I recently wrote a post about learning to trust yourself. I suggested that it’s vital to leave yourself some space for creativity, some flexibility in your schedule.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how this applies to my writing on Find A Spark. My post frequency has varied a lot over the last few months and I’ve been wondering why that it.

Digging a little deeper, it’s become clear that I write the most when I don’t try to specify fixed times for writing. If I tell myself I have to write two posts per week, it feels like a chore. If I simply keep my time open and write when I’m feeling inspired to write, I’ll probably end up writing two posts per week.

Through reading and experimenting I’ve come up with a routine that allows me to find a better balance between getting things done and simply doing what I enjoy. It’ll take a little explaining, but hopefully some of you will find it useful.


The three types of motivation

I recently read Dan Pink’s book Drive, which suggests a new theory of motivation. I touched on this briefly in my post on whether we’re entitled to love what we do, where I mentioned how jobs are increasingly challenging and therefore increasingly provide us with an inherent source of motivation (solving problems, mastering a skill).

To briefly summarise the book (which won’t do it justice – I really suggest reading it) Pink identifies three key sources of motivation:


  1. Our biological desire to survive (‘animal’ desires)
  2. External rewards and punishment (extrinsic motivation)
  3. The enjoyment, satisfaction and challenge inherent in a task (intrinsic motivation)


Most efforts to motivate people focus on number two – people are rewarded for good work, punished for bad work. Pink suggests that number three should instead be the focus – we should look to maximise our intrinsic motivation.

In practice, this means identifying the aspects of a task that are inherently enjoyable, satisfying or challenging and then maximising those aspects to provide a sense of motivation.


A little analysis

Not all tasks are inherently enjoyable, satisfying or challenging. Some tasks feel like a chore and you only complete them because of some external reward or punishment. If you don’t do the dishes, you’re punished with a gross kitchen and an even bigger job further down the line. You’re unlikely to be inherently motivated to do the dishes (kudos if you are), so this ‘punishment’ is the reason you’ll do them.

For these kinds of tasks, you get things done by maximising the effect of that extrinsic motivation. You focus on the reward and power on. Although this can be effective in the short term, it’s tough to keep it up for long periods.

Intrinsic motivation, however, is pretty much unlimited. If you’re having a great time doing something, you’re going to do a lot of it. So it’s vital to make use of intrinsic motivation when it’s available.

You might be thinking that this all sounds a little obvious – do the things you enjoy simply because you enjoy them, do the things you don’t enjoy because you have to. That’s how life works, right?

That is how life works, but things can get a little murky in the area between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Let’s return to the example of my writing on Find A Spark. I find writing on here enjoyable and am intrinsically motivated to write on here BUT that intrinsic motivation can quickly disappear if I try to force myself to write at certain times. Then it becomes a chore.

Problems appear when you decide you want to ‘achieve’ something from a task you otherwise enjoy. I want to write regularly for Find A Spark and increase the number of people reading my posts. Even these simple goals can make writing feel like a chore. So what’s the solution?


Pick the form of motivation that fits

When dealing with tasks that have no intrinsic motivation source, just go about your normal business. Set short term goals, schedule time if that works for you. Reward yourself for success. Rely on extrinsic motivation.

For tasks that provide intrinsic motivation, avoid short term goals. These goals divert attention away from enjoyment and turn the task into a box-ticking exercise. Having that goal in place almost makes it feel like you’re not acting through your own free will – the goal is an external force that’s telling you what to do. This isn’t conducive to enjoying yourself.

Instead, focus on long term goals. For me, this could be writing a certain number of articles every six months or gaining a certain number of readers every three months.

At the end of each week, look back at the past week and see how much you achieved with your intrinsic motivation tasks. If it’s a good contribution to the long term goal, great. If not, there’s a couple of approaches to take:


  1. Give yourself some leeway. It might just be that you didn’t feel in the mood that week. Try giving yourself another week to see if the spark returns
  2. Introduce a compromise. Rather than setting short-term goals, schedule a specific time for the next week where you will work on the task. Although this isn’t strictly relying on intrinsic motivation (because you’re telling yourself when to do), it’s flexible enough that it shouldn’t kill intrinsic motivation entirely


Tweak this approach over the space of a few weeks. If you can achieve a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, it’ll be worth the effort.


Also published on Medium.

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