The key link between motivation and self-awareness

MacRae suggests that examining your sources of motivation could improve your experience of your current job. “Self-awareness is fundamentally important,” he says. “One of the key things is to understand what you really want from work – whether it’s your working relationships with other people or learning and development, for example.” You can then look for opportunities to capitalize on these elements.

As for management, it’s essential that leaders listen carefully when their employees express these motivations, he says—and should make a genuine effort to provide the necessary resources to enable employees to pursue those interests. This could be far more effective in energizing the workforce than offering a year-end bonus to the most productive team member.

Van den Broeck agrees. She points out that offering employees a sense of autonomy is linked to intrinsic and identification forms of motivation. This does not mean giving employees complete freedom to do whatever they want, but it can include giving them some choice in the activities they perform and explaining the purpose of inevitable tasks assigned to them, so they can at least understand how their work fits into the team’s mission.

The pleasure principle

Self-determination theory is not just business; it can also affect our hobbies.

For example, are you going to learn a language just because you think it would sound impressive? Or does it stem from a genuine interest in the culture or a special need to communicate with speakers of the language? If you are inspired by the latter, you will find the inevitable hard work much less of a pain than someone who wants to learn a language because of the social nature of multilingualism.

With your fitness, meanwhile, you might be putting pressure on yourself to do the hardest activity you can do, simply because you want to prove your abilities to yourself or others, and you might feel like you’re somehow failing if you’re not pushing yourself to the absolute limit. However, none of these reasons reflect intrinsic motivation, so why not choose an activity that is a little less strenuous but far more enjoyable? Recent research shows that people who choose their exercise regimens in this way show greater persistence than those who do not consider their interest or enjoyment of the activity. Even if each session is a little less strenuous, if you’re more likely to stick with the activity, the long-term commitment will be more rewarding.

Life is short after all and there is only so much we can accomplish with the time we are given. Self-determination theory reminds us that we must be selective about the activities we pursue. If you focus on the goals that are most personally meaningful and satisfying, and ignore those that are inspired or imposed by others, self-improvement does not have to be a chore, but a source of joy.

David Robson is a science writer and book author The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your Lifepublished by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

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