How to Build Self-Motivation

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Learn how to build self motivation by understanding the different types of motivation and how you can develop them. 

Lack of motivation is often the source of quite a few problems. It’s the reason we don’t exercise, cook, eat healthier, get enough work done, clean, and do pretty much anything else that doesn’t involve sitting on the couch.  

It would be great if we could find enough motivation to do everything that need to get done in the day, but that’s just not going to happen. (At least not without copious amounts of caffeine.) Instead, I find it more effective to work on motivation one task at a time. By focusing on how to get yourself motivated for one area that you want to change, you can learn how to motivate yourself for the other things you need to get done in life.   

Understanding Motivation

One important thing to understand about motivation is that it has two basic forms: intrinsic and extrinsic.  

Intrinsic  

This type of motivation comes from within. These are the things that motivate us personal reasons. You can think of it as the satisfaction that you get out of something. 

Some examples include:  

  • Learning a language because you find it fun.  
  • Cooking because you enjoy seeing other people eat your food.  
  • Cleaning because you like being organized.  

These are all personal reasons you might have for doing something. It motivates you to complete tasks simply for the value that you can get from it.  

Extrinsic 

This type of motivation comes from our circumstances or from others. With this type of motivation, you don’t do something to for your own personal satisfaction.  

Some examples include  

  • Going to work because you need to earn money.  
  • Doing the laundry because you have no clothes to wear. 
  • Going to the grocery store because you need food for the week. 

These are all motivating factors that come from external factors, rather than yourself. You can think of this type of motivation as a reward you get for doing something.   

Why it Matters

Of the two types, intrinsic motivation is the best for being motivated. In fact, studies have shown that if you have enough intrinsic motivation to do something, adding extrinsic motivation on top of that will actually make you less motivated. Intrinsic motivation is enough on its own.  

But not all of us can by intrinsically motivated about things we hate like dishes, or running, or keeping up with work. That’s why external motivation can also be a powerful tool. By giving yourself the right reward, you can convince yourself to stay motivated.  

With anything, it’s just about finding a convincing argument for why you should do something.   

How to Get Motivated

Now that you understand motivation, getting motivated is as simple as figuring out how to use that knowledge.  

Developing Intrinsic Motivation

Think of intrinsic motivation like long term goals. After you make them, they don’t really need much adjustment or maintenance. Rather, you just remind yourself of them, and allow them to inform your short-term actions.  

After you decide on the area in your life where you feel like you could use more motivation, your next priority is to decide if there’s anything intrinsic that can work for you.   

Determining this should be an honest moment of self-reflection. Any intrinsic reason you have for doing something can be as selfish and petty as you want, so don’t try to make yourself a martyr. For example, sometimes when I get backed up with work, the only reason I finally complete it is because I don’t want it make me stressed at the end of the week, when I fully intend to relax. It’s not really that ambitious or considerate of my coworkers, but it’s enough to get me to work.  

After you decide on your intrinsic reasons, record them somewhere you can revisit frequently.  

  • Include it as a part of your daily affirmations.  
  • Create a specific journal page.  
  • Include it with your long-term goals for that particular area in your life.  

When you have it recorded somewhere, don’t forget to look at it often. When you’re feeling like you can’t complete a task for all the world, there’s nothing wrong with pulling out that list and reminding yourself of the good reasons you have for getting things done.   

Developing Extrinsic Motivation

Of course, there are some things that you just can’t convince yourself to do. Intrinsic motivation may not come naturally for certain things, and there are those weeks where we get far more intrinsic satisfaction out of procrastination. For times like those, you can turn to extrinsic motivation.  

Since extrinsic reasons are external, you’ll need to consider what might be a good motivating reward for your task. Here is another area where it helps to think selfishly. Chances are, a really trite reward isn’t going to help you. You have to sit down and think about the things that you genuinely enjoy doing. This isn’t a list that you have to share with anyone, so get creative.  

Of course, you shouldn’t be rewarding yourself with over-indulgences just for small accomplishments. It would be ridiculous to give yourself a week’s worth of vacation just because you finally did the dishes. Be reasonable, and think about how to tier your rewards. Save the really big things for when you hit a milestone.  

When I was trying to motivate myself to get back into a workout routine, I used mainly extrinsic motivation. (This was one of those situations in which I got far more satisfaction out of doing nothing versus working out, so intrinsic motivation wasn’t the answer.) I gave myself different rewards for working out each time, (small things like a piece of chocolate, or an extra-long shower). If I met my weekly goal, I would go with something bigger, like catching up on the show I’d missed while working out. It helped me get adjusted to a stricter routine.   

