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A friend of mine, Charlie, is the swim coach at the university where I work. The other day at lunch we got to talking about why he decided to go into coaching. It turns out that he originally was interested in law, but a summer internship at a firm changed his mind.

Talking with his hard-working co-workers revealed that many of them liked being lawyers because of the many perks – not the least of which was a high salary and all its bounty, like nice cars and exotic vacations. Of course, there are plenty of lawyers who genuinely love what they do, but at this firm, rarely did anyone indicate they actually enjoyed practicing law. It seemed to Charlie that his colleagues were slogging through 48 weeks of the year to savor the four weeks of vacation.

Coaching, on the other hand, which Charlie was also doing on the side, brought daily rewards as he worked with young people to develop their best abilities. While it paid less, it was a great deal more satisfying and energizing to him on a deep level. In the end, although the external rewards of practicing law were tempting, the internal motivations of coaching proved much more convincing.

Ins and Outs

Charlie’s example highlights the differences between two types of motivation recognized by social scientists: extrinsic and intrinsic. When we do things because of an expectation of a reward, prize or social approval, or any other external reason, we are acting extrinsically.

Conversely, when something seems worth doing regardless of the potential outside rewards, we are acting intrinsically. Another way of thinking about intrinsic action is that the “reward” one gets is the feeling of enjoyment, satisfaction or contentment while you are acting. This “prize” doesn’t depend on what others think or offer you in return, but rather how your actions bring about a positive internal experience.

In a sense, intrinsically motivated people enjoy the process of what they are doing, whereas extrinsically motivated folks see the eventual goal as their primary motivating force, even though the process of reaching it may not seem particularly fun or even worthwhile.

Goals are useful because they help to focus attention and energy to act effectively, but process is what gets you to the goal. This is equally true for career goals, fitness goals and all other personal goals. By disregarding the process, or enduring an unpleasant one, your entire effort may be undermined. If you don’t truly enjoy the process of doing what you do, you risk burnout and run a greater chance of eventually abandoning the goal. Because no distant reward, however glittery, can provide the same kind of day-to-day, experiential sustenance required for optimal performance that moment-to-moment passion, enjoyment and engagement can.

A Simple Rule

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that the more you enjoy doing something, the more of it you will do. So, it’s important to think about how you can find or make more enjoyment in what you’re already doing.

First, it’s essential to realize that nearly anything can be enjoyable.

Washing the dishes, vacuuming the floor, even brushing your teeth can be made fun if you have a plan – an approach that focuses your attention. For example, you could start by washing all the small things, then moving to the larger ones. Or you could vacuum the floor by making a different pattern in the carpet each time. By making mundane things a game, you can restructure how you experience them, so that even if they aren’t the most thrilling activity, at least they are tolerable.

Second, don’t overload yourself. Let’s take the example of a workout routine. I’m a bit of an imbecile when it comes to working out, or at least I used to be. My old approach could be summed up as “do as much as I can as fast as I can.” Usually, I’d end up feeling tense, miserable and sick after trying to run around the track as many times as I could at a fairly quick pace.

Admittedly, this was really mindless, unpleasant and ineffective. But this obsessive approach is a common one. Take dieting, for example. In this case, instead of doing as much as possible, you eat as little as possible. Soon, this isn’t so much fun either. You begin to feel starved and head off for a super-size meal at the Golden Arches. A more gradual approach is much kinder and more effective.

That’s what another friend of mine, who was a former Olympic trainer, finally explained to me. Instead of running as far and fast as I could, he suggested that I run at a moderate pace until it stopped being pleasant, then slow down to a fast walk. After that, run again until it stopped being pleasant, and so on. At first, enjoyment stopped about half way around the track. But in the next few months, this limit became longer and longer. I was running farther, faster, and I was still enjoying it. When I had started I was slow and cumbersome, but now I run nearly every day for several miles and love each moment. The key for me was getting my mind off some external benchmark and onto enjoying the evolving experience of the activity.

It is true that there are many situations – like a downsized office with scarce resources and people constantly stretched to the limit – where it is difficult to alter the conditions that affect enjoyment. These external situations impose real restrictions, but they make the moments you can control even more important! You can always choose your own attitude and priorities and make your personal conduct the arbiter of your success.

This brings to mind another little-known fact: Intrinsic motivation can often bring about extrinsic rewards. Let’s face it, when you love what you’re doing, you tend to spend more time at it, developing your skills and abilities. As a result, you have a better shot at becoming a top player at whatever you do. In other words, intrinsic enjoyment can often lead to extrinsic excellence.

Take Charlie for example, two years ago one of his swimmers placed 8th in national competition. Charlie trained her to focus on enjoying the process more, and last year she took home the top prize – an accomplishment that reflected well on them both! For people focusing on fitness, this lesson is incredibly important. Knowing how you want to look or what you want to achieve can help you define your goals and keep them clearly in mind, but to keep progressing, you need to create a process and mindset you can enjoy along the way.

Roots of Wisdom

Although the concept of intrinsic motivation is now best known in modern psychology, teaching and coaching circles, it has existed for a long time and has functioned in much broader contexts. It was, in fact, the basis for Aristotle’s definition of the good life – his concept that true enjoyment is the pleasure of using one’s own skill, as opposed to doing something just for a reward.

According to Aristotle, the definition of happiness is: “the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope.” Now there’s something to think about the next time you head out for a long run, consider a career change or encounter virtually any other opportunity to do your best work for the best of reasons – namely, that it matters to you, that you care about doing it well and that it makes you happy while you are doing it.

If, on the other hand, you are working – or working out – in a slavish pursuit of some outward goal, Aristotle’s definition of happiness may give you ample reason to pause and put things in perspective. If you aren’t “exercising your vital powers,” and you’re not striving for excellence, and/or if your life doesn’t afford your effort the scope and meaning you think it should, consider why.

Weigh the forces that intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are exerting in your life, and start creating a healthier shift toward your own internal, high-velocity catalysts. You’ll be amazed at how far they can take you.

Jeremy Hunter is Director of Research at the Quality of Life Research Institute at the Peter F. Drucker School of Management at Claremont University.

This article originally appeared as “Force of Will.”

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