What is the best source of intrinsic motivation? Basically, how the hell do we get and stay motivated?

What is the best source of intrinsic motivation? This was a question one of my coaching clients asked a few weeks ago.

Every day we wake up motivated to obtain our basic needs. Food, water, sex, shelter, and social interaction. Some days we wake up more motivated to pursue these things than others. But that motivation is never turned off. It’s simply turned up or down based on what’s going on in our life.

  • Did you get a good night sleep
  • Just broke up with someone
  • Maybe you got laid last night
  • Death in the family
  • You attended a really awesome seminar

These things and thousands of others can influence our motivations on any given day. Now that we know we’re not going to be motivated all the time, or at least not to the level we’d like. How can we plan for when motivation is low? That’s what we’ll be diving into today.

On with it.

What is the best source of intrinsic motivation? Let’s first look at what motivation is.

punch today in the face

Motivation is what drives people to action. However, it’s not needed to drive action. It’s one part of the puzzle.

Sometimes this feels automatic, like brushing your teeth, walking the dog, or taking out the trash. You might not even recognize this as motivation. – they’ve become habits

Other times motivation can feel like something you have to muster up. It can take more physical, mental, or emotional energy. Like dieting, working out, or writing a paper. 

In his book Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg describes motivation as your party animal friend. Great for a night out but not someone you would rely on to pick you up from the airport.

When it’s there great, take advantage of it. But it’s not the most reliable thing.

Extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation and other motivation flavors

In her course Psych Skills For Fitness Pros, licensed psychologist Dr. Lisa Lewis describes the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for us. 

Extrinsic motivation: A means to an end. The reward is a separate consequence, such as money, social approval, attaining a value or personal goal. 

Intrinsic motivation is 100% autonomous: The reward you get is internal. Sheer enjoyment, feeling in the zone, being effective, or stepping into your badassness. Intrinsic motivation refers to people’s spontaneous tendencies to be curious and interested, to seek out challenges, and to exercise and develop their skills and knowledge, even in the absence of operationally separable rewards (1)

But according to self-determination theory, there are some other types of motivation too. Not less, more, wrong or right motivation, but instead different types of it. Dr. Lisa Lewis describes them as. 

Introjected regulation: It’s cold. I don’t want to go the gym. Drag me there because I know I’ll feel better after

Identified regulation: Potty training the dog or sleep training your baby. It’s not something you really want to do but see the value and the outcomes being important.

Integrated regulation: You love going to the gym, being active outside it, brings you joy even though it doesn’t always look like a lot of fun.

We won’t be diving into these individually. But instead, we’ll be discussing what drives or does not drive them.

Where we go wrong with motivation (why it’s hard sometimes)

Most of us believe motivation is needed to take action. But Motivation is the result of action and not the cause of it. The more action we take the more motivation can build. 

action leads to motivation


There’s also a tendency to believe we don’t have motivation. But you can be motivated to workout and also be motivated to binge-watch Netflix at the same time. We confuse this for not being motivated to workout but in reality it’s ambivalence between two competing motivations. One which provides immediate gratification, the other, not so much. Feeling two opposite ways at the same time is completely normal. What’s going on here is a discrepancy between our values and actions.

Not excepting that there are tradeoffs in life. When you say yes to one thing there’s a good chance you’re saying no to something else. When we’re motivated, it’s easier to accept these tradeoffs.

Motivations develop overtime. The more consistent you are the deeper those motivations become

Our motivations typically start extrinsically and revolve around some external goal. They have very specific rewards or repercussions around them.

  • run a 5k
  • lose 20 pounds
  • get a six-pack.
  • revenge body
  • preparing for a wedding

Some people say external goals like this shouldn’t be your source of motivation. But fuck those people. External things like this are wonderful.  They’re often what get us to take the first step towards building intrinsic motivation. 

But these things are usually surface-level motivations for what we really want. That being to get closer to or further away from some sort of pain and discomfort. This is important because pain can get us to do and not do “all the things.”

