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Staying Motivated: Harnessing the power of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Why do we do the things we do? What is it that drives our behaviour? We thought it might be helpful to introduce you to some different types of motivation - external motivation and internal motivation - so that you can consciously choose to harness their power as you continue on your mindfulness journey.

So, how are external and internal motivations different, and how can you use them to your advantage?

External motivation occurs when we are motivated to engage in an activity in order to earn a reward of some kind or avoid an unwanted consequence1. For example, you might work hard on a project at work in order to be eligible for a promotion or to avoid negative feedback from a client. Even ticking off actions on a to-do list gives a little feeling of reward.

Internal motivation, on the other hand, occurs when we are motivated to engage in a behaviour because it is personally rewarding - the behaviour itself is its own reward, or it aligns to our values.2 For example, you might work hard on a particular project at work because you find it fun or because it aligns with your values and you find it meaningful.

As you can see from these examples we can be, and often are, motivated by both types of motivation. While it might seem like internal motivation is the superior form of motivation (how good would it be to never need anyone, or anything, outside of ourselves to motivate us?), for most of us, it’s not enough.

As we explored in an earlier post, meditation is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Similar to exercise, it can be challenging and uncomfortable in the beginning, but the more you do it, the more enjoyable it becomes and the more you’ll notice the benefits. It’s important, therefore, to know from the outset why you want to establish a regular mindfulness practice (which is why we encouraged you to create your own Mindfulness Vision). This is a very powerful motivator that we’ll be encouraging you to revisit along the way.

You might also like to incorporate other external motivators. Just as arranging to meet a friend for an early morning run or gym session can give us the nudge we need to get out of bed in the morning (we want to avoid the negative consequence of letting our friend down), we can build similar ‘nudges’ into our meditation practice. If you try mindfulness with a friend or colleague, you could arrange to meditate together, whether in person or virtually, at the same time each day of the challenge. What else could you implement to help you stay on track?

Over time, as you continue to explore and experiment with meditation; as you find more moments of calm and clarity; as your mind begins to feel more settled as you practice; your meditation practice will become more and more internally rewarding. You may be noticing this already; you may not. Wherever you are on your mindfulness journey is okay. Be patient with yourself, keep showing up, and utilise whatever supports, and motivators will help stay you on track. 

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1Lee, W., Reeve, J., Xue, Y., & Xiong, J. (2012). Neural differences between intrinsic reasons for doing versus extrinsic reasons for doing: An fMRI study. Neuroscience Research, 73(1), 68-72.

2Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (p. 416–436). Sage Publications Ltd.

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