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Just Enough Motivation

written by Kathryn Britton 7 August 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, is a former software engineer and executive coach. She is now a writing coach and editor with a focus on helping people write books, blogs, and articles that contribute to the greater good (Theano Coaching LLC). She has been facilitating writing workshops since 2013. Her own books include Sit Write Share on how to get writing done well, Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.

Back on My Feet

Back on My Feet

Motivation makes a tremendous difference to performance and satisfaction.

We want to be more motivated to do the things we know we ought to do, like exercise. We want our children to be motivated to learn. We want our teammates and employees to be motivated to do quality work. And so on.

So what can we do to increase our own motivation, or that of someone else – a child, a co-worker, a student, an employee?

Self-determination theory by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci relates motivation to the three basic human needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy. They believe that intrinsic motivation, the urge to do something for its own sake, is generally inherent in humans and will flourish when circumstances permit. “Contexts supportive of autonomy, competence, and relatedness were found to foster greater internalization and integration than contexts that thwart satisfaction of these needs (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 76).

Ryan and Deci also demonstrate that all motivations are not created equal. Here’s a short summary of the levels they describe from lowest to highest along with my thoughts of possible interventions for moving up levels.

Amotivation: Lacking the intention to act or going through the motions. Amotivation generally comes from not valuing the activity, not feeling competent at it, or not expecting a positive outcome.

Focus areas for interventions include both perceived levels of competence and expectations of positive outcomes. Does one need help building new skills, becoming aware of existing skills, or removing obstacles? Are outcome expectations tied to the responses of other people? Do they have standards that are too high? Can the individual or others become more aware of small successes?

Extrinsic motivation with external regulation: Intention to act that is based on external rewards and punishments. People often experience this form of motivation as being controlled or even alienated.

This is the form of motivation that responds to bribes and punishments. The problem is, when the bribes and punishments stop, so does the activity unless the person’s motivation has moved to a higher level.

Extrinsic motivation with introjected regulation: I think of introjected regulation as hearing someone else’s voice in one’s head. It involves doing things to please others — perhaps having one’s self-esteem contingent on doing what others want done.

To increase introjection in others, give them reasons to want to please you and then let them know when they do please you. To increase introjection in yourself, identify and consider the people who will be pleased by your efforts.

Extrinsic motivation with identified regulation: consciously valuing the goal so that it becomes personally important.

Identification comes with a growing sense of competence. People are unwilling to identify with activities that they feel are beyond their ability. Consider task enablement interventions such as finding mentors, breaking tasks down into manageable pieces, and highlighting instances of success. Jane Dutton (2003) describes numerous task enablement strategies (chapter 3).

Extrinsic motivation with integrated regulation: The motivation is taken in and integrated with one’s sense of self. It’s still driven by interest in outcome, but now it is congruent with one’s personal values and needs.

For this level, autonomy becomes particularly important, since integration implies a sense of personal ownership. If people are competent and identify with the outcome, consider increasing their personal control.

Intrinsic motivation: Interest, enjoyment, inherent satisfaction in the activity.

Intrinsic motivation seems strongly related to flow. Csikszentmihalyi states that flow tends to occur when an activity is “so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake with little concern for what they get out of it, even if difficult or dangerous” (1991, p. 71). Therefore appropriate interventions involve establishing the conditions that enable flow – the dynamic balance between skill and challenge, the sense of personal control, time for concentration, clear goals and frequent feedback, and so on.

People don’t have or need the same level of motivation for all the activities they can do. I have amotivation for learning the rules of football, external regulation for filing my income tax returns, introjected regulation for keeping my kitchen clean (I picture my grandmother polishing her copper-bottom pans), identified regulation for exercising, integrated regulation for writing PPND articles, and intrinsic motivation for building the image maps (I lose track of time). In general, these levels are “good enough” for me.

But where there is a need to increase motivation, it makes sense to consider both the existing level and the three basic needs of competence, relatedness, and autonomy. Don’t focus on making people more autonomous when they are amotivated. Don’t put all your energy into increasing external rewards for people who are are already beyond external regulation. Think about pleasing the people you admire, and show others when you are pleased. Remember the conditions that enable flow when you want to achieve full intrinsic motivation.



Britton, K. (2008). Two blog postings contain somewhat longer discussions of the topics in this article: Motivation and Self-Determination Theory. Steps toward Intrinsic Motivation.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (no date). Self-determination theory: An approach to human motivation an personality. This is an online summary with links to two papers, including the one below.Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78. Includes the levels of motivation in table that compares and contrasts them.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. eds. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

Back on My Feet at the Right Side Foundation courtesy of Samuel Gordon

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Ryan Niemiec 8 August 2008 - 4:02 pm

Very good article, Kathryn…good summary, good outline of obstacles, and nice personalization examples. This will be a nice, quick resource for those interested in SDT.

