Cultivating intrinsic motivation is the holy grail for getting things done in college.
Intrinsic motivation makes you work harder, smarter, longer, and with a better headspace than when you fuel motivate yourself like a donkey with a carrot on a stick. And yet, many students I know at Cornell can only get things done through a 9:00 p.m. caffeine study marathon the night before an exam. So we need to learn how to cultivate intrinsic motivation.
Because the key to defeating procrastination and burnout is making work so intrinsically fun you WANT to do it.
In this article, I will give seven of my most powerful tips for cultivating intrinsic motivation in college after tens of hours of psychological research and personal experience. First, I will explain what intrinsic motivation is, and then I will explain the seven tips, which are:
- Don't Make THE BIG Mistake of Rewards and Punishment
- Realize Your Intelligence Isn't Fixed: Build a Growth Mindset
- Prioritize Identified Motivation Over Intrinsic and Extrinsic
- Follow The ACTIONS Framework To Enter Flow More Consistently
- Surround Yourself With People You Want to Be Like
- Build Autonomy In YOUR Work
- Gamify Your College Experience: Turn Dat Ting Into A Game
What Is Intrinsic Motivation?
Before we move into the seven tips, we must define intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation is motivation to do something that emanates from the self.
The classic example is your motivation to play video games. We often play video games as an end in themselves rather than for some tangible outside reward. Personally, I play for the satisfying screams and blood of my enemies as their souls float to the dark depths of the black hole that is death in Total War Warhammer III.
Intrinsic motivation can make you do activities without any need for extrinsic rewards.
Extrinsic motivation, however, is motivation to do something because of an outside self-reward or punishment.
For example, doing an assignment mostly so you don't miss the deadline comes from extrinsic motivation. You are motivated out of fear of a loss to your grades. Without the deadline, you likely wouldn't do the assignment. Same with pursuing a major at college because your parents or society said it was a "good idea."
Extrinsic motivation, therefore, makes you do activities that you might not have with no outside incentive.
A critical misconception about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is they aren't mutually exclusive.
They exist on a spectrum. You can have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation for an activity. And the degree to which you have either can shift over time.
This is great news for us because it means you can shift activities where you are currently fueled mainly through extrinsic motivation to be primarily driven by intrinsic motivation.
Now let's explore the seven tips for doing so!
1. Don't Make THE BIG Mistake of Rewards and Punishment
The BIGGEST mistake people make regarding intrinsic motivation is they give themselves extrinsic rewards for things they want to be intrinsically motivated to do.
If you have ever rewarded yourself for going to the gym or doing a college homework assignment, you have fallen for this mistake.
The reason this is so bad is illuminated by a study done by Lepper et al. (1973).
They split a class of pre-schoolers into three groups, all of whom loved playing with magic markers intrinsically. Then they had a visitor come into the classroom and watch them play with the markers. Group three was told they would get a reward for playing with the markers. After the visitor left, group three was given the a Good Player Award, group two was unexpectedly given a Good Player Award, and group one was left alone. When the children were given access to the magic markers the following day without the visitor, those in group three spent significantly less time playing with the magic markers and drew with less quality than those in groups two or one.
The children in group three had suffered from what Lepper and colleagues coined the overjustification effect, which describes how when people are rewarded for activities they do intrinsically, they lose intrinsic motivation to do the activity when there is no reward.
The activity has been over-justified.
This is the big issue with giving yourself rewards for activities you want to build intrinsic motivation in, like going to the gym or doing homework. It undermines your intrinsic motivation to do the activity for itself. Luckily, the study and many others highlight a possible solution.
If you are going to use rewards to motivate yourself to do something, use intermittent novel rewards rather than predictable tangible rewards.
As seen in the study, children in group two who got the Good Player Award unexpectedly didn't lose intrinsic motivation for the activity the next day.
This has an evolutionary explanation. A predictable reward that stops might be a resource that has run out. However, an unpredictable reward that stops might be a random cessation between rewards. Thus persisting longer in activities with unpredictable rewards make sense, even if the rewards have stopped.
You can apply this in two main ways at college:
- Give yourself rewards to commit in particularly tough days
- Give yourself random rewards at unpredictable intervals
Take the gym example. Most days, you should go to the gym as an end in itself. But if you ever feel like Poppie before eating Spinach, feel free to give yourself that extra kick to get you going. Maybe listen to your favorite playlist on Spotify or play a fun video game afterward.
By only giving yourself rewards for the particularly tough days, you won't undermine the intrinsic motivation to do the activity for itself.
Secondly, give yourself random rewards at unpredictable intervals.