When you embrace pain and discomfort these external motivators develop into intrinsic motivation the longer we stay with it. It becomes a part of an identity.

  • I’m a rock climber
  • Crossfitter
  • Runner
  • I just don’t eat those types of foods

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear tells us that the key to building long-lasting habits is by changing your identity. “Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).”

When you changed your identity be prepared for some challenges. When you change you’re also asking other people to change. They’re used to a certain version of you and you may get push back. You may be judged, criticized, or challenged. 

How to get and stay motivated

A common belief around achieving a goal is that we need to get and sustain motivation.

  • We need to motivate ourselves to go to the gym.
  • We need to motivate ourselves to eat healthier and resist junk food.
  • We need to motivate ourselves to turn off Netflix and get to bed

Motivation might get you to the gym once but it doesn’t get you to keep going. Actually going to the gym gets you motivated to keep going to the gym.

Motivation might get you to eat one healthier meal but it doesn’t keep you eating healthier. The more you eat healthier, the more motivated you to keep eating healthier you’ll be.

The key to becoming more motivated is to keep taking action. Any kind of action, no matter how big or how small.

Action = motivation

Then why is it so hard to get yourself to take action? This is because most of us only take action when we’re hit with emotional inspiration or deathly afraid of the consequences of not taking action.

You go to work each day because the consequence of not going is chowing down on half-eaten sandwiches, and take out Chinese from a trash can in a seedy back alley.

Another large problem around motivating yourself is that it’s usually associated with difficult emotions.

  • The pain and struggle of going to the gym.
  • The boredom of a healthier diet.
  • Going to bed earlier instead of staying up late with friends.

Finally, we struggle with motivation because we do the same thing over and over again. We tell ourselves that to accomplish X we just need to do it – to display more motivation or willpower.

We never create an action plan that focuses on our behaviors and addresses our current habits, past failures, and the environment that influences us.

It’s important to acknowledge that at some point you’re not going to feel motivated to workout or do another meal prep. And this is ok.

When you’re motivated, take advantage of it – it’s an opportunity to do hard things. But when you’re not, here are a few things to try to get you going.

1). Make getting and staying started easier

Using exercise as an example. Instead of trying to commit to making it to the gym 6 days per week for 60 minutes. Remove some of the steps that you need to take to do this. Forget trying to go to the gym – instead, focus on a 5-minute workout you can do at home.

Instead of downloading a complicated meal plan off of the internet that restricts what you can and cannot eat. Or requires you to make complicated recipes every single day. Simplify the process by eating the same healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day.

2). Schedule your motivation

Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Exercise on the same days and at the same time. Grocery shop, meal prep and eat the same few healthy meals over and over again. Until consistency is built, keep things simple and familiar.

3). Get feedback

Jerry Seinfeld strategy calendar

If you’re not assessing what you’re doing you’re just guessing at whether it’s working or not. There are tons of ways you can measure progress but I like the Seinfeld strategy.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld said that the way to be a better comedian was to tell better jokes. And the way to tell better jokes was to write every day. So Jerry would take a wall calendar and place a red X on the days he wrote.

After a few days, you’ll have a chain starting to develop. You’ll like seeing this chain and won’t want to break it. As the chain develops, reward yourself with something that’s not related to exercise or food.

4). Make it hurt a little

We’re often motivated because we know the consequences of not doing something can be painful or uncomfortable. Don’t go to work equals don’t get paid and live on the street. Don’t take the trash out means a stinky home and flies.
It’s counterintuitive but I say make it hurt.

Make a list of the possible consequences for not following through on the behaviors you’re trying to establish. Or better yet, try the 4 crazy questions.

  • What are the benefits of doing the thing
  • What are the disadvantages of doing the thing?
  • What are the benefits of staying the status quo?
  • What are the disadvantages of staying the status quo?