I save about 1 of every 10 of the PPNDs. This will be one of them.

Very best,

Senia Maymin 8 August 2008 - 11:49 pm


What is most interesting to me about this article is that you highlight what Jordan Silberman used to talk about a lot – people are different – create exercises that work differently for each person. That point really resonates with me as true.

Kathryn, since you’re a coach, what are the points that resonate from the above with coaching? Do you find people will only accomplish goals if they are like Csikszentmihalyi recommends – full of the feeling of activity being so fulfilling – complete internal motivation? I am very interested in this.

Finally, it was neat to read the variety of sources – mainly Deci/Ryan, and also Csikszentmihalyi, Dutton, etc.


Doug Turner 9 August 2008 - 9:35 am

Kathryn: Deci and Ryan’s work on Motivation and Self Determination adds great power to the “Agency” part of Snyder’s hHope Theory. Breaking motivation into these six levels helps people (and perhaps their coaches) to pinpoint what is moving them toward their goals. Very helpful. All the best, Doug

Kathryn Britton 9 August 2008 - 10:23 am

Ryan, Thank you for your comment. I’m glad to know that my words resonated with you.

Senia, No I don’t believe that intrinsic motivation is the only way to achieve goals. It may be the most satisfying way with the least internal struggle, but as I illustrated, most of us aren’t blessed with intrinsic motivation for EVERYTHING that we need to do.

This can be a coaching tool for thinking about goals — because as Doug points out, it provides insight into the state of their Agency: “The motivational component in hope theory is agency — the perceived capacity to use one’s pathways so as to reach desired goals. Agentic thinking reflects the self-referential thoughts about both starting to move along a pathway and continuing to progress along that pathway. We have found that high-hope people embrace such self-talk agentic phrases as ‘I can do this’ and ‘I am not going to be stopped’.” (Snyder, Rand, & Sigmon, 2003, p. 258).

So let’s assume someone is having trouble getting started or is not making the progress they wish. The components of SDT — competence, relatedness, autonomy, different levels of motivation — provide a structure for exploration.

Similarly, let’s assume one is making great progress. The components of SDT provide a structure for capitalizing — I am competent, I am working well with the people around me, I do have [some] control over the way I approach my goals.

Doug, Thank you! for making the connection to Hope Theory.



Snyder, C. R., Rand, K. L., & Sigmon, D. R. (2003). Hope theory: A member of the positive psychology family. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology. Oxford University Press.

Jeff Dustin 11 August 2008 - 2:01 am


I’m sorry for the late reply…my home was burglarized and we’ve been moving our remaining stuff to a safer place.

JUST ENOUGH MOTIVATION sheds light on some nagging motivational problems I’ve had and I’m sure others share. The exercise example illustrates common roadblocks. Amotivation may indicate that the would-be exerciser lacks competence, autonomy, relatedness.

I wonder how Deci and Ryan came up with their motivational theory. Is it empirical? Are the studies large scale with representative samples? I haven’t read their actual research so it is all new to me.

Do you think Deci & Ryan’s motivation theory covers most of human behavior? Do we really do things for relatedness, competence, and autonomy? I think that’s a huge piece of the pie but more akin to a mini-theory than a grand theory of motivation.

Put another way, would someone who felt highly competent, connected with others, and having self-selected a course of action automatically have high motivation? Are these necessarily and sufficient ingredients to create motivation?

If you are game, here is a scenario for you. You have a friend who is diabetic. The doctor has informed this friend she will lose toes and fingers if she doesn’t take better care of her diabetes by watching her diet, monitoring her blood, etc. She wants to keep doing what she’s been doing all her life: drinking, eating sweets, having fun at parties and not being hassled by pricking her finger. She’s amotivated to change her current practices but recognizes that, yes, she’ll probably go blind and die prematurely without changing…so in her head, there is more than amotivation, but her heart isn’t in it.

I’d love to hear a hypothetical solution to this problem.

Kathryn Britton 12 August 2008 - 10:46 am


I’m going to start at the end of your note and work backwards… partly because I felt that your scenario was like Brer Rabbit begging to be thrown in the briar patch (“I was born and bred in the briar patch!”)

I’ve been a Type 1 diabetic myself for 29 years. I’ve been in various levels of motivation over the years, and I recognize the friend you describe.

