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The problem with intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is rare. Especially at work. It takes work to discover and nurture this motivation.

6 min read


The problem with intrinsic motivation

Susan Fowler

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What are you intrinsically motivated to do? Isn’t it wonderful?

You don’t need a good reason or extrinsic reward to do what you are doing when you’re intrinsically motivated. You are in a state of flow where time flies and you have no idea where it went. “In the zone,” you generate positive energy and creativity. Abundant research proves the glory of intrinsic motivation.

Sounds great, but chances are you face one or more of these three intrinsic problems:

  1. Intrinsic motivation is rare, especially at work. How often during your day do you say, “I’d do this even if I wasn’t getting paid?”
  2. If you are not intrinsically motivated, your default option is usually extrinsic motivation. That leaves you foraging for carrots (money, rewards, praising, power, status, prizes) proven to have just the opposite effect as intrinsic or internal motivation. You may experience a burst of energy, but it’s not the kind of energy that promotes creativity or well-being. And, it dissipates quickly, leaving you starving for more carrots just to keep going.
  3. You don’t know what you are intrinsically motivated by.

To increase your intrinsic motivation, consider these ideas.

Begin by looking backwards

Most of us discovered intrinsically motivating activities early in life. Remember what you loved doing as a kid, if you had a choice, on a Saturday morning or summer day.

For example, I spent hot summer days sitting on the grass, writing childish poetry in my Big Chief tablet. I spent hours making little workbooks and preparing taped recordings to teach my younger siblings to read and write (even though they never asked me to). Teachers consistently gave me “Unsatisfactory” comments on grade school report cards, citing “Susie talks too much during quiet time.” I obviously loved to talk.

Today, I write books, create leadership workshops and speak for a living. I can’t tell you why I love to write, teach or speak, but I do, regardless of there being a promise of money or external reward.

What have you always loved to do simply for the enjoyment of it, even if the reason you love doing it is a mystery to you? Can you identify at least one activity that you loved as a child that you still make time to do as an adult? To help stimulate awareness of your intrinsic motivation, try these techniques.

Be bored

When was the last time you had time on your hands, wondering what to do because nothing was planned or expected of you? Edward Deci, the father of intrinsic motivation, has long lamented that we over-program our lives, robbing ourselves of the discretionary time to be bored.

Deci knows that the truth about motivation is that no one wants to be bored, so we find ways to entertain ourselves. And that’s when we discover our intrinsic motivation: what we enjoy doing simply because of our inherent interest in doing it.

Next time you have an unplanned moment, leave it that way. Keep an empty space on your calendar without an expectation of how you are going to fill it. Even if it’s 30 minutes. Then notice the activities you gravitate toward. 

If you have time in your life, notice what do you want to do with it. If you can indulge it, great. Bake that cake, build that bookshelf, paint, sing, dance, or read.

But, even if you don’t have the time or aren’t able to indulge in the moment, recognize your yearning and take note of it. Your discretionary time can reveal the things you are intrinsically motivated to do. If you’re on an airplane, on vacation with a block of unplanned time, or with a rare free afternoon on a weekend, notice if you have an intense longing. Your down time can remind you of what you love doing.

Think intrinsically at work

When you have identified activities, find ways of integrating them into your work. How can you link what you enjoy with everyday tasks?

If you enjoy writing, practice your skill when returning emails. If you love to read, make the time to explore journals related to your work. If you’re hooked on detective novels, consider a work-related problem as your next case. If you love baking, organize a bake sale for charity at work.

Do a friend, team member and your kids a favor

Help them discover their intrinsic motivation. I remember fearing that if my boss caught me reading at work, I’d be branded as lazy. Don’t be that boss — or parent. Don’t perpetuate the myth that you need to drive productivity through pressure and constant motion.

Instead, encourage your friends, team members and kids to take mindful moments. Talk to them about their work, school and personal interests. Helping someone discover their intrinsic motivation is a lifelong gift.

Finally, remember that intrinsic motivation is just one of three ways to be optimally motivated. If intrinsic motivation eludes you in the moment, don’t default to extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic and extrinsiv motivation research proves that doing what you love is a joy, but aligning what you do with important values and a sense of purpose will still generate the positive energy you need to be creative and productive — and could prove even more meaningful.

You can learn more about the science of motivation from the Self-Determination Theory website and here.

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.

She is the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership and the One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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