What motivates us?

What motivates us?

by | 5 min read

Many of us struggle with motivation.

How many projects have you started but never finished? I know my list is longer than I would like to admit.

We initially get excited about the project but when it ends up taking longer than we anticipated, our motivation wanes, and we move on to the next shiny object.

There is a pattern to all of these uncompleted projects, and it relates to the type of motivation that got me started.

There are 2 types of motivation, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation

When I look back at all those unfinished projects, they all tend to have one thing in common.

I didn’t start the project because it would be a fun thing to work on. I started it because I thought it might make me some money.

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I have started multiple blogs, but never really stuck at it because I wasn’t always writing about something I was passionate about, and as such I couldn’t find the motivation to continue. Some of those blogs never even made it past the first post.

It is the same for other tasks as well. When I am only interested in the end result and not the process itself, I would eventually lose motivation.

I find this with most of the jobs I have had over my career. There is the initial excitement of a new job, and I am enjoying learning new skills.

At some point, though, we get so good at our jobs that we can practically do them on autopilot. We stop learning new things but stay at work because the money is decent, and it pays the bills. Yet, we struggle to get out of bed on a Monday morning.

The extrinsic motivation, in this case, is the money, but in some cases, it can be the praise from others or the status of the job.

There was a study done with children in school. They found a group of children who enjoyed drawing. Each day, they would send them to a little room with a one-way mirror, so they could be observed while they play with some magic markers.

The children were split into 3 different groups. One group was told that they would receive a “Good Player” award for doing some drawing. The second group were not told anything but were unexpectedly given the award when they finished. The third group were not given anything other than positive feedback on the drawings they had done.

Two weeks later, they gave the same children magic markers to play with but with no rewards given and observe how long they played with them. Out of the 3 groups, the group that had been given the “Good Player” reward played with the pens half as much as the other 2 groups.

The very act of telling the children they would receive a reward for doing the activity caused them to lose interest in it, even if they enjoyed it beforehand.

This is why they say you shouldn’t turn your hobbies into your profession, if you are doing something for a reward (in this case money) then it will likely cause you to lose motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

As a kid, you probably never needed the motivation to play with your toys. Someone didn’t need to come and convince you to stick at it just a little bit longer.

“I am sorry, but we need you to play with your Lego for another hour.”

Out of all my projects, it was the ones that I did, just because I wanted to, that I managed to finish.

I have never had trouble finishing a book I was enjoying, playing a game or completing a puzzle. Yet when it comes to my money-making side hustles, I usually stop before it makes me any money. I just can’t find the motivation to continue.

We always manage to find time to do those activities that we truly enjoy, but put off anything that feels too much like work.

After all, if someone needs to pay us to do something then it must not be something they want to do, so why should I enjoy it?

What is the alternative?

So here we have a bit of a conundrum.

On the one hand, we want to do work that we enjoy doing, but on the other hand, if we get paid to do what we enjoy, then chances are we won’t enjoy doing it any more.

Confucius once said:

“Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”

However, clearly, that is not entirely true. By turning what you love into a job, it will end up feeling like work.

So how do we overcome this?

To start with, it is important to have some hobbies that you are never going to try and monetise. At least not intentionally.

As for me, I play the guitar and I like to draw.

I am not great at guitar, but I enjoy doing it and trying to get better at it. I only ever play my guitar when I feel like playing it. Sometimes I can go a few weeks without touching it, and other times I will be strumming my guitar every day.

Drawing, I would say I was probably better at most, and I probably could make a living from it if I wanted to (I have shared some on Instagram in the past). Again, I only draw when I feel like drawing, which admittedly has been a couple of years since I last drew anything other than a doodle.

I am never going to try and monetise either of these hobbies, so there is no fear that I am going to turn a passion into a job.

There are some skills that I am actively hoping to make money from, but it isn’t the end goal.

For example, I have a YouTube channel where I explain software engineering concepts. I hope one day to make an income from it, but I am not relying on it.

Similarly, I write on my blog which will hopefully one day turn into a full-time income, but for now, I am just happy to write about subjects I enjoy writing about.

Both of these have the potential to become a job that I love doing. There is a key difference though between being paid for my work on YouTube and the writing on my blog compared to being paid for a drawing.

The pay isn’t directly linked to the work produced.

If I do a drawing which I later sell, then I am explicitly getting money from the work I am producing. If I want more money, then I need to draw more. Thus turning a passion into a job and sucking the enjoyment out of it.

With YouTube and blogging, however, the work I am doing now will at some point earn me an income in the future.

For example, I may earn advertising revenue and affiliate commissions when I write a blog post. However, I am not earning anything from the words I am writing today, but instead from posts that I wrote 6 months or more ago.

It takes a while for posts to find their ranking in Google, and therefore I don’t directly notice that I am getting paid for my work, it is just a happy side effect.

If you want to do work that you love doing without the damaging extrinsic motivators, then look for work that doesn’t have an immediate payoff.

Do the work because you want to do it.

Do the work because it feels like play.

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