Why Rewards Are Destroying Your Motivation
Sometimes you need that nudge to motivate you. It’s easy to find an app or program that rewards you for doing an activity (like exercise) with money, cool products, and badge/point prizes. If there’s a reward (or consequence) at the end, you’ll work harder and be more motivated to do the activity, right?
Wrong. Well, sort of.
In this article, I’ll explain why rewards and punishments for behavior have been shown to be demotivating. I’ll discuss the importance of intrinsic motivation, situations where you can and should use rewards, and strategies for hacking your own motivation to achieve your long-term goals.
Let’s dive in.
Understanding rewards and motivation
Rewards motivate behavior extrinsically; meaning the source of motivation comes from outside of the behavior itself. Although this article will focus on rewards, it’s worth mentioning that extrinsic motivation can also include negative sources of motivation, including punishments such as fear.
Here are some examples of activities that are extrinsically motivated:
Going for a run for the calorie-burning benefits
Washing the dishes so that the sink is clean
Paying the bills so you don’t get a late fee
Eating vegetables to limit your calorie intake
Networking with people to further your career
In contrast, intrinsic motivation is defined as the drive to perform an activity for the sake of the activity itself. The motivation stems directly from the satisfaction of doing the behavior.
Here are some intrinsic motivation examples:
Reading a book because you love to read
Going for a run because you love running
Hanging out with a friend just because
Listening to music to rock out to your favorite tunes
Baking because you love to bake
See the difference? Even though some of the extrinsically-motivated activities have rewards that are intangible and meaningful, the rewards themselves are still external to the activity itself. The end goal is not the behavior, but something else. Running to burn calories versus running because you enjoy running are different.
You may be wondering, “What if you’re motivated by both?” You run to stay fit but also because you love to run. That’s very possible. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are not mutually exclusive. However, focusing on the reward could actually hinder your intrinsic motivation. I’ll get to that more below.
Another question: What if the activity itself produces a “reward,” like being motivated by the reward of a beautiful view at the end of a hike? I’d say that because the view is a fundamental part of the hiking experience, you are intrinsically motivated to hike.
However, if the actual reason you want the view at the top is so that you can post a photo on Instagram and get a lot of “likes,” then really, your reward is the social currency—and thus, you are extrinsically motivated to hike.
Wondering how to determine if an activity is extrinsically or intrinsically motivating for you? Ask this simple question: If doing this activity had no secondary benefits, would I still want to do it?
If the answer is yes, it’s intrinsic. If not, it’s extrinsic.
When do we have intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation?
When we are children, we seek out new experiences with seemingly little reward. Creators of the self-determination theory, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci, note how children are naturally curious and seek mastery and exploration, even in the absence of rewards. Humans have an innate propensity to learn and grow.
Then as we grow up, learning and performing are incentivized through grades, salaries, and status. It becomes harder to do things for the sake of doing them. Instead, our behaviors are largely driven by external rewards, even if they were things we once enjoyed doing “just because.”
In the research summarized by Ryan and Deci, studies have found that extrinsic rewards undermine intrinsic motivation. When people expect a reward for performing a behavior, they’re less intrinsically motivated to do it.
What’s going on?
Why rewards kill your intrinsic motivation
The beauty of intrinsic motivation is that it doesn’t fizzle out. As long as the activity remains valuable and interesting to you, it replenishes motivation with each use.
On the contrary, exchanging a reward for behavior is transactional. By putting a reward at the receiving end of an activity, it implies that there’s a cost (the action) and a benefit (the incentive). The activity now feels like work. You’re no longer doing the activity for the activity’s sake. Instead, it’s the means to an end.
Why is this bad? You’re still doing the activity, right?
Take this into consideration: Over time, the reward becomes less shiny because the newness has worn off and you’ve come to expect it. You’ll often see games designed so that the prize gets bigger with each challenge. To stay engaged, you need to keep making the reward more exciting. It’s hard on your bank account.
And once you’ve been accustomed to receiving a reward, what happens if it goes away? No motivation whatsoever.
I’ve experienced this to some degree with my Fitbit. For those who don’t know, when you hit your daily step goal, a cool animation lights up your device. It’s great! However, I’ve come to expect that animation.
On the rare occasion when I’ve forgotten to wear my Fitbit or ran out of battery, I feel unmotivated to walk because I’m not getting “credit” for my steps. How ridiculous! Yet, now that I expect the device to track my steps and reward me for hitting my goal, going for a walk where my steps aren’t counted feels like a waste. The saddest part is that for years prior to wearing a Fitbit, I never needed a counter to motivate me to walk. I would walk just for the sake of walking!
