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  • Writer's pictureDr Maike Neuhaus

How you can develop intrinsic motivation for something you don't like doing but want to achieve

We’ve all heard it: intrinsic motivation is a goldmine, because by definition, when you do something you’re intrinsically motivated for, you’re doing it because you LOVE doing it. But let’s face it, for some activities, we can try to optimise our autonomy, competence and relatedness as much as we like, we still won’t feel total intrinsically motivated for them (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, read this article first).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t brush my teeth twice daily, because I can’t think of anything more exciting to do. I can promise you that I am not intrinsically motivated to brush them. But I do it anyway and if you’re wondering why, self-determination theory has the answer for you. According to this theory, extrinsic motivation has some shades of grey, some of which are quite similar to intrinsic motivation. Imagine a scale or spectrum like this one adapted from Richard Ryan & Edward Deci:

At the left end of the motivation scale, you will find amotivation (i.e. no motivation whatsoever – neither intrinsic nor extrinsic), at the other end is intrinsic motivation. In between, from left to right, are varying degrees or stages of extrinsic motivation. What differentiates them is the degree of controlled versus autonomous motivation.

On the left, the motivation is completely controlled or externally regulated. In fact, this stage is called ‘external regulation’. You would never do the activity if it weren’t for reasons of compliance or other external force and control. Imagine a child being told to tidy their room. The next stage is ‘introjected regulation’, which is a little internally and less externally regulated. Imagine a young adult pursuing that degree, only in order to make the parents proud. Next up is ‘identified regulation’, featuring yet another tad more internal sources of motivation, because the action is of importance to the individual in achieving a goal. Imagine a young adult tediously saving 20% of their monthly income in order to save for a house.

The stage most closely related to intrinsic motivation is ‘integrated motivation’. Here, the source of motivation is internal – just like intrinsic motivation. However, the difference is that you don’t enjoy the act of doing the activity.

Integrated motivation is regulation of the activity through synthesis with other aspects of the self, such as values, beliefs and the self-concept. It is the most autonomous form of extrinsic motivation. The person still doesn’t do the activity out of sheer enjoyment, but also, if they don’t do it, they won’t feel shame or guilt. They do the activity because they fully integrated the values of it. This is where you’ll find me, brushing my teeth. Health, personal hygiene, subjective wellbeing and disease prevention are super important to me.

So, if you’re hoping to establish a new habit in your life, which you don’t feel intrinsically motivated for, you can still strengthen your motivation for it by exploring your WHY:

Why do you want to do it?

What makes it important to you?

What is your underlying goal behind the activity you’re trying to establish a habit of?

How does it align with your personal values?

What will be the benefits in your life and the life of others once you achieve your goal?

What will be the benefits in your life and the life of others once you achieve your goal?

The more clarity you can gain about this, the more you will slide towards the right side of the self-determination continuum. In other words, the stronger your internal drive for it will become.

If there was one goal or activity you wish you were intrinsically motivated for, which one would it be? So, why is that so important to you?

Maike x


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