Threats to my intrinsic motivation

29 May

Well that’s a bummer. Apparently last Friday I didn’t write my 750 words, falling short by only 20 words. I think there must have been a bug in the system, because I distinctly remember seeing the little green popup saying something, although I’m not 100% sure that something was the congratulations for having reached the limit.

So now I’ve failed the May challenge, with only 3 days to go, and I’ve broken my 35 day streak. Initially I was pretty upset about this, and feeling a bit demoralised. I seriously considered stopping this daily writing so I can have more time to spend on other things.

However, I realise that I had already broken the challenge before on those days when I just copy-pasted earlier blog posts instead of writing original stuff. That was really silly. Why am I doing this 750 words thing? To get the longest running streak? To get badges? To feel good about myself and boast to others about how well I’m doing? As much as it makes me feel ashamed, it seems that these are indeed some of the reasons I’ve been doing it.

However, there are other reasons too that are still valid:

  • Writing each day helps me to reflect on what I’ve done and learned during the day.
  • It helps me to see some of the lessons of the day that I might miss if I don’t take the time to write.
  • It helps me to keep the habit of writing, converting the content of my thoughts into electronic, written form, which will be a great help when I get stuck into my PhD.
  • Finally, I simply enjoy writing.

There are many benefits to this writing habit, and I value all of them enough to continue writing even though I didn’t complete the challenge this month, and broke my streak.

Thinking more about it now, I have decided that, on days when it’s really not convenient or even possible to write 750 meaningful words, I’ll just skip it. It’s important and useful, but it’s not a priority that overrides all others. I don’t want to care about having a long running streak, and I don’t want to care about earning any rewards other than those that are intrinsic in the process of writing. I enjoy writing, so why do I need any other incentives?

In fact, if I feel that my entry was meaningful and helpful enough, I won’t even worry about reaching the 750 word limit. I understand that this limit is set because, on average, it tends to take deeper thought and soul-searching to come up with that many words, but sometimes I get to that level before this limit. For example, today’s entry has already helped me to reflect on my daily writing, and to decide that I should continue with it, but not be as inflexible as I have been in the past. Knowing what I know about intrinsic motivation should have informed me about this detrimental effect of extrinsic rewards.

What am I talking about? Interestingly, over and over again the lessons of life take me back to what I’ve learned about self-determination and the quality of motivation. When you really enjoy doing something for its own sake, you tend to be naturally motivated to do that thing, you don’t need external rewards or even personal challenges. However, if you get the promise of external rewards or set yourself a challenge for that particular activity (e.g. writing, painting etc.), it tends to undermine this intrinsic motivation, and you are more likely to discontinue this activity, whether or not you get the reward or achieve your challenge. Unfortunately our society is very focused on extrinsic rewards, competition and measurable achievements, so our natural inclinations towards certain activities tends to be stifled.

I have felt this many times, particularly in regards to music. I first got interested in playing the piano when my parents bought us a cheap Pink Panther piano-accordion toy. They noticed that I used to play some recognisable tunes on the keyboard, so they talked and talked and eventually decided to buy an upright, acoustic piano and get me signed up for one-on-one home lessons when I was 8. That purchase represented a very large expense for them, and was a great sacrifice, something I didn’t understand until a few years ago when I temporarily re-acquired this piano and found the invoice for its purchase inside its cover.

Piano Hand

The piano, extension of my soul...

Now, my parents had noticed an intrinsic motivation in me towards playing the piano, and they built upon that by buying one for me. That was an excellent move on their part. Having one-on-one lessons was also fantastic. However, I wasn’t always very motivated to perform the exercises given by the teacher, because I didn’t have a lot of choice in what these exercises were (lack of autonomy thwarts intrinsic motivation). I was very confident in my own abilities though (high competence promotes intrinsic motivation) and I got along well with the teacher (high relatedness promotes intrinsic motivation). So, for the first few years of learning the piano, I did really well and motivation wasn’t an issue.

Later on, however, we moved to a larger town and I joined a music school. My interests for the piano wavered for a while, and my parents got worried that I would stop practicing and waste my talent (as well as the piano!). To help me get back to it, they started nagging me to do my exercises, reminding me how much money they had spent on the piano, and how I was wasting my talent etc. I don’t remember if they set up any reward system, but I certainly remember the negative reinforcement of the nagging. This really didn’t help my intrinsic motivation, but occasionally I found myself attracted to the ivories and playing for the pleasure of it.

Today I have no reward system surrounding playing the piano, no outward pressures to perform, and I absolutely relish any and all opportunities I have to play. I love taking very challenging pieces of music and slowly, painstakingly playing through them, enjoying the beautiful chords and melodies (particularly Rachmaninov and Chopin). The fact that I don’t even have a keyboard at home (something I tend to remedy soon, hopefully!) makes these opportunities even more rare and enjoyable. I often play just for the pure enjoyment of it, and I don’t care whether or not I sound clumsy and out of rhythm.

I tend to be like this with my writing, singing, baking, painting and photography, and I’d like to be more intrinsically motivated to study, and even to work. My intrinsic motivation to do these two things is, of course, threatened by the external reward systems inherent in them (grades and accolades for studies, money and recognition for work). If only I could care less about external rewards!


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One response to “Threats to my intrinsic motivation

  1. Sook Fern

    May 31, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    I knew you were a musician kinda guy lol! 😛 Yea I regret giving up piano all those years ago now. Sad to say, my teachers never really got me deep enough to enjoy it. I do now! 🙂


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