The point I’m making is this:
If you are intrinsically motivated to perform a behavior, incorporating rewards or punishments will hurt your long-term motivation.
Don’t do it.
When rewards work
Sometimes, there’s stuff you have to do, but you don’t in any way enjoy the experience of doing it. As adults, this is the majority of our activities. For me, laundry is one of those things.
For behaviors you’ve never enjoyed in the past, and will likely never enjoy in the future, rewarding yourself for doing it is a good idea!
Here’s a caveat: not all rewards are equal. Beware of the “chocolate-covered broccoli” phenomenon: trying to mask the thing you don’t like and is good for you (broccoli) with something you like (chocolate).
If you hate broccoli SO MUCH, ask yourself, “Is broccoli the right vegetable for me to be eating in the first place?”
Believe it or not, by carefully choosing the activity and reward, you can set yourself up to make certain behaviors more intrinsically motivating.
How to make a behavior intrinsically motivating
The most important factor in motivating yourself to do something you don’t enjoy is to internalize it. By integrating the value of a behavior with your personal values and identity, doing the action becomes self-determined.
Here’s an example. You’re in school, and you have to write a final paper for a class. Let’s say you hate writing, and would never be writing this paper out of your own volition. The grade and passing of the course is the “reward.”
Naturally, you find yourself begrudgingly filling the pages so that you can be done with this class. But what if we shifted the motivation for writing the paper to be something that really matters to you?
The paper gets you closer to your ultimate goal of graduating with a degree so that you can land your dream job. Therefore, associate writing the paper with your dream job (something you ARE intrinsically motivated to do) so that you internalize it. Change your internal dialog from, "I just need to get this done so I can be finished with this course" to, "Finishing this paper gets me one steps closer to my dream job." More motivating, isn't it?
Similarly, you can relate the activity to your identity. For example, let’s say you take pride in being a student who delivers quality papers and never misses a deadline. You can use this identity to motivate yourself when you’re tempted to procrastinate. Get inspired to get a head start by telling yourself, “I’m not the type of student who waits until the night before to start writing the paper.”
The key to making an activity more intrinsically motivating is to integrate it in your self-identity as much as possible.
If you can internalize the reward, it’s less likely that your motivation will wear out.
This can apply to incentives too. Structure rewards so that they align with your identity and don’t sabotage your bigger goal. For instance:
If you run, make the reward for meeting a milestone a new pair of running shoes.
If you’re saving money, reward yourself for saving up a certain amount with a lazy day of “me time” inactivity that costs you nothing.
If you’re learning a new skill, reward yourself for completing a course with purchasing the next advanced level of a course or upgrading your equipment.
If you just can’t seem to internalize the behavior or its outcome, you owe it to yourself to give your life an honest look. You may be targeting the wrong behavior in the first place.
How to choose activities that are more intrinsically motivating
If you’re trying all sorts of ways to internalize and motivate yourself and nothing’s working, there’s probably something wrong with the behavior you’re trying to do. It’s possible you’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. You can’t identify with the behavior because it doesn’t stem from you.
To help you determine if this is the case, consider what factors are key for intrinsic motivation. Obviously, being interested in the activity itself is essential. It's also possible that you're lacking one of these three key components of intrinsic motivation identified by Ryan and Deci: competence, autonomy, and social connectedness.
Hack your motivation by evaluating whether your behavior includes these factors:
What’s something you’re really bad at? I'll go first: Bowling. On a rare occasion, I’ll get a spare or even a strike, but 99% of the time, it’s gutter balls for me.
Guess what happens when someone suggests we go bowling? I jump at the chance to lace up my bowling shoes and humiliate myself! Just kidding. I can always be convinced, though (see #3).
It’s hard to be motivated to do an activity that makes you feel incompetent. That’s why when you’re incorporating a new behavior, it’s key to start small with something you’re confident you can do. When you’re successful at something, you want to do more of it. Seeing the “wins” stack up is highly motivating. Even if you don’t knock it out of the park right away, making progress feels good. Failing time and again? Not so much.
That’s why a lot of personal coaches recommend starting with just one or very few small, consistent changes. It’s also for this reason that Supporti has users focus on building one small daily habit at a time. Even if you’re eager to start getting more advanced, it’s best to start small so that you stay motivated long-term.
Ah, freedom. We love choice, to some degree. As humans, we also crave control. When someone tells us what to do, when to do it, and precisely how to do it, it’s restricting. There’s little investment on behalf of the do-er in creating the plan.
A common misconception is to assume it’s just easier to have someone, an expert, tell you exactly what to do. The problem? When someone else controls everything, it’s 100% external. How can you possibly internalize that?
The expert may know their respective field, but YOU are the expert on you. Tailor their advice to your lifestyle and priorities.
