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May 2005

October 2003

What motivates you?

by Karthik Gurumurthy

You know what it’s like to feel unmotivated. You sit and stare at your to-do list, and nothing on it inspires you at all. It’s just a string of tasks that you wish you didn’t have to do. Simply getting started seems to take an unfathomable amount of effort.

Yet, you don’t always feel that way. You know what motivation feels like, too. You have times when you can’t wait to get started on something – a much-anticipated trip, a big project that you’ve been looking forward to sinking your teeth into, a new course that you’re taking, or a job which is going to be so satisfying when it’s done.

So how can you make sure that you are motivated, whatever the task at hand?


Psychologists distinguish between two forms of motivation, internal and external. The effects of each might feel the same – excitement, being keen to “get on with it” – but the two types of motivation arise from different places.

Internal Motivation
Internal motivation comes from within. It’s the sort of motivation that you get when you’re doing something you enjoy; when the task itself is its own reward. Think of something you love – perhaps computer games, playing the guitar, cooking, painting … any activity you enjoy. You never procrastinate over it, do you? It seems almost silly to ask that – of course you don’t, if anything, you put off other tasks in order to do the ones you enjoy!

One way to make your to-do list easier is to put as many tasks on it as possible which are things you love. Sometimes they might be hard, or you might feel a little resistance to getting started – but once you’re doing them, you find them fun.

In some cases, that might mean rethinking your career choice or your lifestyle. If your life is made up of a whole string of unexciting or unpleasant tasks, how did you get into that situation? What can you do to change it?

When you’re engaged on something which makes you internally motivated, you’ll find that:

  • It’s fairly easy to maintain your concentration
  • You’re keen to do well because the task deserves your best effort
  • You’d do it whether or not you were paid or rewarded in any way

Intrinsic motivation can be a powerful force – but it can also be subject to your moods; when you’re feeling cheerful and upbeat, you’re more likely to enjoy what you’re working on than when you’re feeling low. And for some tasks, there’s simply no way you’re going to enjoy them. That’s where extrinsic motivation comes in.

External Motivation

External motivation comes from outside. This is the motivation which gets you to plough on with something you don’t like all that much … because you know there will be a reward at the end. Think of a time in your life when you stuck with something in order to reach a particular goal: maybe you studied hard in college not because you loved studying, but because you wanted to get your degree. Or perhaps you worked in a job that bored you because you needed the paycheck. On a day to day level, you probably clean your house because you want it to be a pleasant place to live – not because you really love cleaning.

Sometimes, people think that extrinsic motivation is shallow or false – but it can be a very powerful force. Most difficult things become more bearable when you’ve got something to look forward to at the end.

With external motivation, you’ll find that:

  • It might be hard to concentrate – you may be tempted to procrastinate
  • You want to do the task to a high enough standard to get the reward or achieve the goal at the end, but you don’t care much about it being perfect or excellent.
  • You’d be much more reluctant to do it if there was no reward.

External motivation is easier to manufacture than intrinsic motivation. If you have a string of tasks which need to be done, but which don’t interest or excite you in any way, can you find extrinsic motivation? That might mean:

  • Promising yourself a reward at the end (e.g. a cookie, a new DVD, some “me time” to indulge)
  • Focusing on the goal rather than on the process – the finished result
  • Finding a way for the completed task to give you public acknowledgment or acclaim (easier said than done – taking a qualification would be one way, or joining an organization focused on that particular area)

What works for you? Are most of your activities intrinsically or extrinsically motivated – or is it a bit of both?