motivation 101: the rules of engagement

… an inadequate theory of human motivation, could be revolutionized by accepting the reality of higher human needs, including the impulse to self actualization and the love for the highest values.Abraham Maslow

If there’s a question that just seems to come up time and again for me as a coach it’s one related to the often confusing and vexed domain of what truly gets us up and at ‘em and makes change happen. It’s a conversation which typically runs something like this …

‘I really want to … (here add dilemma of choice e.g. get my butt off the couch and go do some exercise, clean the house, get a new job, do some study) but somehow I just don’t. What’s the secret?’


It’s tough, isn’t it? Wanting stuff to happen in our lives, but despite our very best intentions all those ‘I’m gonna’s’ rarely get much further than a great idea and yet another forgotten note-to-self. Or alternatively (say, when trying to maintain a regular ongoing exercise schedule), we can set off like the proverbial bull in a china shop, yet in a week or two all that remains is a dim memory of an exercise bike and a guilt-ridden pair of running shoes chucked somewhere in the back of the closet. In fact 90% of gyms throughout the world probably bank on just this foible of fickle human dynamics. Gleefully watching all those cross-my-heart-I’m-really-really-gonna-do-it-this-time New Years Resolutions fill their January balance sheets and treadmills, while those very same running machines are virtually empty come Easter.

So what is the secret? Well frankly if I had a simple answer to that, I’d be a very rich man indeed. ‘What motivates and keeps us motivated?’ is a question keenly asked not only by we civilians, as it is by educators, business leaders,  human development researchers and on. And to be honest there just ain’t no simple answer. However, there are some very powerful tools and strategies which can and will work extremely effectively, and that’s what we’re going to unpack.

Let’s kick off by unpicking motivation itself, and for that I’d like to begin by clarifying some key fundamental differences between two important-to-know categories psychological researchers term intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivators are typically defined as those underpinned by an external force of attraction or lure which creates the incentive for you to get your butt out of the house and into action. A great example of this is the gravitational sway of the almighty buck. For most of us the very reason we bother to front up to work each day is that on one rather pragmatic level we need the spondoolix. No money, no honey! The very same dynamic applies if I were to pay you to train. You wish! The cash would provide an external incentive for you to do it and is therefore an extrinsic motivator.

Intrinsic motivators on the other hand are innate, volitional qualities that exist within all of us which naturally and spontaneously fire us to action. Sometimes (and you may well be one of these lucky ones) our motivation for going to work may have little or nothing to do with getting paid, but instead be due to generative and entirely altruistic qualities such as meaning, purpose or perhaps a simple heartfelt desire to make a difference in the world. In this case the self-generative feedback, powered by our own innate resources (ergo intrinsic) is sufficient to get us up and at it each day.

In some camps there’s a view that these guys are a binary either/or … good/bad choice. And while there’s  some evidence to suggest that extrinsic motivators tend more towards limited and short-term success rather than the long game, I personally believe we’d be nuts to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

My view is that BOTH of these have unique strengths and can and should be skilfully recruited into a hybrid, more powerful and effective than each on its own.


One highly effective use of an extrinsic motivator might be if you wanted to exchange some of those soft old flappy bits for something sleeker, toned and a whole lot hotter. In other words: an extrinsic motivation simply to look a little better. Nothing wrong there at all if that’s what it take to get you off the couch. For many of us (my hand is up here!), simple narcissistic desire alone is some powerful mojo to get us cracking and on the way to that superstar body.

Powerful as it might be for the initial spark, the downside with the extrinsic approach is (as research shows us) it’s mostly only good for the short-game. For a longer-lasting and more innately rewarding effect with less efforting, then the unerring slow burn of intrinsic motivation is where you’ll also need to turn your attention.

One route to cultivate the intrinsic is in gaining clarity on your core values. Values are the innate qualities most important and enlivening to you. What’s most important to you and why? And how are these connected to the activity? For example, in the area of exercise, you might hold values of health and fitness or strength and power. You may even discover that a hugely motivating factor is your value of family security, making your health vital in meeting this.

This list can be virtually endless and there’s plenty of values identification tools out there, but what helps truly identify yours is this:

What goes on in you when you consider each quality? When you do, how they make you feel?


Directly in your body I mean. Our highest values are typically ones which simply feel energizing when we consider them, which kind of gives you a clue how they might provide the impetus for change. In my experience when we connect these appropriately with the desired goal, then frankly my friend you’ve got something of an unstoppable force.

Rather than viewing extrinsic and intrinsic motivators as a kind of good cop/bad cop knock-’em-out, what I hope I’ve made clear is that both these qualities are of value – though the trick is, knowing how to balance them skilfully to best effect.

The topic of motivation is often framed with metaphors of heat or flame – inner fires, stoking boilers, heat going out … you get the picture. And at risk of flogging a grammatical horse to death, I think the same might serve us well here too. Let’s face it, getting started and staying started – whether it’s a new fitness regime or a campfire – can be tough stuff!

So, how do we build a successful fire? C’mon campers. Start small, add spark, build and consolidate, right?

Extrinsic motivation (let’s say the desire to get rid of the love handles and rediscover those long lost abs) while great to get things going, alone is unlikely to prove a winning long-term strategy. Treat this type of motivator a little like kindling. It burns hot but tends to go out quickly. Perfect for getting things started.

Once it’s flickered into life, now’s time to nurture and consolidate. This is when we give precious air to the inner qualities that truly want us to succeed  – those intrinsically energizing values. These guys are like logs that crackle away and glow long into the night.

And sometimes we need a little mix of the two. Like any campfire, if whole thing turns to embers, we may simply need a little extrinsic spark to fan it all back up again. Learning how to skilfully build both forms of motivation into your success toolbox is what truly works.

What might be considered a bonus feature is by managing to stay applied to anything (and by this I mean any topic from exercise or conversation right through to base jumping) long enough, in time we’re bound to notice improvement. We build skill and with consistent application of that comes learning and growth. We also begin to notice a growing sense of mastery (another potential value) and as we do, we may very likely find ourselves moving into what Positive Psychologists like to call flow. Flow is a highly-desirable and energized state characterized by mastery, challenge and an abiding sense of timelessness which, if sustained, offers an ongoing positive feedback-loop, intrinsically keeping us seeking ever greater degrees of challenge, achievement and learning.

If we do manage our progress skilfully, these twin poles of intrinsic and extrinsic, rather than appearing oppositional, tend to develop into a sort of self-supporting tango, each one leading, lifting and assisting the other in turn. Once those intrinsic motivators properly engage and the mastery kicks in, time you’ll likely doubtless begin to get some further extrinsic feedback boost to boot. In the example we’ve used of getting out to exercise, suddenly that hot, sleek body you craved gradually begins to emerge from the couch potato that kicked this all off in the first place.

You’ll begin to feel ever more alive and energized. You start to see and feel first hand the change after each session, all of which will serve to inspire you even more and here too as in flow, we find ourselves locked in a self-motivational feedback loop of sorts.

Yes, it all takes a little time. But finding ways to skilfully weave each of your key motivators, extrinsic and intrinsic, into the very fabric of your life, of consistently moving you closer towards your goals and your ideal you, is what will truly pay dividends.

Values are vital to goal acquisition though often we endow them with a sort of loftiness and in doing so disempower the extrinsic motivators but as we’ve seen this doesn’t need to be so. Bringing them together in a self-supporting tango is by far the most powerful way to go. Just make sure you’ve taken time to actually figure out what each are. Knowledge is also power!