go from bored to motivated with self determination theory

What is it that makes one person more motivated than another? And how can you be more motivated in your own life, especially in those areas where you lack motivation the most? Is there some secret formula for mastering motivation?

While there IS a formula, it’s no secret. Instead, there is some great research out there that breaks down the individual components of motivation.

Enter Self Determination Theory. 

Self-determination theory was developed by Edward Deci and Richard M. Ryan at the University of Rochester over the last 40-plus years. SDT approaches motivation from the perspective of psychological needs. These needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and in this post, you’ll learn about each psychological need and see how each one explains motivated behavior. But most importantly, you’ll see how you can USE that knowledge to create greater motivation in your own life.

Let’s jump right in with Autonomy.

Autonomy

Self determination theory makes a distinction between two different types of motivation: Controlled motivation, and autonomous motivation. When you are engaging in controlled behavior, you are doing so for the purpose of getting a reward, or avoiding punishment. You are only performing the behavior because you are feeling pressured, demanded or obliged into it – for example, because you have to pay the bills, because you fear being yelled at, because you fear losing your job, or because you are guilted into doing something. It’s something you don’t really want to do, and you wouldn’t do it if there were no external pressures on you to do it. Deci brings up the point that, with controlled behavior, you tend to take the shortest path to the desired outcome.

On the other hand, Autonomous motivation is when you’re doing something with a full sense of willingness, volition, and choice. You are making a conscious choice to engage in the behavior because you want to and because it matters to you. Autonomous motivation has two distinct aspects to it.

  1. Interest and enjoyment
  2. Deeply held values and beliefs

If the activity stimulates your interest and your curiosity, and you enjoy doing it, you’ve met the first aspect of autonomous motivation. Think back to watching and playing a sport just for fun in your school years. If you were watching basketball on TV and playing the game with your friends after school, that would be the perfect example of interest and enjoyment.

The second aspect of autonomous motivation, deeply held values and beliefs, has to do with something being important to you, with the activity aligning with your values. For example, if conservation and sustainability are deeply important to you, and you believe that human beings are poisoning the earth, and that the only way to stop further damage is to develop better renewable energy technologies, then you would likely find your work as a renewable energy researcher very meaningful.

Autonomy is a spectrum. Here’s an example of the two sides of the spectrum: Let’s say you work as a car salesperson and that you hate it. The guy who works right beside you, on the other hand, is very driven and very enthusiastic about his job.

So how does the definition of autonomously motivated behavior explain the chipper mood and seemingly endless motivation of your coworker? He has pretty much the same job as you. He should be JUST as miserable as you, right?

Right. UNLESS he finds what he does as interesting and enjoyable, and it aligns with his values and beliefs.

In this example, You have no interest in cars, you hate trying to convince people to buy something, and you hate negotiating because you feel that YOU “winning” means THEY “lose”. You don’t even own a car, and feel that more people should use alternative modes of transportation anyways.

Your coworker on the other hand, has always been interested in cars. He knows how every single car on the lot drives, how it feels on the inside, what the MPG is, how the audio system sounds, and what it handles like in different road conditions. But he’s not just interested in cars, he’s interested in the process of selling as well. He sees it as having conversations with people that come in, listening to them, connecting with them, figuring out their needs, and helping them find a car that fits those needs and their budget. He wants everyone to have a car that improves the quality of their lives. And when it comes to negotiation, he just sees it as compensation for the value that he and the dealership provide in helping people find a great car for them. 

Competence

As discussed previously, Self Determination Theory is based on what the researchers, Deci and Ryan, have found to be universal human psychological needs. While autonomy accounts for the bulk of the theory, there are two more psychological needs in the theory – competence and relatedness, both of which are intimately intertwined with autonomy. 

Competence, in this context, is the need to “feel confident and effective in relation to whatever it is you’re doing”. In essence, you want to feel that you’re good at something that matters to you, and getting better at it.

