Unmotivated: How to find motivation using Self-Determination Theory

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Have you ever had some of those days, weeks, or even months of feeling completely unmotivated to do anything? I know I definitely have times like this, it can be a terrible routine to get stuck into and is even more difficult to break free from.

The best place to start is to question what keeps you motivated. According to two psychologists, Deci and Ryan, we have two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within us and is based on the internal drive to reach our “ideal self” that can be based upon one’s morals, goals and values. Comparatively, extrinsic motivation is the result of external rewards, such as grading systems, employee rewards etc..

Deci and Ryan theorize deeper than extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and came up with the Self-Determination Theory. Self-Determination Theory has been cited in literature over thousands of times and defines three fundamental needs that facilitates our growth and leads to self-determination, which are competence, autonomy and relatedness.

What does it mean to be “Self-determined”?

In Psychology, self-determination is a concept referring to how people make choices and manage their lives. It allows people to feel in control of their decisions. Self-determination impacts motivation as people feel more motivated to take action when they know that what they do will effect the outcome.

The three fundamental needs as stated before that are necessary to achieve self-determination are competence, autonomy and relatedness.

Competence: is the need to experience our behaviours as effectively enacted which allows us to feel as though we’ve done a good job.

Autonomy: is the need to feel that we have control over our behaviours and what we do.

Relatedness: is the need to interact, connect and share experiences with others which can also be described as having meaningful relationships and interactions.

Therefore, if we fulfill these 3 fundamental needs, we will ultimately be self-determined and feel greater motivation and mental wellness.

A key factor to being self-determined is intrinsic motivation as stated before. An intrinsic reward can be described as intangible and for example, might be the internal feeling of respect and recognition. An extrinsic reward is tangible and can be seen as receiving a raise at work for your hard efforts.

Deci and Ryan said that extrinsic motivation can taint a person’s feelings about the basic worth of a project and can undermine the intrinsic motivation.

How can we use self-determination theory to support growth and motivation?

The social conditions in which we develop and function in, largely impact how human beings choose to be proactive and engaged. Social support tends to be key and through our relationships and interactions with others we can either have positive or negative well-being and growth.

Deci and Ryan theorized that when the three fundamental needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness are satisfied, humans will then support enhanced self-motivation and mental health. However, when these three needs are compromised, motivation and mental health are derailed.

Behaviours that are purely self-determined, tend to be supported and driven by intrinsic factors. Such as, completing tasks because you enjoy them, excelling at work because you love and take interest in what you do. Non-self-determined actions are performed because they must be done. There is not as much interest or passion in this case.

Feeling in-control, passionate and interested in the things you do will allow you to feel greater motivation and commitment towards your work, projects or goals.

This can explain why some people perform poorly at work, school or in various other projects. The passion and interest to complete tasks must be there and the motivation should be driven from an internal place.

I personally find that the fewer external rewards that are provided either by yourself, friends, teachers, parents, employers etc. can actually allow for one to feel deeper intrinsic motivation and satisfaction. When children or adults begin to expect external rewards for their work or behaviours is when the intrinsic motivation to complete them is slowly lost. The behaviours and actions completed will be less about passion, personal interest or values, and will instead shift towards needing an external reward in order to complete them.

As stated before, to achieve self-determination, one must fulfill autonomy, competence and relatedness as outlined by Deci and Ryan. So how can we improve in these 3 fundamental areas?

How to improve your self-determination:

  • Increase your Self-Motivation
    • Get out of the habit of expecting a reward every time you accomplish something. If you’ve achieved something great, celebrate it because you are passionate about it and create an intrinsic value within the things you accomplish. This will allow you to feel deep meaningful motivation from within.
  • Take responsibility
    • People who are high in self-determination will take responsibility for their successes but will also accept blame for their own failures.
  • Control
    • Believe that you have control over your life. Have a strong understanding that your behaviours will have an influence on outcomes. People who believe they have control over their lives understand that through hard work and good choices they can overcome challenges.
  • Social Support
    • Finding the right social support is very important in self-determination. Strong supportive relationships contributes to greater motivation and well being. Whereas, poor relationships with others contributes to weakened motivation and a poor sense of self.

Comment down below and tell me about some projects that you feel intrinsically motivated to get done. Also comment on some projects that you have felt low intrinsic motivation to complete and only did for an external reward.

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