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Self Determination Theory – What Motivates Us To Act

Self Determination Theory – What Motivates Us To Act

The self determination theory suggests that people are self-motivated to take action when their needs for competence, relatedness, and autonomy are fulfilled.

Michael Phelps is among the most decorated athletes in the history of the Olympics. His tally of 28 medals beats the second-highest of 18 by a large mile. If that wasn’t inhuman enough, he has won 23 Gold medals whereas no one else has even reached 10.

So how Michael Phelps reach such an elite level? Did he have the genes? Yes, he did. Did he have the hands and feet that aided swimming? Yes, he did. Does his body type and proportions give him an edge? Yes, they do.

But those attributes did not throw the Olympic medals into his lap. He earned every single one of them.

Michael Phelps started swimming as a little kid when he was 7 years old after watching his sisters swim. One of his reasons to start was to try the sport. The second was that his mother wanted to control the high energy he possessed as a kid.

Once Phelps started swimming he found his love for the sport early. He joined a local club by age 10 where he met a coach named Bob Bowman. After observing Phelps’s skills, Bowman spotted the young kid’s potential early, encouraged him to train harder, and providing all the support he required.

If you assumed Phelps won because of his physical advantages alone, you’re mistaken. He put in hours of relentless practice and dedicated his entire life to swimming. At his peak, Phelps swam more than 8 miles a day. He would practice over two sessions each day and his routine involved drills to sharpen various techniques like underwater/vertical kicking and sculling. And swimming wasn’t the only way he sweated it out. He lifted weights at the gym at least 3 times a week. He spent 6 hours each day for 6 days a week on practice. He had to consume 8000-10000 calories a day to match the training to make sure he didn’t lose any weight. Phew!

And that wasn’t only for a short span of time. He was consistent with his practice. Not for weeks, not for months, not for years, but decades.

During his teenage, when most people would hunt for the next place to party, Phelps spent 5 years training every single day. That’s right. 365 days a year. No Christmas breaks, no Sunday rest, no thanksgiving vacation. The only exception was his birthdays. But out of the 5 birthdays in that span, he trained on two of them.

What made Phelps successful was his determination to succeed.

self determination theory

Look around you and you’ll find two types of people.

The first kind are those who struggle to get work done. They form the majority of the population.

  • Some have the time, but no interest
  • Some have the interest, but not enough time

And then you have the second group of people, who spring out of bed each morning, put in the right effort, and achieve their dreams.

That brings us to the question: What motivates some people to act towards their goals with utmost devotion while some others procrastinate at the first opportunity?

In this article, I’ll explain the self determination theory which speaks about the attributes that contribute to motivation.

What is the self determination theory?

The self determination theory is an idealogy of human motivation which suggests that for human beings to take action out of their own interest, three needs have to be fulfilled.

1. Competence – To become better and better at the task

2. Autonomy – To have the freedom to choose the method and make own decisions to attain the goal

3. Relatedness – To have a connection and care for others

3 attributes of the self determination theory

The concept was researched and presented by psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan in the mid-1980s.

The three core areas of self determination theory:

Let’s explore each of these 3 key attributes of the self determination theory.

1. Competence:

Human beings have an urge to excel at what they do. At first thought, you might argue, “But I have zero interest in my job. Let alone excel at it.”

Yes, you have a point. But, you’re looking at your current job alone instead of your entire skillset. If you had the opportunity to pursue a different career like sports, music, traveling, or art, you would have a different opinion. But you’re unable to pursue a full-time career in your interests due to circumstances.

If you don’t have the interest to improve competence in your core area, chances are you’re looking at the wrong skill itself.

Each person has an inherent desire to improve in one area or another.

2. Autonomy:

You experience one of the greatest satisfactions in life when you achieve your goal making your own decisions. You feel on top of the world because you made the call and you followed up with the effort yourself.

Compare that victory with another triumph where you followed directions from another person. You do feel good, but a part of you doesn’t rejoice to the fullest.

