The New You

Finding the motivation to change.

This One Form of Motivation Might Be Sabotaging Your Goals

What's the most, and least, effective form of motivation?

Want to hear the oldest joke in Hollywood? Of course you do:

On the first day of shooting, a young American actor is unable to get into character. Frantically turning the pages of the script, he moans to the director, “It’s no use! I just don’t know how to approach this scene, it’s just too problematic! In this scene, my character leaves and goes to the bathroom. But what’s my character’s thought process for going to the bathroom at that moment?

The Director, baffled, responds: To use it, I should think.

Actor: Yes, but what’s my motivation as an actor?

Director: Your paycheck.

The joke’s punchline—on the multiple levels of “motivation”—ran through my mind the other day. But does money really motivate us? What is the single most powerful way to get motivated? Let’s find out.

Recently, I was reading a fascinating article on “The Secret of Effective Motivation”, which tracked the success of various West Point military graduates to see how their reasons for joining influenced their success.

As the joke above shows, there are two kinds of motivation. External motivation (sometimes called extrinsic) is any outside force that drives you to do something. Think fame, recognition or, as our British director put it, the paycheck.

Then there’s internal motivation (sometimes called intrinsic), which compels us to work at something because the inner value of the activity is personally fulfilling and meaningful. We might exercise to be more able to be there for our kids or paint because it brings us a sense of meaning, for example.

The West Point researchers found that people who had internal motives performed best of all, which is expected. They signed up to better themselves, to become leaders, etc. But here’s the unexpected result: the graduates who had both intrinsic and extrinsic motives—the soldiers who went to West Point to serve their country and were externally motivated (for instance, by a paycheck) —did worse in every measure over their careers. In other words, having two kinds of motivation actually makes you less successful than just having one.

So ask yourself why you perform certain tasks. Is the motivation intrinsic or extrinsic? Are you doing it for the meaning and impact of your work, or the financial rewards? From there, find ways to fuel your intrinsic motivation.

Here’s one Fader-tested solution: write the reason for wanting to achieve your goal (in five words or less) on a small paper and tape it to the back of your phone. Better yet, make it your actual wallpaper on your home screen. That way, whenever you check your texts or your Twitter—for me, every three minutes or so—you’ll be reminded why you’re doing what you’re doing, which will continually rekindle your intrinsic drive to excel.

And as the oldest joke in Hollywood reminds us, that’s something a paycheck just can’t do.

For more on motivation, you can follow me on Twitter @drfader or Facebook.

Jonathan Fader, Ph.D., is a psychologist and an assistant professor of family medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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