5). Uncover the real reason behind your lack of motivation

If you always seem to have a hard time staying motivated to exercise and eat well, it might be time to review your beliefs around your body, what it takes to live a healthier lifestyle, and whether or not you’re pursuing it in a way that is enjoyable to you.

This may involve tapping into some uncomfortable emotions. It may involve being very honest with yourself. It may take someone else to call you out on your own bullshit.

6). Just do something

Ultimately it comes down to taking action. No matter how big or small. If you can’t do your full workout do half. If you can’t do half do 10 push-ups.

Let’s imagine a future where you have changed in a really awesome way. Like, you’ve gotten into shape, and now you get to do some cool stuff, like maybe take that hiking trip you want. Think about all the good things you imagine happening there.

Do something. Anything.

7). Practice doing the hard things.

Get good about feeling discouraged and do the difficult-difficult things. For example, every morning I wake up and take a cold shower. Not for health benefits but because it’s fucking hard to get out of your warm cozy bed and jump into freezing water. When you practice the hard things you get better at the hard things. 

8). Use your past as experience.

What are some other things you did not feel completely motivated to do in the past? Why did you do them? Can you use that now?

We all are motivated. It’s already there and we display it every single day in various areas of our life. Take a look at the 10 things you’re motivated to do. What needs are getting met in each of these 3 behaviors. Why have you been able to maintain this over the years?

Is motivation even important? 

Motivation arguement

There are typically two camps of people when it comes to motivation. Those who think it’s everything and those you think it’s nothing.

Well, I’m a fence straddler and I think it’s both. Motivation has its role in change but also has limitations.

I hope through this article that you’re starting to see the real issue. The problem isn’t motivation but the approach.

  • Setting unrealistic expectations around what we need to do or change
  • Putting too much importance on motivation or relying solely on it. Using is as a scapegoat for when we don’t take action
  • All or nothing thinking around starting and staying consistent
  • Not making things easier for us to do by setting up our environments (physical and social) to help us succeed

As BJ Fogg describes in his book Tiny Habits there are 3 main sources of motivation. 

  • yourself or what you want
  • the benefit or punishment
  • your context and environment

Use your experience as evidence. When have you acted without “feeling” or recognizing motivation and why? When have you been highly motivated and why?

Stop judging yourself, make goals and break them down, embrace mistakes as discoveries, and accept that this is probably going to take a while. 

Environment trumps motivation every time. Rig the game so you can win. Remove distractions from your life and watch your motivation skyrocket.

But what if you can’t get yourself to take action?

When you say you’re not motivated, you actually are because you’re talking about it. I know, I know. Talk about a mind-fuck. 

But individual differences and life circumstances can impact motivation. For example, some people had a bad experience with exercise or food as a child. This can influence them later on in life. Maybe they’re afraid too look stupid in the gym or feel ashamed about food choices.

When this is going on it can be helpful to check in and see if our basics needs are being met.

Basic physical needs:

  • good food
  • sleep 
  • clean water
  • Daily movement (not exercise)

Psychological needs:

  • autonomy in our life
  • feeling competent
  • connection and relatedness with peers

If these needs are not being met it could be a good place to start. If they are, research is showing that working with someone, or on your own to build self-efficacy, setting proper outcome expectations, and exploring thoughts around effort and values may be helpful.

To sum it all up a very disappointing answer to the question, what is the best source of intrinsic motivation.

Taking action and being patient. 

To get and stay motivated remember these 7 things

  • Sometimes you’ll be motivated sometimes you won’t and this is normal
  • Make getting started easier by starting small. Set the bar low so it’s easy to step over.
  • Schedule your motivation and build routines around exercise and nutrition
  • To stay motivated focus on the smallest action you can to stay consistent
  • Get feedback. How consistent are you and reward yourself for being consistent
  • Uncover your deep reason for lack of motivation
  • Do something! Anything.

The best motivation is in your system for taking action. 


Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash