How deadlines can be murder on motivation

Deadlines: How yours can be murder on motivation.

Posted Mar 08, 2010

I am passionate about doing therapy. While people often bemoan the lack of meaning or importance in their jobs, I feel gratitude for what mine offers. What could be better than making your living doing what you enjoy AND doing something that helps others?

Basically, I am driven to be a therapist by what psychologists call intrinsic motivation. It arises from within and creates a drive to do something. We all experience it, though in differing areas of interest.For instance, you can be intrinsically motivated to paint, perfect your athletic ability in a sport, or make the best snow sculpture ever. The important thing is not what you do, but rather why you do it. So, if your prime motivation for these same behaviors is fame or fortune (rather than the love of doing them), then you are mostly extrinsically motivated. Though extrinsic motivation has its benefits (such as helping keep your job so you can pay the rent), it is also more subject to the influence or control of others - even if only through approval or disapproval. While everyone experiences both kinds of motivation, those who tend to be more intrinsically motivated also tend to be happier. They enjoy the activity as well as its outcome.

I think I'm particularly lucky because my life is filled with intrinsically motivated activities. In the last couple of years, I have been deeply immersed in psychological literature, finding a topic of interest and preparing to write a book. Each morning, as I get my children ready for school, I am already looking forward to my research. Then, in the blink of an eye (or so it seems), my children are home again. If you've had the good fortune to completely lose yourself in an activity, then you can relate. This kind of intense experience has a technical name: flow. And that's really what it feels like, flowing along in an experience. Corny as it might sound, you feel one with the experience.

In any case, I have really enjoyed my research and writing. Along the way, I began this Making Change blog on; to document my exploration of what the field of psychology has to offer related to making personal changes (as explained in my first entry, Finding the right path to change). More recently, I took on being the ‘relationships' expert on WebMD's ‘Sex and Relationships' Health Exchange. These are both fun and interesting activities. But they each take time. And, I eventually smacked up against the aphorism, There are only so many hours in a day.

I was naturally inclined to slow the writing for my book, but I didn't. Instead, I followed some advice I had read somewhere; Tell people about my project. The idea was that this would provide me with both support and the pressure to keep working. Unfortunately, it worked - just not the way I had intended.

At first, telling others seemed to strengthen my commitment. I told myself to just keep going. I knew I could do it; I could meet my personal deadlines. And that was true; I could. But what was also true was that I was no longer enjoying the process. I was actually beginning to resent that I wasn't done yet. Another adage popped to mind: I was winning each battle but losing the war.

Luckily, I had actually been paying attention to all the reading I've been doing, and I knew exactly what was going on. The psychological literature is clear on this. External motivation, while sometimes helpful, can also undermine intrinsic motivation. When someone is doing something because they like it, you can lessen their intrinsic motivation by rewarding them with praise and encouragement; or providing other external motivation - like deadlines. Apparently, I needed to learn this lesson in real life, rather than just reading about it.

Now I know. When I need to motivate myself to do something I don't enjoy, I use rewards and deadlines - and, no doubt, I'm better off for doing that. But, when I already enjoy doing something (and given that I am a disciplined person), then I just need to let nature take its course.

(By the way, I am back on the slower, but oh-so-much-more-enjoyable, path to writing my book, now armed with some first-hand experience on "making change.")


Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.