Intrinsic motivation is the holy grail of any self-employed, entrepreneurial creative. “I can only get stuff done when it’s for other people, but not when it only matters to me!” Yeah, that’s the thing about what matters to you: it often doesn’t much matter to anyone else and humans as a species are connective, social beings.
This is why ‘not being able to get stuff done for myself’ doesn’t have to be a problem unless you insist on framing it that way.
We don’t, in actuality, do anything for ourselves. Think about that: Whatever it is that you want: whether its six-pack abs or a finished, full-length movie, you’re not in it for yourself alone. You’re doing it to attract connection of some kind, to impress, to garner social currency, to say something the world needs to hear because frankly, when it comes to making things, nature abors a vacuums and wants you to fill it with your unique voice. Barbara Sher once said ‘we rely on one another to make our dreams come true’. Intrinsic motivation can be generated by that awareness: Who am I doing this for? What am I trying to say?
Having read a lot of books and known a lot of world-class coaches and teachers, if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that nobody sustains motivation incessantly. Please do yourself a favor and give up the notion that there is a way to find ‘intrinsic motivation that lasts all year’ (as my social media company subtitled this here blog they asked me to write.)
We all need external anchors, so you are correct, not flawed because you notice that when it comes to doing things just for yourself, you can’t. There may be people who can, but in all honesty, I’ve never met them and I know many highly accomplished, successful people. They just don’t make an issue out of it.
Commitment to others is key. My commitment to my social media company in the interest of getting my work to people who need it is an example of that. Find a person, or persons, who will hold you accountable to what you want anyway.
Company is stronger than will: find others in the same boat; other creatives who strive to bring their work into being. Share your process with others by including them in it.
Human connection aside, actions that are clearly linked to a longer game is key to refinding motivation when you inevitably lose it. If you don’t have a plan, you may get flashes of inspiration, but that won’t sustain you in reaching the finish line of a significant goal, like getting a book published or launching a business. So first things first: design a plan to get something specific done.
Most things boil down to a numbers game. Bang out 65,000 words and you have the first draft of a book (whether or not it is coherent is immaterial). Work up to doing who knows how many ab-related repetitive exercises plus lose this much weight and eat or avoid enough such and such, and voila, you get your six-pack.
Easier said and impossibly done you say? So what gets in the way of doing and fulfilling your numbers? Your beautiful, wild mind, your beliefs, your being a human, not a machine. Computers have ‘intrinsic motivation’; all you have to do is push a button and they boot up.
It may help to think of ‘intrinsic motivation’ as a nutritional or hormone supplement. What do you need to ingest each day to spark it and build on it? A vision board? Some free-associative journaling? A reverse-engineered mind-map with stick pins in it like General Patton? If that’s too linear, try writing down everything you want to change or do on little pieces of paper, fold those scraps of paper up and chuck them into a big mason jar. Every day pull one out. ‘Nah’ you say. Okay, put it back and pull out another. You get to do that up to three times and then you have to choose.
If its an ongoing project like finding a job, take a specific action such as making three outreach phone calls and put the paper back in the jar. What I’m getting at here is that intrinsic motivation, also known as ‘inspiration’, is a state of grace, wholly impermanent and not to be relied upon.
What we want to spark and maintain is momentum. You know, that thing that usually gets decimated by the holidays.
Gamifying to get yourself going can help, or making what you’re doing collaborative by joining a running group or scheduling work dates with others on a regular basis can pull you forward. Ironically, intrinsic motivation is built from the outside-in, from a scaffolding of systems created inwhich to contain yourself.
Very few people grow up with parents who are able to impart to them techniques by which to do that, probably because they had to muddle through themselves, or because you were designed to separate from your parents and not listen to them anyway. (So stop blaming them. It’s a waste of your precious time. Forgive me. As the mother of a 19 year old, I digress…)
To cultivate the momentum desired by way of ‘instrinsic motivation’, you must create an environment in which what you know you must do to make something meaningful happen is inevitable. There are two requirements in constructing such motivation: desire, and willingness: Willingness to adhere to some sort of schedule or take specific actions and a desire that transcends immediate gratification.
I define immediate gratification as doing or not doing things because of how you feel. Come to think of it, one could say that immediate gratification is synonymous with ‘intrinsic motivation’ because it is the enactment of behaviors that arise because they are naturally satisfying to you, like binge watching. Living that ways spells the death of aspiration.
Ask yourself each day: Which is in need of regeneration, desire or willingness? If it is desire, perhaps a little inspiration will help. Go to or create the vision board, call a friend, imagine the rewards of completion as you go for a run and generate endorphins, or gently sit and visualize. Then ask yourself: What is the next clear action?
If you can get specific about that, meaning if you can get clear about your numbers, then willingness will follow.
If not, try hiring a coach.