Create a list of fun, creative rewards for which you can flip a coin or roll a die to see what you get. Make it so that some days you don't get any rewards and others do. This adds some curiosity, spunk, pizazz!
By giving yourself random rewards at unpredictable intervals you effectively make yourself like group two in the pre-school study.
When Should You Use Extrinsic Motivation?
So does this mean we should never use extrinsic motivation?
Extrinsic motivation can be incredible for two reasons:
- It create a foundation to allow for intrinsic motivation
- It can boost motivation for uncreative boring tasks
Firstly, it creates a foundation to allow for intrinsic motivation. It's safe to say that if we weren't getting a degree at college, most students wouldn't do the work they are doing, even with intrinsic motivation. So the degree gives people a foundation of extrinsic motivation to build intrinsic motivation.
Therefore some baseline of extrinsic motivation in some activities isn't always bad.
Secondly, it can boost motivation for uncreative boring tasks.
I'm currently TAing for a cooking class which as a whole is fun, but grading the sensory evaluations makes me more depressed than playing Dark Souls 3. So whenever I grade them, I play some of my favorite music and get myself a diet coke.
Let me tell you, there's nothing like grading sensory evaluations with Stardew Valley music in the background while drinking poison.
2. Realize Your Intelligence Isn't Fixed: Build a Growth Mindset
My second tip for cultivating intrinsic motivation at college is to develop a Growth mindset.
The growth mindset was first defined by researcher Carol Dweck in her 2006 book, Mindset.
In it she explains people with a growth mindset believe their skills and intelligence can be improved through hard work and overcoming failure. People with a growth mindset see the brain as a muscle that grows stronger and smarter with rigorous learning experiences. People with a fixed mindset, however, believe their skills are fixed and therefore shudder from failure and challenge. If you have a fixed mindset, your doomed. You should give up.
I'm just kidding. Fortunately we can ingrain a growth mindset even if we start with a fixed mindset in an activity.
And developing a growth mindset is incredible for building intrinsic motivation because it turns every experience into an opportunity to grow.
There is no need for some extrinsic reward. The valuable learning is the reward in itself. Everything can become intrinsically motivating.
So how can we cultivate a growth mindset?
The first step comes with realizing what the growth mindset is in the first place and ingraining it into your very being.
In every activity you attend, think about how you can frame it to fit the growth mindset. For example, instead of framing an exam as an anxiety building annoyance, frame it as a test of your skills. One of my favorite frames is to frame activities like a game. In games, we naturally challenge ourselves because we intuitively understand failure is part of the process.
By framing activities as learning experiences, you can motivate yourself to pursue challenges even in the face of failure.
The second step comes with challenging yourself. We generally learn more from failure than from success, so challenging yourself by stepping out of your comfort zone is a fantastic way to learn. For your next essay, try writing in a different style than you usually would, for your next reading assignment try summarizing the passage in your head afterward. Or for your next exam, try doing it blindfolded... Because that would certainly be challenging.
Okay, maybe not that last one, but challenging yourself in these ways is bound to lead to failure, leading to more growth.
Taking these two steps can help you build a growth mindset and in turn, build the intrinsic motivation you want to have in college.
3. Prioritize Identified Motivation Over Intrinsic and Extrinsic
My third tip for cultivating intrinsic motivation at college is actually to cultivate identified motivation over intrinsic and extrinsic.
Hold on, hasn't this whole article been about cultivating intrinsic motivation? It has, but as amazing as intrinsic motivation is, I think it often overshadows its more powerful cousin, identified motivation. Identified motivation is the motivation to do something because you have integrated the importance of doing the thing into your very identity.
Identified motivation is so powerful because of all three motivations it's arguably the most sustainable and healthy over the long term.
Discipline, willpower, shame, extrinsic reward, and punishment can work in the short term, but over the long term, they can lead to an unhealthy relationship with motivation. And intrinsic motivation, while amazing, doesn't always create a sense of urgency to do tasks earlier rather than later. In addition, many activities in life start extrinsically motivated, and we build intrinsic motivation over time. Passion builds over time, and identified motivation is a reliable way to motivate yourself to do something long enough that you can build intrinsic motivation for it.
There are three ways to develop identified motivation:
- Integrate the activity you want to do into your identity. For example, if you want to read more while in college, identify as someone that values lifelong learning. And what does someone who values lifelong learning do? They read outside of their college classes.
- Set identity-based goals rather than outcome-based goals. For example, you go to the gym not to get six-pack abs but because you are the type of person that cares about your health. Outcome-based goals are temporary and fleeting. Identity-based goals can be lifelong.
- Try and associate reward for an activity with the challenge of the activity itself. For example, in the most challenging parts of writing, learn to appreciate that difficulty. This way, you won't feel a need for some extrinsic reward outside the activity.
