Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

When you embark upon a health journey it is important to take some time to reflect and explore what the main things are that motivate you. Do you want to improve your energy levels and feel confident in yourself? Or perhaps it is your family and the people around you encouraging you to make healthy changes.

These are interesting questions which centre around the idea of what motivates us, or ‘why do we do what we do?’. Psychologists have determined two types of motivation that explain our behaviours and how we pursue goals: intrinsic (from the inside) and extrinsic (from the outside).

Extrinsic motivation

This occurs when we are motivated to engage in an activity or perform a behaviour in order to earn a reward or avoid punishment. We’re not choosing to do the activity because we enjoy it or find it rewarding, but rather because we’ll earn something in return or avoid something unpleasant.

Examples of extrinsic rewards and motivators are things like a monetary bonus or pay rise at work if we hit specific key targets, competing in sporting competitions for trophies, coming into work on time so we don’t get reprimanded from the manager, or losing weight so we can look better in our clothes.

Intrinsic motivation

This type of motivation involves engaging in behaviour or activity because we find it personally rewarding. Intrinsic motivation plays off our internal interests and values. It means we perform these tasks for our own sake, and are invested in the process, rather than the external reward. The behaviour itself provides us with a reward.

Examples of intrinsic motivators include doing a workout in the morning because it feels good, solving a puzzle because you enjoy the challenge, or choosing healthy meals because you enjoy cooking them.

Which motivator is more effective?

What motivates us is a fascinating concept and will be different for everyone. People who are intrinsically motivated find satisfaction from the mental and physical benefits of weight loss (for example, improvements in their mood, energy, and self-esteem) rather than merely looking better or appeasing others.

Often it can be an extrinsic motivator that gets us going in the beginning, such as our doctor telling us we should lose weight for our health, or our desire to look good for an event in a few months. However, research has shown that extrinsic motivation only keeps us motivated in the short term, and we need to shift into intrinsic motivation to achieve long term results.

How to cultivate intrinsic motivation

This comes down to self-exploration and determining what really matters to you. However, without even realising it, we sometimes make the switch from being extrinsically to intrinsically motivated.

For example, you may start cooking healthy meals to lose weight. But then you find yourself preparing healthy meals because you love the process of finding new recipes and learning a new skill. You might also be enjoying taking lunches into work and sharing your recipes with co-workers. All of a sudden, you’re no longer cooking healthy food to lose weight, but you’re cooking because you enjoy the process. This is a switch from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation and means you’ll be more likely to continue cooking healthy meals in the future.

Another example is starting to exercise because you were told it’s good for mental and physical wellbeing. But as your fitness levels improve, you start to realise you’re exercising because you love it. The feeling of running outside gives you an energy boost and helps to clear your mind. You’ll be more likely to keep up with your running, even when the weather turns cold because you know it makes you feel good (intrinsic motivation).

The key to finding intrinsic motivation is to reflect on the internal benefits of the changes you’re making, rather than the external ones. Next time you do a workout, think about how you feel during and after the workout. Try to turn your focus to this, rather than thinking about how many calories you’re burning. It’s this switch from external to internal motivators that will keep you on track with your healthy changes for many years to come.

Practical challenge

This challenge can help you increase intrinsic motivation:

  1. Start by creating a table with three columns on a sheet of paper with the headings ‘lifestyle change’, ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’.
  2. Take a moment to think about a few of the key changes you have made or would like to make to your lifestyle. For example, cooking more at home, increasing your exercise, and reducing processed foods. Write these down underneath the ‘lifestyle change’ column.
  3. For each lifestyle change, write down your external or ‘extrinsic’ reasons for making this change. Next, think about how to turn this external reason into an internal or ‘intrinsic’ motivation.

This is an example of what your table might look like:

Lifestyle change Extrinsic Intrinsic
Exercise To lose weight and tone up To feel mentally refreshed and confident in my body
Cooking more at home To improve my blood sugar levels and lose weight To feel proud of myself when I cook a new recipe that myself and my family enjoy
Reducing processed foods To lose weight and look better in my clothes To have more energy and feel better within myself

From now on, when you’re doing any of the activities above, try to focus on how this is making you feel. For example, rather cooking because you know the food is good for you, think about how the process of making a meal for yourself and your family makes you feel. Do you feel a sense of achievement looking back at how your cooking skills have improved? Are you enjoying the taste of new ingredients? Or the challenge of attempting new recipes?

Try to continually turn your focus to these intrinsic motivators. This will help you to see the value of making these changes for yourself.

Take home message

  • It is important to identify what motivates you on your health journey.
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from external factors and will not last forever.
  • Intrinsic motivation is engaging in something that we find personally rewarding.
  • Reflecting on the internal benefits of lifestyle changes can help us shift from extrinsic to intrinsic motivators.
  • This shift is what helps us stay on track with our health journey long-term!

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Write a response

Sally Elliff
12 April, 2020

Hi, I am interested in signing up for 3 months. Does the tech go back to you when the 3 months end? One of my biggest problems regarding binging occurs post hypo when I do lose control of my food intake, even when my glucometer says my sugars are normal, I can still feel symptomatic for at least an hour. How would your programme help with this as it is my biggest obstacle to losing weight and maintaining good blood sugar control.
Kind Regards,

Sally Elliff

Tamara Willner
14 April, 2020

Hi Sally, thanks for your comment. Once you sign up and receive the tech, it’s yours to keep! Your qualified health coach can guide you through the programme and tailor it to suit your needs and preferences, including eating for blood sugar control. To find out more, take our health quiz here.

14 January, 2020

An interesting read. I always viewed motivation as a blanket term. Most of my motivators are extrinsic but this will help me focus on more intrinsic motivators.

Penny Blanche
20 July, 2019

Very interesting look at motivation. I’m going to start today with this chart as my motivation can dwindle. Thank you.

20 July, 2019

This is great, a really good reminder for when I lose focus and motivation.