The Key to Motivation

Fig 1 – Self Determination Theory Continuum

I have a hard time understanding people who have no motivation to do anything meaningful.  I understand lacking motivation sometimes. I have an email in my inbox right now about a research paper I’ve been working on for years.  One of my collaborators reviewed it and suggested a ton of (very constructive) changes. But now I need to go and DO it, and I don’t want to.

But I’ve never struggled with not wanting to go to school or go to work.  I don’t understand not wanting to put in long hours. I don’t understand not wanting to study and learn more.  I realize that unmotivated people are out there. There’s a huge industry of motivational speakers for a reason.  I think I am privileged to have a high degree of internal motivation. So let’s look at motivation in its entirety, since it is the foundation for all action.

Motivation exists on a spectrum, from amotivation to intrinsic motivation (Fig 1).  Along the way, you have varying degrees of extrinsic motivation. Amotivation is lacking motivation of any kind- you lack control or don’t do anything.  Intrinsic motivation is where you do it just for fun. A classic example is Wikipedia.  

Why do people spend countless hours adding entries there and contributing to this?  They don’t get paid, they may or may not get recognition. They do it because it satisfies something inside them.  I started the Veterinary Anesthesia Wikipedia page in 2007 because I thought it was important for the World to Know that veterinary anesthesia is a distinct entity and should have an encyclopedia entry.  No one knew I did it, I never told anyone, I received no external validation. So why do we do it?

You can’t punish or reward people- that just creates extrinsic motivation.  The Self-Determination Theory states that people move towards intrinsic motivation because of three concepts: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Autonomy is getting to decide your actions.  This doesn’t have to mean absolute chaos and Do Whatever You Want.  It’s the ability to make a decision. For example, I tend to give two question options when giving a quiz.  The choices are limited- so it’s not anarchy. But the students get to choose which question they answer. When on clinics, I try to always ask the students, “What do you want to do?” and, if it’s reasonable, let them try it.  Autonomy makes people feel in control, which makes them more engaged, which makes them more intrinsically motivated. One of the best books on this is Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn.  I highly recommend it.

Competence is getting better at something.  Why do people choose to learn a musical instrument, or a martial art, or dance?  There is some social aspect of it (which we’ll get to), but getting better at a skill is FUN.  The principles if Kaizen – continuous improvement- fits nicely with Self-Determination Theory. Humans like improvement.

Relatedness is connection to others.  Maybe you started learning an instrument because you thought it would be a neat skill.  Then you met others and created a social network which keep you going. I see this all the time in dancing and martial arts.  People don’t STAY in these activities because of the skill acquisition. They stay because they meet people and form a community.

I think most veterinarians and specialists are highly intrinsically motivated, since we don’t tend to accept slackers.  Nonetheless, there will be things you Do Not Want To Do. And that’s OK. But if you know that you need to nurture autonomy, competence, and relatedness, you can find a way to motivation.  I try to build my life oriented towards these concepts and, as a result, I am very happy getting out of bed each day. I encourage you to do the same.

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