For the same reason, an entrepreneur relishes a business success far more than an employee.

When you have the autonomy to make decisions and choose your actions, you will have a stronger urge to pursue them.

3. Relatedness

Imagine you achieve all your goals, but you have no one to share the success with. You’d barely enjoy your victory, wouldn’t you?

Human beings are social creatures since the age of dawn. We’re the most dominant force on earth today because we thrived in small and large groups. Such a collaborative culture helped us love one another, look out for each other, share ideas and work towards the collective benefit of the group.

Caring for our parents, siblings, partners, and friends are ingrained within our DNA. Therefore, without meaningful relationships, our life on earth seems incomplete no matter what levels of success we achieve.

What’s the point of achieving a goal larger than life, if you don’t have a loved one to clink a glass of wine, say cheers and celebrate with?

What happens when the three needs are not met?

To understand how these needs influence a person to take action, let’s look at extrinsic and intrinsic motivation first.

Here are two gentlemen, Charles and Matt.

Charles has finished his degree in computer science, but he neither has passion nor hatred towards working in that domain. When Charles joins as an intern in a top organization, he discovers that the best performers will be offered full-time jobs with a fat paycheck.

On further research, he finds out that if he strived hard, he could grow up the corporate ladder to a top position within the next 10 years. Motivated by what’s in store for him, Charles gives his best to succeed in the organization.

how extrinsic motivation works

In Charles’ case, the rewards of a better income and a higher position urge him to perform well. Since the source of motivation is external, it is called extrinsic motivation.

On the other side, Matt has finished college at the same time as Charles. Studies never were Matt’s area of interest, but he loved to play the violin. During his college days, he practiced long hours trying to learn various notes and melodies. Over time, he mastered the instrument and enjoyed playing it.

In Matt’s case, the desire to play the violin comes from within even if no rewards or incentives are involved. Since the source of motivation is internal, it is called intrinsic motivation.

The differences between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are:

Extrinsic Motivation

Arises due to the rewards or other incentives involved

Lasts as long as the incentive exists

Stems from external factors

Intrinsic Motivation

Arises due to self-interest within the person

Lasts a long time(many years or forever)

Stems from the natural tendency to improve and achieve

When is extrinsic motivation good?

When you read through the two types, it’d appear that extrinsic motivation is harmful and short-lived. But in the presence of the three attributes of the self determination theory, even an external reward can drive intrinsic motivation.

If you take the employed people around the world, everyone works for a salary. For some, money is the sole driving factor whereas for many others, salary is only a byproduct. But, either way, every employee expects money to hit their bank account periodically.

If you look at that aspect alone, all employees should fall under the extrinsic motivation category because they work for an incentive. But, many of the employees are self-motivated to give their best every day.

Related article: How to motivate yourself – 12 tips that work

Take an employee who’s frustrated with their job and ask him why. The most common reasons you’ll hear are:

  • I’m bored of doing the same thing every day (Competence)
  • I’m tired of following instructions(Autonomy)
  • My boss never appreciates the work I do(Relatedness)
  • I’m not paid enough for the work I do
  • I am too stressed with the amount of work I have

The last two options can create an impression that most employees leave their job due to high stress or low salary. But look at an employee who loves his job. You’ll find that a happy employee works long hours too, no different than the dissatisfied employee who’s stressed. If the satisfied employee looks for a different job with a higher pay scale, he’ll find one.

But a happy employee soaks work pressure and stays in the same role despite other opportunities which pay higher. You know why? Because the work he’s doing meets most of the three key needs.

If your profession satisfies competence, autonomy, and relatedness, you’ll cling on to it as a baby kangaroo holds on to its mother. For the same reason, many pursue a career in the area of their interest despite having an opportunity to earn more by working less.

When the three core needs are met, neither does money boost motivation nor does the burden of responsibilities cause frustration.

When is extrinsic motivation bad?

Extrinsic motivation is harmful when you pick up a long term you dislike just for the incentive. Even if you manage to motivate yourself or others to perform the activities they hate by introducing a reward, the behavior is only short-lived.