Competence really does play into the picture. Managing blood sugars is hard. It’s a constant, day-by-day balancing act, and perfect performance is impossible. There are 8 variables (at least) that contribute to each blood sugar reading, and I only have control over some of them. So learning to feel competent in spite of numerous small “failures” is a very important step. That’s a matter of interpretation — of understanding what is “good enough”, of knowing that small failures are inevitable but one can influence trends, and of believing that one’s own efforts make a beneficial difference. I’ve found managing blood sugars very humbling because I’m not used to so many small failures. It’s hard to keep my eyes on the trends. By the way, this connects to vicarious mastery in self-efficacy research — that is, seeing people like me, having the same small failures that I have, have long and healthy lives is motivating because it helps me believe I can too.

Second, many people are motivated by relatedness. I’ve read numerous articles in Diabetes Forecast where newly diagnosed diabetics say things like, “I want to be alive and well to see my child graduate from high school.” (This might be weaker for younger people in the “party animal” phase.)

Third, autonomy does play into the picture. Young people who feel like their parents are breathing down their necks can be very stubborn about not taking care of themselves. People whose doctors give lots of orders and don’t acknowledge differences in life styles can undermine motivation.

Now, do these three psychological needs cover all the ground? Are they necessary AND sufficient? I don’t really know the answer to that and would have to do considerably more reading to figure it out.

For your hypothetical friend, this gives some structure for exploration. Does she value good health? Does she feel that it is within her power to get “good enough” results? Are there people she wants to please or to whom her health makes a major difference? Does she feel like she is in control — that others interfere only when necessary?

Self-Determination Theory is a theory — which means that it’s a hypothetical explanation that the theorists have created to fit previous observations and structured so that it can be tested empirically. Yes there has been considerable empirical research addressing self-determination theory. Ryan and Deci have been evolving and testing it for 30 years. There’s an entire book entitled Self-Determination Research. There’s an SDT site with information about their research, including some questionnaires for assessing SDT concepts: http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/

In fact, their publication list includes a book related to the scenario you bring up:

Sheldon, K. M., Williams, G. C., & Joiner, T. (2003). Self-determination theory in the clinic: Motivating physical and mental health. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kathryn Britton 12 August 2008 - 6:36 pm

P.S. for Jeff,

I think I’m a little bit too inclined to go directly to the subject (do not pass Go, do not collect $200).

So I failed to say how sorry I am that y’all got burglarized!


Jeff Dustin 12 August 2008 - 11:53 pm

Thanks, Kathryn.

Motivation is a fascinating riddle, isn’t it? I am always curious about how someone goes from amotivation to intrinsic motivation. I often wonder if you can move through these levels of motivation for most or all goals.

Jeff 6 November 2008 - 9:23 pm

This is officially my favorite PPND article.

Kathryn Britton 7 November 2008 - 9:32 am

Thank you for the flower, Jeff! What a great priming for writing today’s article.


Jeff 8 November 2008 - 10:48 pm

Why Aren’t We All Robots?

As far as I am concerned, motivation is the most fascinating mystery in psychology. Like a lot of simplex topics, motivation may seem absurdly obvious. This viewpoint is best described as “Just do it”, whatever the
*it* may be. Motivation is an onion.

Once you examine the interplay of the variables of context: such as personality, immediate environment and more distant events’ effects, cognition in its many multiple forms, consequences of behavior and the effect of perceptions upon motivation, drives and conflicts among urges & drives…not to mention addiction that can interfere with motivation, cultural & subcultural influences, then you can see why motivation as a topical field is so fascinating–and bewildering.

Yet people get up early in the morning and are motivated in daily life to do difficult things. It is the Why that keeps Motivation fresh and alive to me. I really think that self-regulation holds a possible effective key to problems such as mild to moderate (and possibly severe) non-biologically based depression, possibly health sustainment and improvement, and in promoting flourishing.

Remember the flow chart shows that it is easy to fall into boredom or to fly upwards into anxiety? Those states appear to be more the norm than flow and we all experience them sometimes. Self-regulation maybe could someday have the practical applied interventions as broad and deep as cognitive therapy.

So why aren’t we all programmable robots? Just add a tailored intervention or two into our brains, grow a few dentrites in 6-12 months, and poof we are highly motivated individuals. We’d get up at 5 am sharp every day to jog 5.23 miles, take out the trash (without being asked), do our best 99.9 percent of the time at work and at home and accomplish everything unerringly, unfailingly, unswervingly?

Hmm. There are limts to self-regulation, but then again there’s the 4 minute mile, too, the Guiness Book of World Records, the Olympics, and Mensa. Did you watch the first man on the moon? America has its first African American president. Yet did these things happen because it was in their nature to occur: that is, there were extraordinary people in critically aligned times (Patton and World War II) or because they grew the character and social support to accomplish great feats?

