, motivation is a multi-layered human need, without which we would mentally and physically waste away. He describes motivation as having three elements — the biological drives (food, drink, sex), the extrinsic drives (external reward like your salary) and finally, most interestingly, intrinsic drives (the innate need to create, learn and grow).

Understanding the interplay of all three elements can help you unlock self-motivation and also help us spur others to the much more effective action that sees businesses thrive and people enjoy what they do.

I’m going to assume we all understand the biological drivers. The play of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation is something that is being slowly and surely excavated by behavioural scientists, psychologists and even economists.

Typically, businesses and our everyday world rely on extrinsic motivations — you do this and I’ll give you that. Pink refers to this as ‘carrot and stick’ or Motivation 2.0 and 2.1. It’s basically what makes our consumer society function.

The problem with this is twofold. Firstly, humans are more than robots who respond to external stimuli and secondly, it’s difficult to use this method of motivation on yourself. It takes willpower. If you can reward yourself for doing something, chances are you can give yourself that same thing even if you don’t do the thing you said you’d reward yourself for.

Extrinsic motivation is good — up to a point. These types of rewards are necessary for the working of our world — without them, we couldn’t pay our bills, put something away for the future or support our desired lifestyle and families. But, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Nor do they provide a reason to get up in the morning, at least, not a deeply satisfying one.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is found when we answer the voice calling us towards something more. The urge to create. The joy we find in developing something new, working out a difficult puzzle or helping someone. It’s also found in our striving to be better versions of ourselves and to grow into more than what we are in our shoes today. Tapping into intrinsic motivators has been shown to provide better results than extrinsic motivators. By better results I mean, increased learning, more imaginative and simple solutions to problems, faster results and more stamina for tasks.

The problem with intrinsic motivation is that it’s not handed to us. We have to find it within. Others can provide the optimal environment for us to reach intrinsic motivation, but at the end of the day, we have to make the link. We find the cadence to reach flow and then the joy in what we do. It’s kind of like looking for the fun or the challenge in any given task. If you can do that, then you’re on track to tapping into that sweet spot of intrinsic motivation and flow.

But back to the extrinsic vs intrinsic; both are necessary to get stuff done. But when we rely too much on extrinsic motivators, strange things begin to happen. We can start behaving in a similar way to an addict— increased risk-taking, carelessness and justifying poor decisions rather than modulating behaviour and learning from our mistakes. Also, introducing extrinsic motivators to a task with inherent intrinsic value can actually backfire and leave us feeling less motivated than if there was no reward attached to the task at all.

Nearly anything can be turned into fun. Fun is motivating, we all want more fun and joy in our lives. ‘Fun’ doesn’t mean easy, it just means enjoyable and it makes us smile.

A long time ago, I had a very boring job. All day, I would sit and enter information from printed sheets into massive excel spreadsheets. My typing was slow, the text I was transferring was tiny, and the subject (information for a call centre) did not interest me. The first days were a bit of a ‘mare.

One afternoon, to stop myself from falling asleep on the job after a lovely big lunch, I decided to race myself. In doing so, I changed an intensely boring job into a game. The afternoon passed swiftly, as did each day after until the job was complete. By the end of it, I was completing the sheets faster, with more accuracy and had also started to notice certain patterns in the information I was entering that had previously eluded me. This leads me to the first tip for tapping into your intrinsic motivators — try to make work a game.

If that doesn’t float your boat though, here are some other tips based on science and research rather than my reminiscing…

Figure out where and how you reach flow. For a week stop at random moments within your day and note what you are doing and how you feel doing it. Look at the patterns at the end to figure out when you are in a flow state — what kinds of things are you working on? Are you alone or with others? What times of day are optimal for you? Once you’ve identified these moments, figure out how you can replicate them.

What’s your purpose? Each of us has things we’d like to achieve or be known for. Consider how you’d like to be summed up in a single sentence — this sentence can give you purpose and where purpose treads, motivation, intrinsic motivation, follows.

Map your journey. Once you’ve decided what your purpose is, map your journey to achieving and living it. Ask yourself, did today get you a step closer to that single sentence that sums you up?

Change the scenery, get new input. No matter how much you love what you do and are motivated to do it, day in, day out, eventually, your internal motivation can wane. Go somewhere new. Do something you’ve never done before. This will provide you with new input, it will fire your imagination and feed your motivation. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy and it also saps your ability to find the intrinsic value in each task. So, give yourself a break.

Change your perspective. Feeling like you’ll never get energised again? Stuck in a hole? It’s time to change the question, look at life from a different angle. Ask yourself a question that opens your mind again to opportunity. Pink suggests a deck of cards called ‘Oblique Strategies’. The set of 100 cards, developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, have different suggestions or questions that will help you change your thinking and invite intrinsic motivation back into your life.

Pink also has more strategies and suggestions for tapping into your own intrinsic motivation and helping others do the same in his book Drive.

At the end of the day, we are the masters of our actions. If we understand what drives us, we can tap into our intrinsic motivators easier. We can also better understand why our offers of reward or threats of punishments don’t cut it with the people around us.

Don’t mess with your own, or someone else’s intrinsic motivators by offering rewards. Focus on the parts of work you enjoy to slip into flow faster and with more ease. Take the time to figure out when and how you reach a flow state and do more of that. Figure out your purpose and align yourself with it, take steps closer to living that each and every day. Cut yourself some slack and regularly take a break to get new input, insights and inspiration that will spur you to new heights. When all else fails, stand on your head and look at life from a new perspective. We all want to feel motivated and have a purpose. The only one who’s stopping you is in the mirror.