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Internal vs External Motivation: Using Both to Achieve Your Goals

By May 24, 2023November 14th, 2023No Comments
Internal vs External Motivation

Finding consistent motivation is difficult, even when we genuinely, deeply care about the outcome of our plans and projects.

It usually starts off well. Novelty provides a brief spurt of passion and motivation and you´re off to the races. Then you wake up late and skip your morning yoga session.

Or you lose focus and suddenly you’re drifting along without making any progress at work.

Or you take a few days off from writing your book – and everything falls off the rails.

Trust me, I’ve missed yoga lessons, got becalmed at work, fallen into a slew of despond while book writing, and so much more.

How do you keep going from this point? How to think bigger? Especially when the momentum is broken and the temptation is simply to give up?

A better question might be, “How do you keep the fires of motivation stoked and roaring?”

The answer is to strike a balance between internal and external motivation.

One without the other won’t work. Too much focus on external motivation can lead to a misaligning of your core values. But too much emphasis on internal motivation leaves you without the external guardrails to actually achieve your goals.

Thrilling, Important, and Daunting: The Elements of Motivation

Motivation is intrinsically tied to goal setting.

And the worthiness of a goal directly impacts your willingness to do the hard work of staying motivated long enough to complete it.

When I get people to think about how to create a worthy goal in my book How to Begin, the three elements I focus on are: thrilling, important, and daunting.

  • Thrilling is the essence of internal motivation – it’s the thing that lights you up when you think about it.
  • Important links to external motivation – it asks you to think about how you can contribute to the world.
  • Daunting is about making sure that you’re on that learning edge – it’s the precipice that is scary to stand on, but it’s where you grow.

You need to carefully calibrate all three to stay motivated. It’s a balancing act of discovering what pulls you forward, what pushes you on, and what helps you grow.

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Thrilling: Internal Motivation

We unlock our greatness by working on the hard stuff – not by winning the hard stuff, completing the hard stuff, or getting a trophy for doing the hard stuff. By unequivocally working on it.

But working on the hard stuff is (you guessed it!) hard. When we’re struggling, the idea of the finish line alone isn’t enough to motivate us.

The real challenge is learning how to keep going when the temptation is just to give up and drop out. That’s where internal motivation becomes paramount.

Unleashing Your Internal Motivation

Here’s the funny thing about internal motivation – even though it intrinsically comes from within, our internal motivations often relate to other people.

Take my friend Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits. A long-time smoker, he knew that he couldn’t continue his pack-a-day habit indefinitely.

And while there is no shortage of reasons to give up smoking – being able to walk up a flight of stairs without being winded, for example – the ultimate galvanizer had nothing to do with him.

As a father of five children, Leo came to the realization that he needed to give up cigarettes to live a long, healthy life and be around for his kids.

To me, that’s a beautiful example of internal motivation. It meant something to him. It spoke to his values and lit up his receptors. It made him think: “Yes! I’d be proud to do this.”

So in order to master internal motivation, you need to identify something or someone that you’re completing the goal for, something to keep you going when things get hard and you really don’t feel like it. Something that’s with you, always, internally, keeping your fire alive.

Important: External Motivation

There’s this strange tension between internal and external motivation – particularly which one should be cultivated for long-term success.

Many favor internal motivation because they believe it lasts longer.

External motivation, the reasoning goes, can be really powerful in the moment – but it fades fast.

When you know there’s a prospect for a raise on the horizon, you’re likely to work harder in the months leading up to your review. But once you get the raise – then what?

The prize has been claimed, the high wears off, and your promotion – once a coveted star guiding your behavior – blends in with the other banalities of your life.

This is a very human response. As biological organisms wired to always jump from one task to the next, we have a tendency never to be satisfied with what we’ve achieved.

In psychology, they call this the hedonic treadmill. It demonstrates that humans return to the same happiness level no matter how much their external circumstances improve.

Once you run across the finish line with your hands over your head, the excitement of achieving the goal is over.

But look, that’s not to say external motivation isn’t necessary. It’s all about how you view it.

Optimizing External Motivation

External motivation asks the question: “What is the prize? How do I get status from achieving this?”

Yes, it can relate to nice cars, boats, whiskey. But it can also be about making a difference that has a positive impact on yourself, others, or the world.

To add to that, I also believe in another aspect of external motivation – creating physical structures that help you actually achieve the goals you want. It’s basically biohacking.

Our brains love completing tasks. Every time we tick something off our to-do lists, it triggers a dopamine release, and this, in turn, boosts motivation.

You can weaponize this for your productivity by breaking huge tasks into smaller, more manageable goals, and then riding the successive waves of dopamine that you get once you achieve them.

Daunting: The Learning Edge

Daunting work pushes you out of your comfort zone. It’s difficult to achieve and requires you to stretch.

You may even doubt your ability to complete this work. But it’s integral for your growth and motivation.

Daunting is when you step to the edge of who you are, what you know, and what you’ve done and unlock a sense of joy and adventure.

This is where learning, mastery, and the beginnings of competence begin to take shape.

The conscious competence learning model demonstrates this perfectly. You can’t learn anything until you take on tasks that scare you or tasks that you might not feel completely qualified for.

Maintaining the Learning Edge

Understanding the learning scale is crucial to motivation and growth. When we’re taking on hard things and learning, the most growth happens.

It’s conscious incompetence, which is the least comfortable place to be because it’s mostly a struggle.

Think about that – you have to struggle to grow. You have to fail to get better at stuff. That also means that when you feel like you suck, you’re actually in the process of unlocking your greatness.

This is its own motivation – understanding that exiting your comfort zone is where the magic happens.

So, make a commitment to yourself to get beyond what’s predictable, certain, and comfortable, knowing that you’re already succeeding because you’re learning.

Finding the Golden Middle

Balancing your internal and external motivation is pretty important for getting what needs to get done, done.

Too much reliance on internal motivation might lead you to become self-centered. But if you only focus on external motivation, you can burn out. Learning is essential too. Otherwise, you’ll plateau and stop growing.

To optimize the relationship between all three, cultivate balance. In the process, you’ll achieve greater control over your life than ever before.

Strive to make your goals internally motivating enough to keep you inspired, important enough to feel like you’re positively contributing, and daunting enough to require you to expand your horizons and work hard.

Are You Ready to Begin Achieving?

Are you struggling to find internal motivation to keep you going when things inevitably get hard? Or are the external factors that once put wind in your sails petering out?

Then sign up for my course, How To Begin, where you’ll learn how to maintain motivation and get your ideas off the ground.

You’ll get the extra nudge you need to unlock your greatness, surrounded by an inspiring group of like-minded change-makers.

I’ll teach you how to craft your Worthy Goal and show you how you can engage in some of the most meaningful work of your life.

Michael Bungay Stanier

Michael Bungay Stanier

I'm the author of five books that have collectively sold more than a million copies. I'm the founder of Box of Crayons, a learning and development company that helps organizations move from advice-driven to curiosity-led. I'm the host of the *2 Pages with MBS* podcast.