Home Just Enough Motivation

Just Enough Motivation

written by Kathryn Britton August 7, 2008

Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include 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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