As elaborated on earlier, if the activity connects with your deeply held values and beliefs, then of course it’s going to matter to you. At the very least, you have to have a rationale for why the activity matters to you. You can find this reason yourself, or management could help explain the rationale. 

There are two keys to satisfying the need for competence in an activity in a workplace setting: optimal challenge and positive feedback.

In relation to optimal challenge, You want to feel that you’re good at something, but also that the requirements of the job align with your skills well. Too easy of a task and you’ll get bored. Too difficult of a task and you may get anxious. It’s a constant seesaw between task difficulty and your skills. That sweet spot in the middle is the area of optimal challenge, and thus optimal performance.

The second key to competence is positive feedback. Especially in a workplace setting, it helps to KNOW that you are doing a good job. This positive feedback can come from your boss or your manager, but it can also come from your coworkers or the third-party clients you work with. (A note for managers – pretty much nothing kills motivation more than micromanaging because it assumes people are incompetent.) 

But what happens when you make a mistake? Ideally, the managerial, and company environment as a whole, would be one in which the focus is on LEARNING from mistakes instead of pointing fingers or insulting people. It is both on you, to take ownership of your mistakes and learn from them, and on the company to foster an environment where the focus is on learning from mistakes instead of yelling at, threatening, or degrading employees.

Evaluate your own level of competence. Do you feel that you’re good at what you do? If you don’t, that could be a large part of your lack of motivation. It’s hard to stay motivated at something you’re bad at. It’s also equally likely that you’re “too good at what you do”, meaning you’re not stimulated enough, you’re bored, the task is too easy.

What about feedback? Are you getting positive feedback when you do a good job? (Does it seems like anyone even cares?) And what happens when you make a mistake? If the first, and only, response of your manager is to yell at you and belittle you, that’s the OPPOSITE of motivating.

Relatedness

Whether you realize it or not, you are a deeply social being. All humans are. Relatedness is the psychological need to feel cared for by others, to care for others, and to feel like you belong to various groups that are important to you. Relatedness is the sense of belonging, the sense of connection, the feeling that you’re significant in your group.

Because we are a country that values independence so much, it can be easy to discount the need for human connection in the workplace setting. Also, because the younger generations tend to “job-hop” more than the older generations, it can feel harder to develop meaningful connections when you “know” that, chances are, you are going to be leaving this workplace for another one in a few years.

However, neither of the above beliefs/attitudes eliminate the need for relatedness. It’s still there.

If you don’t relate to any of your coworkers or their lives or their situations then you are going to care much less about your job. Forging friendships and being able to depend on each other gives the work a greater sense of meaning and connection. If you just clock in, stick to yourself, and clock out, then you’re not getting your psychological need for belonging and connection met. Of course, if you get that need met outside of work then that’s great, but assuming you’re working about 8 hours a day, then about half of your waking hours each day you are NOT getting your need for connection and belonging met. I’m not suggesting you make your whole identity about your work, but you can be a part of many communities and being part of a work related community where you can depend on each other and care about each other will make you much more motivated to come into work each day.

Takeaways

“Motivation” can sometimes seem like a black box. Fortunately, Self Determination Theory provides a look into the inputs that create motivation. If you look at motivation as a set of psychological needs that every person has, and evaluate how you’re doing in fulfilling those needs you have, you can get a better picture of what you have to do to feel more motivated.

Self determination theory, and thus, intrinsic motivation, can be broken down into autonomy, mastery, and relatedness

Here’s some helpful questions to ask:

What kind of work do you find interesting and enjoyable? What are your most important values and beliefs? What kind of work would give you a sense of meaning and purpose?

What job would allow you to get better and better at something that matters to you? What workplace would provide the right conditions/structure for optimal challenge? Where can you get positive feedback when things go right, and have an opportunity to learn when things go wrong?

What can you do to feel more socially connected at work? What can you do to feel like you’re an important part of the team, and a significant member of the group?

Use the three components of motivation as a filter. Use them as a guide for choosing your job and your workplace. Use them for choosing the actions you take while at work.

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