Using these three tips, you can build identified motivation for a reliable, sustainable, and healthy pool of long-term motivation.
4. Follow The ACTIONS Framework To Enter Flow More Consistently
My fourth tip for cultivating intrinsic motivation at college is to follow the ACTIONS framework to enter flow more consistently.
Flow, proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is a state which occurs when all worldly matters other than the activity you're doing seem to dissipate and we become fully immersed in the present.
For example, the feeling of hours passing by in minutes while building nuclear weaponry as Gandhi in Civ 6.
Research by Csikszentmihalyi shows that flow leads to optimal experiences, one of the most psychologically enjoyable states you can have. It's for this reason that flow is incredibly intrinsically motivating. Therefore, making your activities more conducive to flow is one of the best ways to develop intrinsic motivation.
There are seven Elements to entering flow the Flow state, which I distill in the Acronym ACTIONS.
I called it this because if you fulfill all of the seven elements of it, you can take any action with confidence it can become a flow experience.
Attend (Attend only to information which matters)
Clarify (Create clear completable goals and rules)
Tao (Stay in the Goldilocks zone)
Iterate (Receive unambiguous feedback)
Operate (Sense of control over actions)
Non-attachment with time (Detachment from time)
Self-goal (Foster an Autotelic personality)
By applying the ACTIONS framework to your college activities, you can vastly increase the likelihood you will enter flow inside that activity, building intrinsic motivation.
I have written extensively about how to do this in my two-part series on gamification and flow:
- Why Games Are So Engaging and Addicting: The Flow State Part 1
- How To Gamify Your Life To Enter Flow More Consistently Part 2
5. Surround Yourself With People You Want to Be Like (Unless They Don't Like Peanut Butter)
My fifth tip for cultivating intrinsic motivation in college is to surround yourself with people you want to be like.
Oh, unless of course, they don't like peanut butter.
According to social comparison theory by Festinger in 1954 we evaluate ourselves and build self-concept by comparing ourselves to others we identify with in our physical or social environment, even when more objective metrics are available.
In one study by Medvec, Madey, and Gilovich (1995) Olympic silver medalists were shown to have lower self-esteem than bronze gold medalists despite the silver medalists objectively receiving the better reward. It's theorized the silver medalists were comparing themselves to the gold medalists whereas the bronze medalists were comparing themselves to everyone who didn't receive a medal. In other words, the silver medalists felt worse about their standing because they compared themselves to the other medalists rather than to the objective standing of everyone in the event.
It follows therefore that you're socially influenced predominantly by the five people you interact with most.
If your peers smoke, you are more likely to smoke. If your peers love learning, you are likelier to love learning. If your peers like Fallout 76 than... oh you should find different peers.
This suggests that If you want to become intrinsically motivated to do something, surround yourself with people that are slightly better than you at that thing.
For example, say you wanted to become a better Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master while at college. It sounds stupidly obvious but one of the best things you can do is surround yourself with Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters that are a little better than you are. Not only will this build intrinsic motivation because they are in your immediate environment, but you also feel like your skills aren't THAT far behind there's.
You can apply this same logic to all aspects of college, whether writing, studying, speaking, comedy, etc.
6. Build Autonomy In YOUR Work
My sixth tip for building intrinsic motivation in college is to build autonomy in your work.
Autonomy is an aspect of Self-Determination Theory (SDT) proposed by researchers Deci and Ryan (2020) that refers to the degree of control you feel you have over your work, whether it be in terms of time or method of practice. According to research in SDT, more autonomy in work boosts intrinsic motivation.
The problem is without intervention, most college is pretty barren of autonomy.
Professors typically tell you what, how, and when to do something. Even for more open-ended assignments like essays, students often resort to standard methods instead of taking autonomy and breaking out of the mold. This hurts intrinsic motivation because students don't feel in control of their learning. They feel like passengers in a car that has lost its steering wheel.
The solution is to build autonomy in YOUR work.
The "YOUR" is the important part here. Stop seeing the work given to you in college at face value. Understand you CAN control what, how, and when to do something, if you fight for it. Of course, this isn't the case for every assignment, but there are many times when it is.
For example, one of my classes requires writing six essays over the semester. Most students I have noticed write these essays in what I can only describe as "lacking depth, emotion, and a bit of PIZAZZZZZ!" So I decided to break the mold. For the last two essays in the class I have purposefully written in a conversational blog post style as an experiment. The essays are peer-graded, and for both of them, I received over a 90. Students loved it.
Apart from getting a better grade, I noticed I had more intrinsic motivation for the writing process.
