MacRae suggests that questioning your sources of motivation could improve your experience of your existing job. “Self-awareness is of paramount importance,” he says. “One of the key things is figuring out what you really want out of the job, whether it’s about your working relationships with other people or it’s about learning and development, for example.” You can then look for opportunities to capitalize on these elements.
From an executive perspective, it’s essential that leaders listen carefully when their employees voice these motivations, she says, and should make a genuine effort to provide the necessary resources that will enable employees to pursue those interests. This may be much more effective in energizing the workforce than offering a year-end bonus to the most productive team member.
Van den Broeck agrees. He points out that providing employees with a sense of autonomy is related to intrinsic and identifying forms of motivation. This does not mean giving employees full freedom to do as they please, but it might involve giving them some choice in the activities they perform and explaining the purpose of the unavoidable tasks they have been assigned, so that they can at least understand how the their work fits the team’s mission.
The pleasure principle
Self-determination theory is not just about work; it can also inform our hobbies.
Is your goal to learn a language, for example, simply because you think it would sound awesome? Or does it come from a genuine interest in culture or a specific 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 an ordeal than someone who is trying to learn the language for the social prestige of being multilingual.
With your fitness, meanwhile, you may be putting pressure on yourself to do the most difficult activity you can handle, simply because you want to prove your abilities to yourself or others, and you may feel that you are failing in some way. if you don’t push yourself to the absolute maximum. However, none of these reasons reflect intrinsic motivation, so why not choose an activity that is slightly less strenuous but much more enjoyable? Recent research shows that people who select their exercise regimens in this way show greater persistence than those who have not considered their interest in or enjoyment of the activities. While each session is slightly less grueling, if you’re more likely to stay active, long-term commitment will pay greater dividends.
Life is short, after all, and there is only so much we can achieve with the time given to us. Self-determination theory reminds us that we need to be selective about the activities we pursue. If you focus on goals that are personally most meaningful and enjoyable and ignore those that have been inspired or imposed by others, self-improvement shouldn’t be a chore, but a source of joy.
David Robson is a science writer and author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Lifepublished by Canongate (UK) and Henry Holt (USA) in early 2022. It is @d_a_robson on Twitter.