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https://www.bbc.com/-By David Robson
To achieve a goal, a drive to do so is key. Yet not all motivation is created equal – and some factors driving a desire to succeed can even be harmful.
At the start of a new year, many of us are naturally thinking of our goals for the months ahead. And as we do so, it’s worth paying attention not just about the challenges themselves, but also the reasons we are taking them on.
If you plan to write a novel, for example, are you doing it for the sheer pleasure of creating a fictional world inhabited by curious characters? Or are you doing it because you love literature, and want to make a valuable contribution to your culture? Perhaps you simply want to prove to yourself that you are capable of being published, or maybe you yearn for fame, and writing a best-seller feels like a great path to recognition?
According to “self-determination theory”, each of these questions represents a different source of motivation with distinct consequences – good and bad – for our performance and wellbeing. This research suggests that by picking the right goals, for the right reasons, you will be more engaged and more determined, while deriving greater satisfaction from your success.
A reward in itself
Like many scientific ideas, self-determination theory has been years in the making. It has its roots in a few studies from the 1970s, but only started receiving serious interest following the publication of a seminal paper in the year 2000 that outlined some of its core concepts regarding motivation, performance and wellbeing.
At the heart of the theory lies the optimistic notion that most humans have a natural desire to learn and develop. “It’s based on the assumption that people are growth oriented,” says Anja Van den Broeck, a professor in the faculty of economics and business at KU Leuven, Belgium.
A growth orientation is most visible in young children’s insatiable interest in the world around them – but adults, too, can feel an inherent fascination and curiosity in certain activities, which makes completing a task becomes its own reward. (Just think of a time when you have been so absorbed in an activity that you haven’t noticed time passing.) This is known as “intrinsic” motivation.
Often, however, we may lack sufficient intrinsic motivation to do a task that is necessary to meet our goals, and so we need to encourage ourselves – or be encouraged – by different forms of “extrinsic” motivation.
Identification: While you may not enjoy the activity itself, it may appeal to your broader values and goals – providing another form of motivation. For a teacher, it could be a recognition of the importance of education and their role in improving students’ futures that motivates them to spend extra hours marking homework; for the aspiring novelist, it could be the sense that they are creating a meaningful work of literature that keeps them revising their manuscript, even if the act of writing itself may feel laborious at times.
Introjection: Sometimes we put pressure on ourselves to preserve our ego and self-image. “Your self-esteem may depend on the activity,” explains Van den Broeck. You are worried that if you don’t meet your goal, you will feel shame and a sense of failure.
External regulation: Sometimes, motivation comes purely from external rewards – such as fame and fortune. In some workplaces, external regulation may come as performance-related bonuses and salary increases. You continue to put in the work to get the money, even if you find the tasks themselves to be rather dull and meaningless.
If people experience very little of these, then they have amotivation. As you might expect, people with amotivation are expected to have low productivity and engagement. This might be most evident in the education, with students who will miss class at any opportunity, and who have no intention of putting effort into their studies.
Research suggests that by picking the right goals, for the right reasons, you will be more engaged and more determined, while deriving greater satisfaction from your success
Psychologists who study self-determination theory have designed various questionnaires to measure each of these types of motivation in many different contexts – and throughout the past two decades of research, some very clear patterns have emerged.
Van den Broeck, for example, recently analysed 104 papers examining motivation in the workplace. As expected, intrinsic motivation – inherent interest or pleasure sparked by the job itself – predicted better job satisfaction, engagement and proactivity, and it was highly protective against burnout. Identification – the sense that a job is important or meaningful – was also extremely good for wellbeing, and it proved to be even more important for job performance.
The effects of the other types of motivation tend to be more ambiguous. Introjection (linking your work to your self-esteem) does seem to ensure better job performance, but it also increases stress and comes at a heightened risk of burnout, which is a high price to pay for professional success. External regulation – purely financial incentives to perform well – proved to have the worst effects. As someone’s primary form of motivation, its effects on things like engagement and performance were limited, while also leading to worse wellbeing. There is even some evidence that people who are motivated purely by extrinsic rewards are more likely to act dishonestly, such as lying about their performance in order to get the recognition they desire.
What do you actually want?
It is important to take these conclusions with an important caveat, says Ian MacRae, a work psychologist and author whose books include Motivation and Performance (co-written with Adrian Furnham). While he sees value in distinguishing the different kinds of motivation, he points out that their relative importance will depend on their broader circumstances. If someone is struggling with the cost-of-living crisis, for example, then ‘external’ motivations such as the promise of an increased pay packet could make a real difference. “You do have to be careful about drawing conclusions for all sectors of the workforce,” he says.
Once your basic needs have been met, however, then intrinsic motivation becomes far more significant, says MacRae. So, if you are in a relatively stable financial position, you might re-think starting a new project or position solely for the extra cash, unless you think that it would also incite your curiosity or give you a sense of meaning and purpose.
MacRae suggests that interrogating your sources of motivation might improve your experience of your existing job. “Self-awareness is fundamentally important,” he says. “One of the key things is to understand what you actually want from the work – if it’s about your working relationships with other people, or if it’s about learning and development, for example.” You can then look for opportunities to capitalise on those elements.
On the management end, it is essential that leaders listen carefully when their employees express these motivations, he says – and they should make a genuine effort to provide the necessary resources that will allow the employees to pursue those interests. That may be far more effective at energising the workforce than offering an end-of-year bonus to the most productive team member.
Van den Broeck agrees. She points out that offering employees a sense of autonomy is linked to the intrinsic and identification forms of motivation. This doesn’t mean giving employees completely free rein to do whatever they want, but it might involve giving them some choice in the activities they perform, and explaining the purpose of the unavoidable tasks they have been assigned, so they can at least understand how their work fits with the team’s mission.
The pleasure principle
Self-determination theory isn’t all about work; it can also inform our hobbies, too.
Do you aim to learn a language, for instance, simply because you think it would sound impressive? Or does it derive from a genuine interest in the culture or a specific need to communicate with the language’s speakers? If you are inspired by the latter, you will find the inevitable hard work much less of an ordeal than someone who is looking to learn the language for the social cachet of being multilingual.
With your fitness, meanwhile, you might put pressure on yourself on do the hardest activity you can manage, simple because you want to prove your abilities to yourself or others, and you may feel that you’re somehow failing if you don’t push yourself to the absolute maximum. None of these reasons reflect much intrinsic motivation, however, so why not choose an activity that is slightly less strenuous but far more pleasurable? Recent research shows that people who select their exercise regimes in this way show greater persistence than those who did not consider their interest or enjoyment of the activities. Even if each session is slightly less gruelling, if you are more likely to stick with the activity, the long-term commitment will pay greater dividends.
Life is short, after all, and there is only so much that we can achieve with the time we are given. Self-determination theory reminds us we need to be selective about the activities that we pursue. If you focus on the goals that are most personally meaningful and pleasurable, and ignore those that have been inspired or imposed by others, self-improvement does not have to be a chore, but a source of joy.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life, published by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.