Remove the reward and the enthusiasm fades away. Even if the incentive is retained forever, over time, the reward turns into an expectation and fails to drive a person to take action.

If you observe the behavior of new employees who joined a workplace after their college, you’ll spot a similar pattern. At first, the salary, no matter how big or small, drives the newcomers to work hard. But as years go by, EMIs and credit card bills become routine and the salary turns into an expectation. Money no longer serves as a motivation to do better.

When rewards are the only driver for action without the presence of other attributes such as autonomy, competence, or appreciation, extrinsic motivation works only as a bandaid, not as a real solution.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can occur simultaneously:

Does the motivation to perform a task always have to be either intrinsic or extrinsic? Not quite. They can both co-exist.

Take for example, the purpose of hitting the gym. On one end, you want to challenge yourself and improve your fitness. You signed up for a gym membership yourself even though no one asked you to. That’s intrinsic motivation.

On the other end, you want others to admire the muscle definition of your shredded abs or your ability to perform 50 push-ups in a row. That’s extrinsic motivation.

Your reason for working out is both intrinsic and extrinsic. Not always is it one vs the other. They can work together hand in hand.

That said, the source of the motivation can go to different extremes based on the task at hand.

Pure intrinsic:

Recall your favorite hobby such as playing a musical instrument, drawing, painting, singing, or dancing. You’re happy to spend time on it without any incentive even if takes effort and energy from your side.

Part intrinsic, part extrinsic:

For most people, the driving factor for working at a specific job is both intrinsic and extrinsic.

Why extrinsic? Because you put in 40 hours every week expecting a salary. You don’t work for free, do you?

Why intrinsic? You stay at some organizations more than others. If you don’t enjoy your job, you’ll try to find another opportunity. That shows that along with money, how contented you feel with the work you’re doing determines the time you wait before you type your resignation letter.

Pure extrinsic:

What’s a task you hate doing? Household chores? Buying grocery? Cleaning your cupboard? Throwing the trash?

Though you’re not naturally inclined to perform that job, introducing an external reward can motivate you to act despite your reluctance. For example, if I offered you a 1000$ to clean your cupboard, you’d already be stacking your clothes right now.

When you perform a task you hate in the anticipation of a reward, your behavior is driven solely by extrinsic motivation.

How to use the self determination theory to achieve your goals

Every person who achieves big hairy goals attributes their success not only to relentless effort but also to the environment they had the opportunity to work in.

Therefore, cultivating intrinsic motivation is both the responsibility of the individual and the leaders, managers, and mentors who oversee a large group of people. So, we’ll break the tips for facilitating self determination into two sections:

What can you do as an individual for self determination:

Pursue a goal that originates from your internal thirst:

People make the common mistake of chasing the goals which everyone around them wants to pursue. A degree in an elite university, a job in a reputed company, a wedding by the age of 30, a house by the age of 32, and kids by the age of 35. But deep down, you surrender your true dreams in pursuit of goals defined by society.

Instead, go after targets that resonate with you. When you chase goals that matter to you, you’ll meet your old friend – your long-lost motivation.

Related article: How to identify your long term goals

Pursue a career you don’t hate:

“Follow your passion” is great advice, but unfortunately, not everyone is privileged enough to make a career out of their core interests. Many of us have to take up other jobs to pay bills and live a comfortable life.

But, even if you cannot make your passion your career, don’t head on to a different direction altogether. With the advent of IT, many young professionals take up desk jobs in different sectors even if they despise the industry itself.

Don’t make that mistake to earn a high initial salary. If you cannot join a job you love, at the very least, do not join a job you hate. Even if you do not spring out of bed each morning, you must not feel frustrated every Monday at the first thought of work.

Pursue goals that you want to master:

I get many emails and consultation requests from students looking for tips to increase their focus on studies. But, the problem isn’t that they lack concentration. The problem is they lack interest in studies itself. Some chose the wrong specialization, some joined for a degree, some were coerced by parents.

