Motivation and the secrets to getting things done – part 1 – Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What makes you go to work? What makes you read a book, or sit down to watch tv?

All of these actions in our daily lives are driven by motivation. But what does that really mean?

Motivation is something I have been thinking about – and researching – a lot recently. Motivation has been on my mind because one of the biggest challenges in providing effective psychological treatment for depression seems to be overcoming motivational barriers that are a symptom of depression. For example, exercise is known to be an effective treatment for depression – but how can a depressed person exercise consistently enough to experience improvement in mood when two of the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for Major Depressive Disorder suggest significant problems of motivation?

  • Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day

If you have experienced an episode of clinical depression you no doubt know the loss of interest and energy that are part of the cluster of symptoms of depression together present a huge obstacle to treatments such as exercise and cognitive and behavioural therapy.

So … what is motivation?

Motivation is probably best understood not as one force, but as a set of forces that stimulate us engage in particular behaviours. The concept of motivation is often divided into two types of stimulating forces:

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to forces from within ourselves that drive us to engage in behaviour. If I say I drove to the beach because I enjoy swimming in the surf, I am referring to an intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to external forces that influence our behaviour. Praise, financial rewards and punishment are all examples of extrinsic motivation. If I say I drove to the beach because my friend paid me $300 to give him a lift, I am referring to an extrinsic motivation.

You probably wouldn’t have to think about it too long to see that these distinctions easily blur into one another. They are probably somewhat arbitrary. However, the distinction has some importance because researchers studying motivation and behaviour over recent decades have been finding that for certain types of behaviour intrinsic motivation will produce different outcomes to extrinsic motivation. Sometimes rewarding behaviour (extrinsic motivation) will lead to a sustained increase in that behaviour; other times it can lead to a long-term decrease in behaviour once the extrinsic motivation is absent because the reward has the effect of decreasing intrinsic motivation. This has been called the overjustification effect.

This is why this post is just part 1 of a series I hope to write on motivation (if I can stay motivated): It is a complicated topic with many aspects that are still not well understood.

A motivation experiment


A few months ago I stumbled across a blog post, Quantity Always Trumps Quantity, which presented the argument that if you want to do something well you need to first focus on doing it a lot. The author quoted a passage from a book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The author talks about the relationship between doing and learning. But as I had been thinking about motivation I also wondered, “What is the relationship between doing and motivation?” So I set myself the task of producing at least one drawing a day to find out what would happen both to my motivation to draw and to the results of my drawings.

Here is the first thing I drew:

Abstract lines, shapes and colours

First drawing in my “motivation experiment”

To see how the experiment progressed from there check out our Thrive Wellness facebook page or follow our Thrive Wellness google+ page where I will be posting the subsequent drawings daily with comments on my experience.

Stay tuned at Thriving for more posts to come about motivation and techniques you might be able to use to boost your motivation when it is lagging.

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.