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  • Writer's picturePanorama Psychology

Do External Motivators Undermine Intrinsic Motivation?

As therapists, we deal with motivation a lot. And by a lot, I mean that motivation is at the heart of most of our work. Whether you are an adult trying to develop better health behaviors, a parent hoping their kids will help out more around the house, or a teenager struggling to find the motivation to finish college applications, motivation is certainly something you are considering. How do you motivate yourself or your kids? While there seems to be a divide between those advocating for extrinsic motivators and those who believe extrinsic motivation undermines the development of intrinsic motivation, we believe that there may be space for both.

Let me start with a story that I tell a lot of my therapy clients (especially teens and young adults). When I was in graduate school, the final hurdle for my doctorate degree was a 200-page research paper called a dissertation. Now, the catch was that I had to write this paper, and the only guidance I had was to finish it by the end of the academic year. Lacking structure to my dissertation work, I found myself struggling to work up the motivation to get started on the paper. I would sometimes experience bursts of motivation, but those were fleeting and seemingly random. Eventually, I decided I actually had to get to work and I made a deal with myself: "If I get up on Saturday and work on my paper for 4 hours, I will let myself go golfing in the afternoon. If I don't get up to work, then no golf." I tried it, and miraculously it worked. Something that helped was making a tee time for 2pm with a close friend who I didn't want to let down, and I committed to sticking to this plan. Needless to say, I eventually finished the dissertation on time and got my degree.

So, what factors helped me to motivate myself in this academic project? Was it a threat of not golfing? Was it the peer pressure? Was it a new routine that worked for me? More on that later. There's one other thing I find myself mentioning to therapy clients often, and that is that we all do things for rewards. I tell my clients that I love my job (I really do!), but how likely is it that I would show up to office if I stopped getting paid? The answer is clear. So when a parent expresses concerns like "I don't want my child to always need a reward," I might gently let them know that the world is full of rewards and consequences and it is okay to use incentives.

With regard to tasks, we use words like discipline and motivation, which are nebulous terms that are not actionable. Instead, I'm going to try to share some actionable tips to increase your productivity toward the goals you set for yourself and your family.

Tip 1: Focus on Routines, Not Motivation

If you take anything from this article, hear this: motivation is fleeting. We have all woken up with a sudden burst of motivation, or witnessed our children miraculously feeling motivated to pull weeds or fold some clothes. However, we all know that we can't count on that. Motivation is a feeling state and we know that we can't control our feelings. So, what can we control?

We can control our actions, and one way to do that is through routines. Routines can look like schedules, calendars, or even ordering activities in a certain way (e.g., work before golf). Most of us have some existing routines like brushing our teeth or making coffee. By relying on routines instead of motivation, we are taking chance out of the equation. I recommend starting with an existing routine and building upon it:

  • Practice 30 seconds of mindfulness while the coffee is brewing

  • Send your last emails for the day right before you brush your teeth

  • Finish your workout before your weekly Saturday brunch date

This works for families and kids too!

  • We always wash our hands when we first come home from school

  • We say a statement of gratitude when we first get in the car every morning

  • We bring the dishes to the sink before our nightly TV show episode

Routines are more powerful than motivation for children, teens, adults, and families.

Tip 2: Focus on Relationships

This is a tip for families. The examples below are very kid and parent focused, but this is also applicable to other relationships within families (I'm looking at you, couples). I want us all to understand that asking someone to do something (especially a non-preferred activity) does not work without a relational base. Think about bosses or coaches you have had. In the business world, it is well-known that relationally-minded bosses and managers have happy and productive employees. How have you responded when a boss who is demanding and cold asks you to help out with a project? I bet it is different than how you would respond to a boss who you feel a sense of connection with.

When it comes to families, we want parents and caregivers to have authority (be the boss), while also embodying relational closeness. For couples, there is no authoritative relationship, but we still hope that our partners will help us out - and they are more likely to with a relational base. That's why when, in family or couples therapy, clients ask about behavior change, we slow down and focus on the relationships. Here are some recommendations for increasing closeness within the family (some are also routines!):

  • Have a weekly movie night

  • Plan a parent-kid hour for some one-on-one time

  • Talk with each other about your feelings

  • Let your kids take the lead sometimes

  • Spend intentional time with your partner

You will notice that we haven't touched much on "motivation" or "discipline" yet. That's because routines and relationships are the foundation upon which we achieve our goals.

Tip 3: Use External Rewards Sparingly

Okay, there may be a time for extrinsic rewards. I view them as a tool that we sometimes need to get through hard moments. However, I also make the argument that extrinsic rewards are often just routines in disguise. For example, saying "you can only play video games after you clean up" is really just setting a routine (and sticking with it). A more pure extrinsic reward may be a system that incentivizes a behavior (e.g., keeping hands to self at school) with some sort of material prize. A note on relationships: love and affection are not appropriate rewards, meaning we don't withhold closeness and only give it when another person does what we want - that can set up some very unhealthy patterns.

Another note on rewards: rewards are just threats in reverse. When we say "you can play video games after you clean up," that is the same thing as saying "no video games until you clean up!." The first way is positively phrased, and the second way is negatively phrased. We all know that we respond better to positively phrased incentives.

A final note on rewards: incentives are not bribes. This is a picky differentiation, but an important one. In a bribe, the reward comes before the behavior, whereas in an incentive, the reward comes after the behavior. Whiles bribes are for mafia members, incentives can be a part of healthy relationship. Incentives can also be a part of boundary setting.

Rewards Summary:

  • Using rewards for kids can be helpful to get through transitions or difficult periods.

  • If you are worried that you are using too many extrinsic rewards, ask yourself if you are actually just using routines.

  • If you do use reward systems, make sure to utilize SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Specific).

  • Don't withhold love or affection. And don't bribe your kids.


While we could literally write a book about this topic, we hope that this overview helps you to feel more confident about how motivation really works. We want you to understand that:

  • Whereas motivation is fleeting (but we should still take advantage of it), routines are sustainable

  • Relationships are at the heart of motivation and behavior change

  • Rewards can be a useful tool during specific periods if approached wisely

We hope you can challenge yourself to add a new small behavior to your routine and see how it goes!

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