When you try to achieve mastery in a field you lack interest in, you’ll battle procrastination and lack of focus every day. No matter what profession you’re in, if you look beyond the obvious, you’ll find an opportunity to improve your skills in aspects that you’re interested in. Strive for mastery in areas that make you happy, not the ones which make others happy.

How to facilitate self-determination in people as a leader:

Provide people freedom:

Some leaders distribute tasks among their people and telling them how to do it. Such an approach is dictatorial where people expect directions to get the job done.

Instead, allow people to choose what they want to work on whenever possible. Yes, it isn’t always feasible in a business environment, but if you give it a shot, you’ll find more opportunities than you think.

The difference between tasks assigned to people vs people picking it themselves is paramount.

When people take up a task out of their own choice, not only are they more committed to accomplishing it, but they also experience inner fulfillment when they get the job done.

Allow people to choose their goals instead of assigning them

In a typical organization, the manager prepares a list of goals and hands them over to the employee to follow. That’s no different than leading a herd of sheep to a grazing field.

If you want your employees to commit to their goals, ask them to come up with the areas they’d like to target for the year. Make the goal-setting process collaborative, not a one-sided conversation where you’re the only one talking.

As a manager, you’ll want to add specific targets for each employee and you should include them too. But you should discuss them with the employee and explain why you included them instead of making it appear like a verdict in court.

At the end of the goal-setting process, both the manager and the employee must willingly agree that the goals chosen were in line with the interests of the organization and the employee.

Be careful about rewarding people for intrinsic interests

We all love rewards, and therefore, the more the incentives, the higher the employee satisfaction, right?

Not always.

As per the overjustification effect, an external incentive like a reward or a payment decreases your inner motivation to perform the task.

Let’s take an example. If you love to paint, you’ll spend time on it for your inner satisfaction even if you make no money out of it. Now, if you start selling your paintings among your friends, you’ll love the extra income you generate in the process. You make money pursuing your passion. “Could it get any better?” you wonder.

But, if you no longer find people who pay for your art, you might lose your intrinsic enthusiasm to paint. That’s because, the money turned into an expectation and the moment it disappeared, you felt your effort was for nothing.

As a leader, don’t introduce a reward system without thinking it through. If you introduce rewards such as the “Best performer” for activities team members already love doing, you face the risk of demotivating them when you stop the incentives. A better approach is to reward the entire team for the good work or introduce a variable reward system where the prize comes as a delightful surprise.

Related article: How to build a self reward system

Provide timely feedback 

Identify your people who are genuinely interested to sharpen their skills and provide them useful feedback for improvement. A person with an open mind will hear you out and take action to increase competence.

For the top performers, you don’t need to provide a clear set of actions to take. Challenge them to improve one aspect of their core skill and they’ll find a way to accomplish that. Self-motivated people need guidance and encouragement, not directions and instructions.

Frequently asked questions:

I have no motivation for a task/job that I have to do. How do I fix it?

During my consultations, one common problem I hear is that a person isn’t interested in their primary skill. For example:

  • A student who isn’t interested to study
  • A working professional who hates his/her job

People are eager to hear a few tips which can solve their problem within the next few days. Unfortunately, no one has a magic pill that immediately fills a person with motivation. The interest to complete a task always from within.

Therefore, if you lack the motivation to work on your core area, I suggest you do a bit of soul searching first.

Step 1: Find your purpose

In almost every case, a person who lacks focus is unclear about what he/she wants to achieve in life. Therefore, the task/job at hand ends up being a burden on their shoulders.

If you have to fix your lack of motivation, you have to identify what you want to achieve in life first. Without having a goal to aim at, you’ll struggle to find the enthusiasm to complete some of your tasks.

Vision without action is a daydream and action without vision is a nightmare.

