Working Out Your Why – Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

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Have you ever joined a gym, started a new exercise regime, or embarked on a new eating strategy only to splutter to an abrupt stop because you ‘ran out of motivation‘?

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Mr Motivator – Keeping you rev’d up since 1993

Lack of motivation is a common complaint I hear from prospective new clients. They want to get a health coach or personal trainer to keep them motivated throughout the process.

I get it. It all feels a bit easier when someone is holding your hand, or screaming at you drill sergeant style. But what happens when the training cycle/diet plan ends? Quite often we just revert back to how we were before. Were there benefits? Sure. But, if we ultimately end up back at square one then haven’t we wasted both our time and our money?

At Wild Life, we are our clients best cheerleaders. We are there to pick you up when you fall. We give you a shoulder to cry on if it all gets too much. And we are sadistic bastards when the need arises too. But, before we take on any new people we make sure they understand, however fleetingly, their WHY.

You see the modern understanding of motivation is, in my opinion, deeply flawed.

When people talk about being motivated they are usually meaning being enthusiastic. Now enthusiasm can be motivating, but enthusiasm is not the same as motivation.

The Oxford English dictionary defines enthusiasm as “feeling or showing a lot of excitement and interest about somebody/something”. This does not describe me when I am thinking about doing my current kettlebell workout. It’s really hot here at the moment, and the workout is really quite tough. There is absolutely no excitement felt or exuded on the lead up to the session. Plenty of grimacing and moaning, but zero excitement.

Motivation is defined as “the reason why somebody does something or behaves in a particular way”, as in motive, from the Latin motivus, meaning stirred or moved. So motivation is what stirs someone to do the things they do. It’s their why, and it can be irrespective of interest or excitement.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a rousing motivational speech as much as the next person. Hell, I walked around with blue face paint on for a whole week after seeing Braveheart.

And I probably owe much of my early training success to the constant re-watching of Rocky training montages. But this kind of pump is short lived, and often completely absent at 6am on a cold and rainy winter’s morning as you lace up your running shoes, tentatively peering out into the murky darkness. Knowing your why can be the difference between pounding those soggy streets in pursuit of personal growth, and crawling back under the covers.

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Motivation is also often confused with willpower. Running out of willpower is a real thing and is associated with ‘decision fatigue’. Think of willpower as a muscle. The more repetitions the muscle does, the more it fatigues until, finally, it can no longer complete another repetition. Willpower works the same way. Making the decision to ‘do the right thing’ at first is relatively easy, but the more decisions we make to exert our willpower, the more our willpower depletes. Willpower, without an underlying motivation, is finite, but flexing it does make it bigger.

When discussing motivation we usually talk about two types; extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is usually driven by some kind of external reward. This could be anything from competing in sports to winning trophies and accolades, to studying hard at school to gain good grades. It could be doing something you don’t like because of a promise of reward or a treat. Or being driven to do something based on outside opinions.

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Dieting to drop a dress size or two for your ex’s wedding reception to show him what a mistake he made would be extrinsic motivation. As would working harder than anyone else in your company so that you get a pay rise.

Extrinsic motivation can also come from external pressure or punishment, either in the control of the motivatee or not. For example, getting kicked out of college if your grades don’t improve, forfeiting a cheat meal out if you didn’t complete your weekly running mileage, or betting some money that you’ll lift a certain weight in a defined time, all would count as extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is derived from inside the individual, whereby the individual is driven by a passion or enjoyment of the activity, or from seeing the activity as rewarding in and of itself. Examples of this would be running for the sheer enjoyment of it or because of how it makes you feel as opposed to doing it for trophies and glory; or studying hard because you want to learn or master a subject as opposed to doing it just to get good grades.

Intrinsic motivations are often deeply personal and emotionally felt.

Neither extrinsic or intrinsic motivations are good or bad, right or wrong. They both have their place and are often overlapping. However, some studies suggest that intrinsic motivation tends to lead to greater success and greater adherence to the task at hand.

Intrinsic motivation is often based on our personal core values or deep seated personal needs, like personal growth, a sense of purpose, engagement with community, etc. And while extrinsic rewards can absolutely help toward these goals, psychologists suggest that when our goals are intrinsically motivated it may lead to longer lasting happiness, and if we are feeling good about the process, we are more likely to stick at it.

Extrinsically motivated goals, such as the pursuit of wealth, fame, status, or image often lead to a much shorter lived sense of happiness. We get the ‘thing’ we wanted, we feel happy, the happiness subsides, we feel like we are back to where we started, so we pursue the next ‘thing’. This is known as the Hedonic Treadmill; as we earn more money, for example, our desires and expectations also increase resulting in a non permanent gain in happiness.

