Internal vs. External Motivation

by Megan M. on January 24, 2009 · View Comments (Blog) |

I’ve always considered myself “self-motivated”, but in January I’ve begun to make the distinction between internally motivated and externally motivated. And although I sometimes am the former, I am MOSTLY the latter.

I still consider myself gigantically self-motivated because I’ve mastered the creation of externally-motivating circumstances. Committing to a project, signing up for a seminar, promising a deadline—becoming aware that something must be done and I must do it, or that someone really needs me. If I want something done and I’m not feeling a surge, I create the situation that “makes” me do it.

My internal motivation, on the other hand, is largely centered around the occasional sprint of excitement. These seem to be less under my control, and they come with big realizations and sudden passionate dedications that supercede less important items on my tasklist. They tend to pull me along of their own volition. In fact, I’d say THEY are in charge—not me. (Most of my website redesigns, and Marty’s, have been like this. The biggest examples so far: Seth’s Alternative MBA. The Tribes Q&A.)

[Last minute note: Saying that my internally motivated projects are in charge—not me—is an incredibly strange way to further blur the line between internal motivation and external motivation. I don’t quite know what to make of it, so I’m going to leave it for you to work out!]

There’s no doubt that internal motivation, for me, is more enjoyable (and more effective!) than external motivation. External motivation, however, is far easier to come by. I’ve also gotten extremely good at manipulating it over the last ten years.

If my internal motivation tends to fail me, and I can actually accomplish things by harnessing (read: trapping myself into) some good external motivation… I say, well, at least it works. Do things, by god! But what if I want to switch? What if I’m tired of having to trick myself into doing great things, and I just want to do them on my own steam?

Are there key differences between internally motivated people and externally motivated people, other than the fact that they are one or the other?

Which one are you?

And why?

  • shanequia
    awsome awsome possum lol this article was off the chain yo i loved it !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Nick
    this post has me thinking about the actual difference between internal motivation and external motivation. this seems like yet another polarization. when i think polarization i think that both poles do essentially the same thing only they have a different feeling/connotation to them.

    also when i think about polarization i think about darkworkers/lightworkers. in order to continue to polarize one direction you need to understand the other direction too. in fact it feels as if you need to be polarizing the other direction at the same time. the best lightworkers are those that know how to be a darkworkers.
  • James | Dancing Geek
    A big part of my current introspection is tied up in the difference between external and internal motivation. I'm wondering if there's a link between these and the head/heart duality: external motivation appeals to the head, internal motivation to the heart? Or they come from there?

    Certainly my big STOP! moment was the realisation that all my direction (and thus motivation) was external, and that I wanted to find some internal guidance. And I'm certain that getting my head and heart to join forces, rather than compete, is the way to get great stuff done, so if there is a connection then it would suggest making sure there's a combination of both, perhaps?
  • D
    Sherlock Holmes was externally motivated. He grew restless and unproductive when the game was not afoot. For everything else there was the seven-percent-solution.

    Happy Birthday,
  • Tiara the Merch Girl
    Ooo! I'd say I'm more externally motivated - usually I hardly get things done unless there was a deadline! It's too easy for me to just say "oh, I don't have to do this, no consequences". There are times where I'd suddenly be powered by internal motivation and chug along to something. However, not everything I do in this life are things I necessarily *chose* to do...external motivation is what helps me get those stuff done.

    I've heard from a lot of people about how needing external motivation makes you a "bad" person in a way. To be successful/respected/etc you need to have INTERNAL MOTIVATION! You need to be SELF-MOTIVATED! blah blah. Well what does that make me then? A loser? :(
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