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The power of intrinsic motivation

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Post by: Annie Weiss, Swiftwick ambassador.

The power of motivation is huge when it comes to accomplishing anything. But different people find this power in different ways.

Often what drives a person to achieve a goal is a reward. “If I finish this marathon, I get to drink and eat all day with no consequences.” “If I study for this test, I will get an A+.”  “If I finish all of my work projects, I get to buy new shoes.” These extrinsic motivators push people to achieve some of the most basic tasks up to the athletic goals they never thought were obtainable.

But what about the other type of motivator- the intrinsic kind? Intrinsic motivation is when you are motivated to complete a goal because it’s exciting and challenging; you participate in the task for its own sake. People who have intrinsic motivation are motivated by the sheer internal reward of completing a task- finishing a race, getting a PhD, completing work projects. And they do it simply… because!

As an ultra-distance runner, many people ask how I am able to complete such long races or how I have time for daily three-hour training sessions with a full-time job and other responsibilities. I shrug my shoulders and typically say, “I dunno, because it’s what I do.” Whether or not I win a race, running is challenging and pushes my limits. I don’t need more than that to be satisfied. In my mind, why would I do any form of running if it doesn’t present a challenge? I don’t go into a race clouding my mind with rewards I could get if I finish. I go into a race because it’s a personal challenge and betters me as an athlete.

So how are some people internally motivated to do these things? Why? How do you turn external reward into internal satisfaction? Is it wrong to have rewards? Can there be both external and internal rewards? 

To become an intrinsic-motivated person, first you have to set a goal and think about why you do what you do. If you run to stay healthy, your purpose of running might be to avoid disease later in life. That makes sense, but that’s still an external motivation. I’ll say it as it is – many people who exercise to battle disease and weight typically don’t actually like exercise. They may like the idea of it but need rewards to actually accomplish it. If your goal is to run in the Boston Marathon, that is typically the external motivation to run the qualifying time. For most people, the qualifying time is tough to reach and many people give up. This is more than likely because they are focused on the external motivator. Finding a goal and then determining why it’s a goal is key to turning external into internal motivation.

Remember, it’s not suppose to be all flowers and butterflies when you challenge yourself; its supposed to be hard! Risk taking is not for everyone, but for the intrinsically motivated, it’s huge. As you start to challenge yourself more and push your limits, intrinsic motivation will increase immensely.

Certainly motivators can co-exist together. For example, one runner’s goal may be to break a course record by running as fast as possible during a race. Let’s say he runs a seven minute/mile pace and the next best guy can only run at a 10 minute/mile pace. Why wouldn’t our runner just run a 9.59 minute/mile pace and still finish first? Externally, he is tying to break a course record. Internally, it’s the drive to push limits. They operate together, of course, but in the end, it’s the intrinsic motivators that get you to your limits, help you find your passions, and people can actually see they can do more than they think.

Maybe for you, running any distance is entirely external – and that’s definitely okay! You may have a different activity that is intrinsic or you, whether it’s a different sport, work, school or something else entirely. Essentially, it’s where your passion lies. If your true passion in life is running, it will be entirely intrinsic. If your true passion is being a parent, those will be your most selfless and internally motivated moments. If your true passion is volunteering, then once again, it’s all internal. It’s important to recognize this and also accept that not everyone will be like you or understand your true passion (or path) in life.

I sometimes forget that many people, even family and friends, do not understand why I devote so much time and energy to what they consider a hobby. They wonder why I would want to spend so much time away from home or why I have to get up at 4 am every day or why I eat the way I do. Well, because I found my passion. It’s challenging; it’s exciting. My motivation is within me. And once you find that, it cannot be avoided.

Motivation speaks to me in many ways; it’s the basis for why I do anything in my life, even outside of running. Think about your motivations and what internally drives you. Latch onto that power! 

This article originally appeared on Annie’s blog.

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