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Again, there is nothing wrong with extrinsic motivation. In fact, it can be vital when taking on a new venture that holds no intrinsic value to you. For example, when I started running I had no real desire to actually run. Running for me was something one does only when being chased. However, I wanted to raise money for a local charity but didn’t know what challenge to set myself. I then saw a local half marathon had spaces for runners doing charity fundraising. I signed up and told the world I was doing it. I was now extrinsically motivated to do the training. I had an image to uphold now, and had the pressure of a charity relying on my efforts. I felt zero intrinsic motivation about running. Nada. It hurt and made me feel uncomfortable. My thighs chaffed and my face crumpled up in a sad, pained expression.

Fast forward 20 years and I still have chaffing thighs and an ugly running face, but I now love running. I am, at best, a mid-pack runner, never standing any chance to win a trophy or gain any prestige. But I love the feeling of moving under my own steam; I love the way my body feels after a run; I appreciate the discomfort and count my blessings that I can move my body in this way. I am now intrinsically motivated to run.

When a prospective new client wants to join me I ask what their goals are. ‘To lose a bit of weight’ is a common answer. I then try to get them to dig a little deeper. Why do they want to lose weight? The answers will vary in scale from the short term extrinsic to the longer term intrinsic; to fit into their wedding dress, look good in a bikini for the summer, or to make sure I am around long enough to still be able to play with my grand kids.

The more we can create a deep seated, emotional response to our motive, the easier it is to sustain our practice over long periods of time, and the longer we sustain a practice the easier it becomes. In short, that arduous task eventually becomes just another daily habit.

The greatest thing I see with our long-term clients is this change from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. They start with an external goal but stay for the inherent value of moving their bodies. It’s what keeps them turning up, regardless of some of the horrific things I make them do. Their bodies become instruments, not ornaments. They no longer attribute emotions to the training itself. They neither need to be pumped up and excited to turn up, nor do they fear the session (well, not always). They use the emotion of the underlying motivation to keep going. Turning up to a training session is like brushing their teeth: it’s just what you do and it would be weird not to.

How to up your motivation game

First off spend a little time really digging deep into your WHY. It’s worth taking a look at the post on personal core values. For me, if my goals or my why are inline with my core values, they carry much more weight for me.

The more clarity we have on what our goals are and the reason for trying to achieve them, (our motive) the easier it will be to gain motivation. And the more we can feel the WHY, the more emotional and visceral it is, the greater the real estate it will take up in our minds and the easier it is to maintain.

And, if we need rewards as motivation, that’s fine, but be sensible with it. Treat yourself to a new bit of training kit when you have stuck to your programme for a set period of time; allow yourself that naughty treat for staying with your new eating strategy; book yourself a spa day to continue the same sense of self love you are giving yourself in your health journey so far. Just be aware that rewarding yourself for something that you already intrinsically feel motivation for can actually lessen that motivation and lead to lower success rates.

And for those of you who need more of the stick and less of the carrot, you can add a little pressure or punishment for NOT sticking to your goals.

Probably the least offensive form of this kind of motivation is to make it non-negotiable by committing to do it with someone else. This way we get the extra pressure of not only letting ourselves down, but someone else too. Add to this both the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards we got from sharing our time and journey with someone else and we have a powerful motivation cocktail.

Setting a time frame is another great extrinsic pressure, and a useful tool in goal setting in general; time (based) is what the T stands for in the popular S.M.A.R.T. goal setting mnemonic acronym. This could be a race date you entered, or a goal date for hitting a target weight. Just make sure the time frame is actually achievable or it will have the opposite effect.

The big reveal is another technique. Whatever your goal is, tell everyone about it and set a time to show it to the world. This way you’ve set yourself the pressure of upholding your word, the expectation of others, and proving the inevitable nasty trolls wrong.

For even more extrinsic pressure as motivation you could use something like This is pure genius. Your set your goal and time frame, say to lose 3kg in 8 weeks, then you pledge how much money you are willing to cough up if you don’t achieve it. You put an impartial 3rd party down as an adjudicator, and the website will send them weekly requests asking if you have made the required progress. If you haven’t then it will deduct the weekly proportion of your budget and send it to your designated recipient. This could be a charity or friend, or (and this is the real genius) to a charitable organisation that you hate, for example the Conservative Party or whichever one jars you the most. The thought of giving my hard earned money to a politician is the ultimate electrified cattle prod for me, I’m never going to fail.

And if this still isn’t enough negative feedback for you, you can head over to and get one of their wearable smart devices that actually shocks you when you are falling short of the goals you’ve set. Yes, you have read that correctly.

So there you have it, a quick guide to motivation and tips and tricks to optimise it.

Now go get it tiger!

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