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Extrinsic and Intrinsic Rewards, or What Really Motivates You to Be Healthy

Posted Mar 07 2013 12:08am

carrotstickWhen you look back and think about your health journey (or your life in general), what have been the motivations that got you where you are today? Has it been a competitive spirit? An incessant curiosity? An individual sense of purpose? An ambitious drive? Inherent in these questions are the broader trends of initiative. Do you tend to seek out external challenges, validations, feedback to push yourself, or are you more often buoyed by personal inspiration? What impels you the most: the outcome or the pursuit? For many people, it’s a combination of both, and their answers depend on the activities in question. Nonetheless, knowing what most effectively motivates us in a particular endeavor can change the game in substantial ways.

We’ve all heard of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations at some point. Although some experts don’t support the dichotomized differentiation , the framework offers a usable guide for examining what we’re driven by in our health efforts.

Extrinsic motivation looks generally outward – to obtaining a specific “reward” (e.g. recognition, award, money, or other concrete benefit), participating in competition, or contributing to a team endeavor. On the flip side, extrinsic motivation also encompasses our interest in dodging an unwanted external consequence. In short, it’s about working to achieve (or avoid) an external outcome of sorts.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, plays off of our internal interests and values. We do what we do not because we’re interested in what we perceive to be a beneficial outcome or reward but because we’re invested in the process itself. For example, we want to train not because we care much about where we finish in a race but because we just love the release of working out – of seeing our usual path, of enjoying how we feel during and after a run.

When it comes to the usual comparison, let’s face it. Sometimes extrinsic motivation gets a bad rap. Extrinsic motivations are often categorized as shallow or unenlightened compared to intrinsic interests. For example, we might be made to feel guilty for working to look good naked , so to speak, but vanity can have its time and place. I think the effectiveness of extrinsic motivation, however, suggests we’re simply human – that we’re a social species capable of learning from one another and responsive to our circumstances. After all, we evolved within an environment of constant reward-penalty feedback.

Intrinsic motivation can fuel our creativity and sense of inner purpose, but it doesn’t negate or diminish the legitimate significance of an extrinsic view. As critical and enriching as intrinsic motivation can be, for example, when excessively imbalanced, it can be isolating for some people. Likewise, many of us eventually come up against a wall when pure interest in the pursuit (e.g. fitness) doesn’t push us to farther distances or new dimensions the way looking outward can. Extrinsic motivation needn’t be just about unbridled materialism or fierce rivalry. It can just as likely put us in meaningful collaboration with one another or give us important perspective on the value or relative accomplishment of our efforts. Sometimes, it can give us a needed change of pace. The fact is competition is fun when it’s fair, and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a reward or recognition.

When we recognize that human truth and basic effectiveness can be found in both intrinsic and extrinsic incentive, we open ourselves to larger realms of possibility. The question becomes this: how do we harness the benefits of both to optimally foster our motivation for healthy and happy living? I hope you’ll add your thoughts, but here are a few to consider.

Create a Vision Board

Intrinsic motivation, I think, has a lot to do with personal clarity. What vision do you have for developing your health (or self)? What does thriving look like to you? Use everything from quotes to visuals as you hone your vision.

Keep a Personal Journal

Use the journal to examine what activities you find positive and fulfilling (e.g. a new yoga class, developing your strength with a new resistance training commitment). Get in touch with the subtle personal effects of the changes and progress you’re making. Write about how an activity or new health choice feels for you – what it does to your mood, your sleep, your energy, your confidence. Envision how you’ll go deeper into each goal and continually check in with yourself.

Identify Desired Incentives

Again, putting our natural inclination toward extrinsic motivation to work means understanding what kinds of external factors drive us the most. Do you appreciate recognition or enjoy looking good? Some of us might relish competition, while it has others running for the hills.

Seek Out Challenges and Collaboration

Participate in activities like semi-competitive team sports or seasonal gym “challenges” that offer you just enough pressure to push yourself to new gains, enjoy group contribution, and enjoy the opportunity for recognition. Start a photo journal that showcases the positive changes you’re making in your physical shape as well as overall health.

Use Personal Devices or Online Tools for Virtual Challenge

Everything from PaleoTrack to a Fitbit can help you track your progress and enjoy meeting goals, but take advantage of other tools that impose unpleasant results (e.g. lose money you put up front) if you don’t meet a particular goal or that offer a virtual rallying as you work toward an objective.

Now, what say you, readers? Where do you find the motivation to push yourself toward new health endeavors or into deeper, more challenging terrain?

Note: There is a poll embedded within this post, please visit the site to participate in this post's poll.

I hope you’ll take the poll and offer your insights into the sources and strategies of motivation. Thanks for reading, everyone.

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