Gallup says we can become more of what we already are. Do you think that holds true for self-regulation and motivation? Can we, on the other hand, be more cybernetic and just do certain *interventions* enough to grow our motivation?

Kathryn Britton 9 November 2008 - 9:46 pm


I’m going to have to think about this one.

Jeff 10 November 2008 - 1:34 am


I Think I Can. I Just Don’t Feel Like It.

Two things spring to mind about the above thoughts. One was your mention of energy management…the management of energy as an organizational (and personal) scientific study and the other was Seligman’s Learned Optimism formula for success:

it went something like: Aptitude + Motivation + Optimistic Explanatory Style = Successful goal pursuit. He was talking about the West Pointers and the insurance supersalesmen, I believe.

You’ve got to be capable of doing it, want to do it, and believe you can do it in order to succeed at *it*. *It* being your desired end state.

Maybe motivation is linked to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–if it is biologically based, safety based, self-actualization based it motivates, if not, eh, we don’t feel like doing it. Self Determination Theory says competence, autonomy, and relatedness are the principle parts of intrinsic motivation, right?

Maslow: “if you need it to survive, to make friends, to make babies, to feel accomplishment and status…its a need”

SDT “to want to do something deep down (intrinsically), you need to feel good at it (successful), freely choose the means & end, or feel part of a team”

Darwin “if it helps you survive or make babies, its probably motivating”

These are some rough brainstorms on motivation and I am interested in your ideas when you have a moment or two.

Kathryn Britton 18 November 2008 - 11:35 am


I’ll try to respond to your two long comments on motivation. I’m reminded of my doctor who never answers more than one question per email, no matter how many I include. I’m beginning to see why!

First, I don’t think the flow channel diagram shows how easy it is to fall out of the flow channel — it shows how natural it is. Ongoing adjustments are needed because skills and challenges change at different rates. In the normal case, frequent recalibration to keep oneself in the flow channel results in increasing complexity of behavior.

Thinking in terms of Deci & Ryan’s self-determination work, I think of us as having three levers to work on motivation in ourselves and others — competence, relatedness, and autonomy. But there is a basic assumption there that the person believes the action is worth doing. Without that essential belief, the levers are useless. So I personally have no belief that running a 4-minute mile is worth my doing.

Perhaps there are always extraordinary people around. We just notice some of them more than others because their talents and drives line up with social needs and events. Or perhaps, like U.S. Grant, people become extraordinary in some contexts because they line up with the needs of the time, and then find they are not so extraordinary in other contexts.

As for self-regulation, I like Baumeister’s comparison to muscles. Perhaps we all come with different levels of self-regulation, just as people come with different levels of muscularity. But working out can increase the level of both muscles and self-regulation, even though it may be harder work for some people than others.

That’s enough for one response.


Kathryn Britton 18 November 2008 - 11:54 am


Darwin talks about population-wide mechanisms that affect changes of frequency of certain traits in the entire population. I don’t think it makes that much sense to use Darwin to explain individual motivation. Or if it does, it’s like trying to draw a detail picture with a kindergarten crayon.

I don’t think there’s a simple formula for motivation. Some people are motivated by safety. Others go bungee jumping. Some people are driven by status — an extrinsic form of motivation — others aren’t. Some people care a lot about making and keep friends, others less so. Some people are driven by a need for accomplishment, particularly young and middle-aged people. Accomplishment starts looking less important to many people as they age. Some people are motivated to conduct daily patterns of caring for themselves and others that are the same day after day but provide daily satisfactions.

Isn’t the variety what makes things interesting?


Anoni Mouse 18 November 2008 - 7:57 pm

I do love the variety of motives. That’s what captures my curiosity and the reason I’ll never exhaust the theme of motivation. Do you think that science will ever become fine-tuned enough to predict and control human behavior with psychological techniques? I mean REALLY Literally control our behavior beyond our wildest imaginings? At this point you can lead the proverbial horse to water but he still can decide to die of thirst before giving you the satisfaction of watching him drink.

Fun to think about.

Jeff 18 November 2008 - 7:59 pm

Hey kathryn, should I shorten my comments? I don’t want to overwhelm your eyes 😉

Narayan Pd. Sharma 24 November 2009 - 3:23 am

I think, if a person regulates behavior through personal interest and enjoyment only, the achievement might not be high because to achieve something it needs clear goal. Interest may shift from one goal to another in short time. Enjoyment generally focuses immediate and physical pleasure. Consciousness to valued goal is necessary. Therefore, identified type of extrinsic motivation is necessary for certain goal achievement that gives satisfaction in life for long term.



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