Step 2: Is there a way to align the task/job with your purpose

Once you identify your purpose, figure out how can you align your tasks to get there. For example:

For example:

If you’re an employee who hates your job and want to start a business, look at your job as a temporary means to earn and save money as capital for your venture

If you’re a student who wants to pursue a career in sports, look at the importance of good scores to get into a college known for sportsmen. That should be reason enough to study even if you’re not the best at academics.

Step 3: Is there a way to realign your dislikes?

Often, you assume that you have no choice but to work on the tasks you hate because your responsibilities demand that of you. But, have you tried to change the situation?

For example, if you spend all your work hours on tasks you hate:

Talk to your boss and explain the situation: Good leaders try to align your interests with day-to-day responsibilities whenever possible. Don’t assume that your leader won’t help you without making an effort first.

Share work with your coworker: Every team has different people who relish different tasks. Some love sophisticated planning while some others enjoy simple coordination. Find people who love the tasks you hate and ask them if they’re willing to take it up. In return, you can work on the tasks the other person dislikes. Win-win for everyone.

Move to a different role: If you’re performing well at work, but you don’t enjoy it anymore, seek a different challenge. Take up another role and see where it leads you. Don’t be the person who whines about their job but does nothing to change the situation.

You cannot become what you want by remaining where you are

Max Depree

I don’t have a passion for anything. What goals should I pursue?

Another common problem people face is the utter lack of passion itself.

Is this thought running through your mind? “I don’t have any expertise that I love. I like a few activities, but I don’t think I enjoy them enough to pursue them as a goal”

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Many believe that passion is inborn within us and that we either have it or we don’t. But, such an assumption is far from the truth.

Not everyone loves an activity right from the word go. For some, passion develops with time and expertise.

In the book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, the author Cal Newport argues that the passion hypothesis is flawed. He explains how the theory of following your passion incorrectly explains the success of the big names.

Most entrepreneurs and the stars did not start with their current field of expertise as their first passion. They tried different things and improved themselves at one thing which they could relate to.

It wasn’t ‘doing what you love.’ Instead, they reach the pinnacle of fame because they loved what they did.

I am not suggesting you pick any random career and start loving it. You cannot. But, at the same time, you cannot wait for passion to arise within you. You must try your options to figure out what you enjoy. Only after you cross a certain level of expertise will you love what you’re doing.

If you’re not sure what your passion is, spend more time on the things you’re interested in. Over time, you’ll know what activities bring out the intrinsic motivation within you.

Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.

Cal Newport

People who achieve success go through the usual cycle of finding their passion.

Step 1: Curiosity

The first step is curiosity where you want to try an activity you’ve never tried before because it seems interesting.

Step 2: Interest

In step 2, you try to perform that activity yourself. The first experience isn’t always enjoyable, but you feel a spark within you to give it another go. You repeat the activity again and again until you develop a liking. At times, you lose interest mid-way and the enthusiasm to pursue mastery in the subject dies off.

Step 3: Expertise

After you repeat the same activity many times, you increase your expertise and develop a love for it. You push your limits to give your best even if you feel uncomfortable. You step outside your comfort zone to sharpen your skills and savor the challenge.

Step 4: Passion

The combination of your interest and your growing expertise turns the area into your passion. Without interest, you’ll struggle to find the motivation to develop expertise. Without expertise, you’ll not be passionate about the subject. You need both of them to facilitate each other.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your passion is already within you waiting to be uncovered. Though that occurs with some people, it’s a rarity. More often, you need to develop your passion.


The self determination theory makes a strong correlation between the human emotions for fulfillment and the desire to achieve goals.

Having the intrinsic motivation to succeed is as powerful as an engine of a gigantic ship. It can propel you forward with raw energy and steer you towards your goals. But that said, don’t try to hurry to find your passion. When you read inspiring stories of successful people who figured their goals out before they were even 10 years old, you wonder, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”

But, before you berate yourself, you need to know two things. One, such success stories are the exception to the norm. Two, you’re not in a rat race with anybody else.

Finding your passion is a long journey, not a competition where you’ve to beat an opponent. So, choose your own speed and take your own time.


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