Always Work Towards the Long Term

It’s important to note that extrinsic motivation is not the be all end all solution for every unmotivated person. With students, the ones who are intrinsically motivated are the ones who do the best, because they don’t need grades to get them to want to learn. They’re are genuinely curious, and like finding out new information just for the sake of discovering it.  

With whatever area you’re working, you definitely want to try to get to that place as well. Even as you use extrinsic motivation, consider what might work for intrinsic motivation as well. With my workouts, those rewards were not something I intended to do forever. I put them in place so that I could develop a workout habit. The thing that was going to keep me working out long term was my intrinsic motivation.  

If you have no intrinsic motivation for something, try to use both in this manner: give yourself rewards for completing the task until you discover a reason that gives your personal satisfaction.  

You may also find that you lose intrinsic motivation, or it changes, which is fine. You as a person are changing too, so just go back to the beginning at start again. Go with extrinsic motivators for a while until you can figure it out.  

And if you really still hate it, then maybe it’s time to start asking yourself why you’re doing it in the first place. 

How to Apply Motivation

When you’ve figured out how to get motivated, the next step is to apply that in different areas of your life. Here are some areas where you might want a little extra motivation.  

Habits

When you are developing new habits, or trying to eliminate bad ones, motivation is key. Using extrinsic rewards for that first week or two, or even longer if necessary, can help you meet your targets for whatever habit you’re trying to build.  

If it’s a good habit you’re trying to build, give yourself a reward at the end of the day if you’ve met your target amount. Make it something small that you can do daily, like spending a little extra time of your phone, or getting something nice for a snack.  

With bad habits, extrinsic motivation can help you if you’re trying to replace them. Giving yourself a reward every time you do something good instead that bad habit can help reset your brain’s reward system. You’ll start to associate rewards more with that good habit instead of that bad habit, which should make it easier to change.  

If you want more information on how to track habits, see this related post:

How to Start Tracking Your Habits

Journaling  

Journaling is a great place to apply both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If you set aside a section of your journal for whatever particular area you’re working on, you can make a page for each type. As you tend to revisit a journal often, it will serve as a good reminder for all your intrinsic reasons for doing something.  

For extrinsic motivation, it’s a great place to plan out all your rewards.  

When I did mine for working out, I styled it like an advent calendar. I wrote down all my small rewards, as well as the bigger ones I got for meeting my goal at the end of the week. I covered these with washi tape that I peeled off each time I earned a reward. By the second week I’d already forgotten some of the rewards, so I got extra satisfaction from the rewards being a surprise each time.  

You don’t have to be as detailed with yours, but I do think it’s a good idea to set out all the rewards from the start, especially the big ones. When you feel unmotivated, check that page and remind yourself of what you’re working towards.  

Health

As I mentioned with my personal example, intrinsic motivation is the best way to get motivated about your health. The rewards for eating poorly and not working out have a pretty strong pull, so you’re going to need solid, personal reasons for wanting to make a change.  

Of course, extrinsic motivators are great ways to build healthier habits. When you start out, give yourself rewards for drinking enough water, choosing healthier meals, and working out. This can help you break out of the mindset that the alternatives are more rewarding.  

As you improve, work on developing your intrinsic reasons for wanting to be healthier. These will probably be far more personal than they are for little things like chores, so be willing to take the time to sort out your feelings on the subject.  

One warning I have to add to this section, is that you need to shut out society and other people. Saying something like, “I want to be healthier so I can look more attractive.” is not an intrinsic motivator. Usually, when we say things like that, it’s because we’re measuring ourselves compared to society or other people’s standards of attractiveness. In this sense, that’s an extrinsic motivator, and not a very good one. Those standards will change, even as you work to achieve them. And the reality is, you will never be thin enough, or pretty enough to satisfy everyone.  

A better source of intrinsic motivation is something that you genuinely want, that has nothing to do with anyone else in your life.  

Here are some simple examples:

  • I want to be strong enough to do: __________.  
  • I want to be healthier now so that I can be healthier in the future.  
  • I want to be more flexible.  
  • I want to expand my knowledge of cuisine and cooking.  

These reasons are far more lasting and concrete than simple attractiveness. Outside of looking better, really consider what having a healthier lifestyle can offer you.   

The Key to Self-Motivation

As you work towards becoming more motivated, remember that you want to use both types to their greatest advantage. Extrinsic motivators are useful for the short term, but discovering your intrinsic motivation is what can help you in the long term.  

Be conscious about what motivates you. Record it someplace where you can revisit it often. If you have to, remind yourself daily of your rewards and your reasons for completing that task.  

It’s not always easy to get motivated, but with a little forethought and plenty of good incentive, you can get more done.

 

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