Is Motivation Overrated?

Think back to when you were learning to drive a car.  At first, every movement requires concentration.  Check the gearshift.  Check the rearview mirror.  Look at your speed.  Switch your foot to the brake.  Look at the traffic light.  Calm your panicked mother who is pressing the imaginary brake on the passenger side. 

After a little practice, these individual elements become automated, and you just “drive.”  Paying attention to every detail and making so many decisions is exhausting initially, but once it’s automatic we just turn on the car and go.  And leave mom at home. 

How does learning to drive relate to motivation?  There are two types of motivation: intrinsic motivation, where the reasons to act originate within a person instead of from outside rewards, and extrinsic motivation, where other people or circumstances create the desire or impetus for action. 

In personal development circles, much of the focus tends to emphasize shifting from extrinsic motivators (school, parents, money, etc.) to the intrinsic motivators (life passion or calling, desire for self-actualization, personal interest, the satisfaction of a job well done, etc.).  The theory goes that once you have intrinsic motivation, you will be more automatically driven to achieve, regardless of your surroundings. 

Intrinsic motivation is definitely important for living a pro-active and self-empowered life.  Intrinsic motivation is necessary for major life decisions and life direction, so as to avoid spending your life doing something you hate because you never listen to yourself.  It is also helpful for committing to doing things that are difficult or uncomfortable (like exercise or healthier eating habits) when there is no immediate reward or visible result.  Once you settle on your goal or commitment, however, you need a practical structure to help you accomplish it.  Thus, I would argue that extrinsic motivation is equally as important as intrinsic motivation for creating a framework to accomplish your goals.  

To return to our driving analogy, intrinsic motivation helps us decide where we’re going, and extrinsic motivation can help us automate all of the tasks along the way so that we don’t have to spend all of our time and energy focusing on motivating ourselves every time we have to do a task or make a decision. 

So what does effective extrinsic motivation look like?  External accountability.  Deadlines, exercise partners, teammates, life coaches, teachers – any outside force that provides structure to help you to overcome what Steven Pressfield calls “The Resistance.” 

The Resistance is a force within us that resists long-term thinking in favor of instant gratification.  It is based on fear of change, of putting ourselves out into the world, of showing our vulnerability and true selves.  Writer’s block, giving up a diet, or not making an important decision are all manifestations of the Resistance. 

Extrinsic motivation can help battle the Resistance through the power of habit.  If you can establish a habit that drives you towards the goal you want to accomplish, you don’t need to spend so much time and energy “willing” yourself to do it, procrastinating to avoid doing it, or beating yourself up for not doing it. 

An example from my life is running.  I wanted to run and did so for many years, but I relied on shaky intrinsic motivation.  I could run when I exerted the willpower, but would avoid running if I didn’t have enough motivation that particular day.  Excuses like “I’m tired / hungry / busy / etc.” would allow me to rationalize not running. 

Thankfully, my manager came out to California and asked me if I’d like to ask or run together every morning.  Once I agreed, I had immediate external accountability and have been running on schedule ever since.  I don’t have to “will” myself to run – it’s just an automatic morning activity.  I do add elements that make the experience more enjoyable for me (like listening to awesome music featuring electric guitars), but it’s not a struggle anymore because I’ve created a habit from external motivation. 

If you’re struggling to accomplish something in your life and tend to blame yourself for lack of motivation, try creating (1) external accountability and (2) a habit around the activity.  That way, you can spend more time focusing on your destination and less time worrying about how to drive the car.