It felt invigorating taking autonomy over the way I went about writing the essay. I was in CONTROL over what, how, and when I did the assignment. For a few days, I was like the God of essays, the Zeus of essays, is that right? It is because I SAID SO.
You can do the same in your own college work.
7. Gamify Your College Experience: Turn Dat Ting Into A Game
My seventh tip for building intrinsic motivation is to gamify your college experience.
As mentioned earlier, video games are the classic example of intrinsic motivation. Most of the time we play video games as an end in itself rather than for some tangible outside reward. We can take insight from video games by learning what it is about them that is so engaging and applying it to real life.
Not only will this build intrinsic motivation because the activity becomes more engaging and fun, but it will also lead to more growth because framing activities like a game makes us more willing to pursue challenges that could lead to failure.
I have written extensively on how to gamify your life to enjoy learning and studying as well as how to gamify your life to enter flow more consistently, which you can check out here:
- Why Games Are So Engaging and Addicting: The Flow State Part 1
- How I Gamified My Life to Enjoy Learning/Studying Part 1
Building Intrinsic Motivation Will Make You Fall In Love With School Learning
So many students I know at Cornell aren't enjoying their student lives.
They don't enjoy learning, are motivated chiefly by extrinsic incentives, and aren't in a good headspace.
You don't have to be the same.
By following these seven tips and building intrinsic motivation, you can fall in love with school learning again.
You won't make the big mistake of motivating yourself through rewards. Instead, you will ingrain a growth mindset and strive toward challenges knowing failure makes you better. The activities important to you will become a part of your identity. You will enter a beautiful state of flow throughout all your day. You will surround yourself with people that bring you up instead of down. You will take autonomy over YOUR work.
And finally, you will gamify your school learning so you can better play, the game of life.
But not that board game crap. That thing is terrible.
Here's what I would like to share this week.
📸News From The Channel!
The Six Step Framework Every Content Creator Should Use To Make Ideas Stick: Why do some ideas stick and others don't? According to Made to Stick by Dan Heath and Chip Brown it's because they follow the SUCCESs framework. In this video I go through the six step framework. By implementing this framework in your content creation, you can make ideas much stickier. 🎙️Latest On De Podcast - EP 15 John Mavrick How To Build A Student Knowledgebase That Scales Across Semesters With Obsidian: John Mavrick is a content creator on YouTube and his newsletter. He's a front-end developer for SAP and is interested in Stoicism, Psychology, Personal Knowledge Management, and Self Actualization. On his YT channel, he creates content showcasing his use cases for Obsidian as well as analyses of anime.
In this podcast, you will learn:
- Why John dropped out of college to pursue content creation
- Why most students are bored with school learning
- How John created a systemized process for notetaking and studying in Obsidian
- How to begin self-learning in school
💡My Best Insights:
✍️Latest On De Blog - 5 Simple Levels To Supercharging Your Learning With MOCs In Obsidian: Learn how to create Maps of Content (MOCs) in Obsidian so that you don't have to agonize over whether to use folders, tags, or links. A map of content is one note linked to other related notes to create a map. That's it. Using this simple link-based organizing system I have brought clarity and enjoyment back into my notetaking in Obsidian.
📖Book - The Coddling of the American Mind: this book is about how good intentions and three bad untruths are creating a generation with the most anxiety and depressive symptoms ever. These three bad untruths are:
- The Untruth of Fragility: What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Weaker
- The Untruth Of Emotional Reasoning: Always Trust Your Feelings
- The Untruth Of Good And Evil: Life Is A Battle Between Good And Evil People
Our institutions and parents are spreading these three untruths in ways that are making the latest generations' lives worse.
✍️Blog Post - The Complete Guide to Motivation: this article summarizes all of the main motivational theories, some of which are mentioned in this article. I highly recommend you check it out, especially for the insightful nuggets of summarization gold at the end.
🎙️Podcast - Carol Dweck || the Latest Science of Growth Mindset: one of the most interesting takeaways from this episode is how being a top performer in a social setting makes you less motivated to seek challenges. This is because you become fearful of losing that status, and in turn, seek more situations where you can succeed and validate that placing. Ironically this often leads to you losing your position as a top performer as success isn't as good a teacher as failure.
📜Academic Article - Impacts of gamification on intrinsic motivation: this article showed two fascinating things:
- Tangible rewards like money, food, or a badge hurt intrinsic motivation for a gamified task, while intangible rewards like game currency didn't.
- The same gamification method could affect someone's intrinsic motivation depending on the specific person.
If you would like to read more newsletters like these subscribe to Aidan's Infinite Play below. In Aidan's Infinite Play, you will get:
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