Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: How To Use Each Type

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Whether it’s to work out, drink more water, or achieve a big career milestone, having the motivation—that fire under your booty—to get up and get after your goals makes all the difference. But that doesn’t mean motivation is always easy to tap into—especially when you really don’t want to do the thing (we’re looking at you, piles of laundry). 

So, how do you cultivate motivation? The first step is understanding the different motivation types (yes, there’s more than one). Enter: intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Keep reading to learn the differences between the two motivation types, when it’s best to use each one, and most importantly, how to tap into them when you need that boost of enthusiasm to get the job done. 

The differences: intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

“Intrinsic motivation is when you perform a behavior because you find it rewarding,” says Tess Brigham, MFT, a psychotherapist and certified life coach. “You choose to participate in the behavior because it makes you happy.” Examples of doing things based on intrinsic motivation include taking online yoga classes that makes you feel good, learning a new language to satisfy your curiosity about the world, working on a passion project, or playing an instrument that brings you joy.

With extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, the motivation comes from outside of you. “Extrinsic motivation is when you perform a behavior because you either want to avoid some kind of punishment or you want to earn a reward,” Brigham says. “You wouldn’t perform this behavior unless there was a reward or punishment attached to it.” Examples of extrinsic motivation include doing something to make money, please someone, gain their approval, or receive attention.

While it seems like intrinsic motivation would be the superior form of motivation because it’s aligned with your purpose, one motivation type is not necessarily better than the other. They each play an important role. “There has been research to show that both types have a positive effect on human behavior,” Brigham says. “While it would be nice if we always felt intrinsically motivated to work, it’s the rewards (receiving a salary) or punishment (being fired) that gives us the drive and motivation we need to get the job done.”

When it’s best to use intrinsic motivation

When it comes to creating long-term change and achieving big goals, having intrinsic motivation is vital. “Purpose is far more fulfilling than meeting obligations,” says LaTonya Wilkins, an ICF-credentialed career and executive coach. In other words, outside motivation will only get you so far. You need that internal motivation to get you to the finish line. Extrinsic motivation may help get the ball rolling initially, but intrinsic motivation is definitely required to create substantial results. 

To cultivate intrinsic motivation, whether it’s for a big goal or a small task, you must tap into why you want to achieve the task. Brigham suggests visualizing how you’re going to feel after you’ve accomplished it. “Name and identify the feelings,” she says. “Think about how accomplishing this task will affect other aspects of your life. You may discover that you’re not as motivated to accomplish something because the task doesn’t align with your values and the person you are today.”

For example, let’s say the dreaded task is cleaning out your garage. Focus on what you’ll do with that clean space after the task is done. Maybe you’ll turn it into a home gym, which aligns with your values of living a healthy lifestyle. Or, focus on how donating your old stuff can really benefit someone in need and how good that’s going to make you feel. Once you tap into that bigger why, suddenly you may be excited to start decluttering.

When it’s best to use extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation can be a major help when there’s a shorter-term task on your to-do list that you’re just not that excited about, and getting started feels like a real challenge. It’s that extra push you need to get invested in the activity. One of the cool things, Brigham notes, is that having some sort of external reward for doing a task gives you the motivation to do it. Once you’re in the thick of it, you may find that you’re more interested in doing the thing than you initially thought. This type of motivation works well in classrooms, or even in the workplace, when someone isn’t participating or reaching their full potential. 

You can also create extrinsic motivation for yourself by finding an accountability buddy that will hold you responsible for finishing the task. They can also be in charge of setting up a reward for you once you complete the task, like doing a face mask or watching an episode (or four) of The Office to unwind. The reward, however, Brigham says, should be in line with the difficulty of the task at hand. For example, to clean out your garage, treating yourself to a latte may not get you going, but perhaps the thought of getting a massage or having a spa day may. Pro tip: Brigham advises also setting up mini-rewards along the way, like taking a coffee break or dancing around to your favorite song, which will make the task feel less punitive. 

If, on the other hand, you’re the type that’s more motivated by the feeling of accomplishing something, Brigham suggests finding ways to praise yourself once you finish. “For example, if you cleaned out the garage, when you’re finished, don’t just move on to the next task, spend some time and energy really taking it all in,” Brigham says. “Grab someone at home and show them the garage and tell them everything you did and allow them to praise you. Maybe even plan to spend some time in the garage so you can enjoy your accomplishment.”

How to know which motivation type to use

Each scenario that requires motivation will be different, which means you’ll need different forms to accomplish each. For example, the necessary motivation to get up early and attend a virtual Pilates class will be different from the motivation required to start a business and deal with all of the challenges and obstacles that come up. That’s why it’s important to know when it’s appropriate to tap into either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Below, find some pro tips to help you navigate different situations. 

Don’t add in extrinsic motivation if it’s not needed

If you’re already all fired up to do something thanks to intrinsic motivation, adding in external motivation may not be the best thing. “Intrinsic motivation will decrease when we introduce extrinsic rewards,” Brigham says. “For example, you love making jewelry for yourself and your friends, but then you decide to start selling your jewelry on Etsy. Now you’re working until 2 a.m. making necklaces, and you’re only focused on how much you earned that week.”

Get curious and ask yourself questions

Finding out what motivation type you need requires some self-reflection. Wilkins recommends asking yourself the following: Do I want to create long-term motivation? Would I like to reframe this project from obligatory to meaningful? Does this project span beyond short-term needs? “If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, intrinsic motivation is the way to go.” As a general rule of thumb, intrinsic is needed for long-term goals, and extrinsic works better for short-term goals. 

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