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Intrinsic motivation: 5 ways that highly-motivated people find their drive

6 minute read

Are some of us born with drive and others not? According to Vhi Health Coach Micheli Romao, the right motivation is something you can nurture. Let’s look at what’s really going on with those highly-motivated types, giving you a roadmap for real long-term success.

When we say “motivation”, it can feel self-explanatory: being filled with the energy to make things happen. But where does it come from? And why do we often struggle with it?

It’s actually a very new field of research and, crucially, we’re finding that there are very different types of motivation. It all comes down to the things that drive us in our daily lives. The most successful, highly-motivated people have a keen understanding of that.

A lot of our time is taken up with extrinsic motivation. That is, being driven by some external reward. It can be performance-based, take in competitive elements, and is the kind of motivation guiding you towards, say, your next promotion at work. Extrinsic motivation is also quite short-term in its focus.

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is driven by an internal reward system. It is the source of motivation that leads to mastering – and mastering leads to long-term learning. So, what drives it? A sense of achievement within yourself. Finding the balance where you are in harmony with what you believe is right and what you think has worth. To get there, you need clearly-defined aspirations – an “ideal” – that you are working towards. When you start doing that, you become “worth it” yourself, because you are more connected to those values every day. You are becoming the person that you’d like to be.

There are plenty of other elements at play. What’s interesting about the latest research into motivation is that it’s changing the belief that this highly-motivated trait is something that you just tap into.

Instead, we’re learning that it needs nourishment and engagement. It’s not something you’re necessarily born with; you’re going to have to foster it. Here are 5 ways that highly-motivated people do just that…

1. Find your core values

This is so important for intrinsic motivation. Of course, you want to perform and engage with daily tasks, but that is short-term. To get truly intrinsic, you want long-term changes in learning and reward systems. So, the first step is uncovering these values.

When training you to build intrinsic motivation, I would ask certain questions. Consider these yourself:

  • What do you truly love in life?
  • What kind of person do you want to be?
  • What is your mission and purpose in life?

For instance, you might love nature and travelling.

So, who do you want to be? ‘When I’m older I want to be out enjoying nature and travelling.’

Your motivation then becomes the thing that links them: ‘I want to be active and exploring, despite getting older. So… my motivation is ageing well, so I can keep doing what I really love in life.’

I have children, so being a good mother is a deep value. This means that every time I put a healthy breakfast on the table, I feel closer to that value and the truth of it nourishes my motivation.

When you know your core values, you know why you do things. You have authentic drive. This, in turn, will make you more willing to step outside your comfort zone.

2. Ditch the self-judgement

Be aware of limiting or disabling thoughts. Top athletes are not overly judgemental on themselves or others. Rather than feeling like a failure if they don’t succeed, they immediately go to: ‘What could I have done better?’ They learn from their mistakes so, step-by-step, they can improve.

‘Perfectionism’ gets in the way of this. Once you go down that path, you are cracking your motivation. It can be a way of avoidance, leading to self-doubting procrastination. It’s a completely natural defence mechanism; you’re protecting yourself from some perceived danger. In this case, a fear of failure. However, the idea that you have to be perfect is the idea that stops you trying. Good is better than perfect, because good gets done.

3. Work SMART

So how do you get it done? A SMART approach will give you goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely.

Make a list, then prioritise the tasks that are most important to you. Take each action one by one and break them into small steps until they don’t seem daunting.

When you approach things in a more contained manner, they become less big and frightening. If you earmark an entire day for completing a job and then something comes up, you’re in trouble. Manage your expectations instead so that you have realistic commitments that can be adapted.

One problem is that we expect a lot of ourselves. So, for this exercise, put yourself in the place of a good friend. A good friend would never demand that you write that essay in one day! They’d consider your wellbeing and suggest you tackle it in a manageable way.

4. Practice self-care

A strong self-care routine goes hand-in-hand with intrinsic motivation. People with a strong self-care routine exercise, eat well, take breaks and enjoy family time. They have boundaries to keep that work-life balance. That includes marking when your workday finishes. Even if you’re working at home, go for a walk or take a hot shower to enter a more relaxed frame of mind. Meditation can also help.

Vhi members get €30 off meditation apps

Think of your core values as the road you are on and motivation as your car. If you have no fuel, you’ll go nowhere! We shouldn’t take things like diet and sleep for granted.

If you’re loaded with sugar, you’ll get the rush and then crash, which brings about anxiety and depression. A square of dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) can work if you’ve a craving. If caffeine affects you negatively, switch to herbal teas or add flavour to your water.

Movement is also important for optimum cognition. Think of the systems activated in your brain when you’re out for a walk: recognising natural light, shapes, sounds, being aware of the space you’re taking up (a thing we called “proprioception”). It’s important to keep that wiring working and it distracts your brain, allowing space for creativity. When I walk, I have great ideas. To think outside the box, you have to be outside the box.

5. Practice optimism & resilience

People who have strong intrinsic motivation are optimists. They know that there is always tomorrow and, because they’re learning from their mistakes, they know that tomorrow will be better. ‘Learning’ rather than ‘failing’ allows them to be resilient, controlling their emotions and stress levels with logic.

Self-care makes it easier to adopt this mindset, as does having the right social support. Try to surround yourself with positive people who have your best interests at heart. At the same time, you need to bring responsibility to your own actions. Blaming others if things don’t go your way should not be your first line of thinking.

Finally, if you lose focus or feel your motivation draining, return to your mission statement. In my case, there are times when I don’t feel like doing that extra bit around the house. Where I feel like sticking on some pre-cooked food for the kids. But then I remember that’s not who I want to be. I want to be the person who pushes a little further for their kids.

When things get overwhelming, I take a couple of minutes and bring those core value questions back into my mind.

That reminds me where I need to go and helps me stay focused. Whatever your own personal values and challenges, this process can build and restore your own sense of intrinsic motivation and keep you moving in the right direction, too.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Micheli Romano

Micheli Romao

Vhi Health Coach

Psychologist & Psychotherapist