By owning the “how,” “when,” “where,” of an action, you are invested in it. You play a part in making the decision and are more invested in the outcome because you’ve internalized it.
Be a part of the action and the action will become a part of you.
3. Social Connectedness
A lot of what makes an activity appealing is the ability for it to connect us with other people. While it’s possible to do something completely solo and find it rewarding, sharing the experience with other people will almost always make it more motivating.
You may be wondering as I did how social connectedness, which by definition relies on other people (an external source), is intrinsically motivating.
Social connection is fundamental and intrinsic to the human experience. Because it is such a core part of our development, it plays a big role in how we stay engaged and motivated.
Having someone acknowledge your effort has the power to lift us up more than any chatbot or reminder. That’s why Supporti uses the power of social support via accountability partners as the primary way to motivate you. Having someone care about whether or not you do what you committed to doing is tremendously motivating. Not only does it help to have someone to report back to about your progress, but sharing in another person’s journey also gives you an added boost of motivation.
How to foster intrinsic motivation for personal well-being
What self-determined actions could you start incorporating that would improve your well-being?
Let’s say you read that [insert fad here] worked for someone else and that all the experts say it’s THE BEST. Well, if it doesn’t meet the competence, autonomy, and social-connectedness criteria above, then it doesn’t mean it’s the best for you.
Choose new behaviors based on the three intrinsic principles above:
Competence: What are some things you are good at that would improve your health? Are you a great cook that can make any vegetable taste delicious? Are you a dance machine? Play to your strengths and start small. You can always make the activity more challenging, but remember that the long-term strategy is to start with activities that you feel competent doing.
Autonomy: Rather than sticking to an intense training regimen or a restricted diet with lots of rules, come up with the plan yourself. You choose what you do and how you’ll do it. Think about your schedule, your environment. What works best for you, at this time? You don’t even have to commit to a set schedule. That’s the beauty of having you control exactly how YOU think the activity should be done. The ball’s in your court.
Social Connectedness: Who can support you with this activity? Is there someone you know who is already doing it? Is there someone who might want to join you in it? Can you meet other people through this activity? Surround yourself with people who can help you make these activities more enjoyable and hence, more intrinsically motivating.
Challenge: Identify ONE well-being activity that meets this criteria and test it out this week.
How to facilitate intrinsic motivation in the workplace
How do you motivate employees? ← A question every manager has at some point.
If you can help employees internalize their work, you’ll increase their self-determination and in turn, boost employee engagement and reduce turnover.
How can you help your team internalize their work? Remind employees why they got into the field in the first place. There was likely something about their work they enjoyed to have chosen this area of work. Show them how their contribution impacts the greater cause.
Use this guide to help your employees find motivation in their work.
Competence: Can you give employees projects at which they can excel? What are their strengths? Identify what an employee’s strongest assets are and find them projects that allow that strength to shine. To help employees grow, find opportunities for training and mentorship so that they can gradually advance and hone their skills.
Autonomy: Let employees have a say in how their work gets done. Trust them to be the experts in their role. This looks different for every work environment, but facilitating autonomy could be as basic as having an employee choose which projects to work on first, or as sizable as letting employees decide when to work from home. Do what makes sense for your workplace culture. Have employees practice autonomy and internalize their work by asking them, “How do you see yourself growing here?”, “How does your work tie back to your bigger career goals?”, and “How does the work you do support the company’s broader mission?” By asking your employees to reflect, you help them internalize their work and recognize where they have control.
Social Connectedness: To help employees form relationships of mutual respect and trust, focus on creating and enforcing positive social norms (which are much more important to workplace culture than free snacks and napping pods). Some ways to do that? Get rid of toxic employees: people who bully, gossip, cut corners or otherwise bring down the team. Give praise publicly and give feedback privately. Having a best friend at work has been shown to increase employee engagement and retention, so encourage employees to get to know their coworkers personally.
Challenge: Work with one employee and ask them the autonomy questions above. Have them come up with ONE new behavior that will help them grow professionally.
Applying intrinsic motivation principles to your goals
Take an honest look at your activities. Are there things you used to enjoy doing but have lost their luster? Could it be because you’ve established some external incentives for that activity? Instead of being able to enjoy it, you’re focused on the reward. If so, consider uncoupling the reward and the activity and try to reconnect with the joy of the activity itself. Fall back in love with it.
For activities that you’ve never intrinsically loved, evaluate the rewards systems you currently have in place. Do they align with your identity? Or are they “chocolate-covered broccoli”? If it’s the latter, consider choosing different activities that supply competence, autonomy, and social connectedness to help sustain your motivation in the long term.
To learn more about the motivational principles underlying Supporti, the accountability partner app, see How it works.