Let’s start with a mental exercise. Rank your motivation for the following activities:

(A) Brushing your teeth

(B) Filing your taxes (knowing you’re not getting that refund)

(C) Eating your favorite candy

Got your ranking? Hold on to it, and we’ll revisit that in a moment.

Most of us are familiar with Newton’s first law of thermodynamics: an object in motion will stay in motion, and an object at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force. What if we thought about motivation in the same way rather than our more common framework of having or not having motivation? If we thought of motivation as an object experiencing accelerating and decelerating forces, would we change the way we think about our actions or inactions? In what ways would we think about our students’ motivations? Our colleagues? Would it give us a more effective framework to identify and impact those positive and negative forces?

Often our understanding of motivation (that driving force for behaviors) takes the form of Drive Theory, where the source of this drive exists either internally or externally. If the activity is inherently rewarding, then our internal drive is to continue so long as it’s easy or enjoyable. If the activity is not rewarding, then external pressure creates a dissonance that we need to alleviate. For example, a student studies for an exam because their failure would cause a cascade of negative events that would be intolerable. This angst is resolved by studying, though the activity is not internally rewarding. But, what if the negative events were no longer intolerable? What if the course is pass/fail? They probably won’t fail, but they certainly won’t perform to their capacity. What if the student is experiencing burn-out? What if failure doesn’t stir up anxiety? Drive theory would tell us to make the studying more rewarding. That approach may work for some activities for a time, but some tasks are simply unpleasant, such as adhering to multiple daily insulin injections for a diabetic patient. How do we make multiple injections per day more enjoyable? This is where Drive Theory lacks a sufficient framework to support intervening on motivation. 

Let’s go back to our motivational ranking exercise; brushing your teeth, filing taxes, or eating candy. In Drive Theory, eating candy is intrinsically motivating, and oral hygiene and taxes are extrinsically motivating. However, most people agree that brushing our teeth is more motivating than filing our taxes. Although, we might also agree that the same external force (mom making us brush out teeth when we’re children) doesn’t exist when we’re adults. Yet, we still brush our teeth. What happened? Did brushing out teeth become inherently rewarding? Or did we internalize an extrinsic motivation, transferring from doing something because we have to in favor of doing something because we choose to? Maybe if mom had forced me to floss as a kid, I wouldn’t have to lie to my dentist every six months.

According to the Self-Determination Theory of Motivation (SDT), extrinsic motivation exists as a continuum, and can be summarized as being either “other-determined” or “self-determined.” Examples: other-determined is driving the speed limit to avoid a citation; self-determined is driving the speed limit because I’m a law-abiding citizen. It’s the same behavior with the same result, but with very different cognitive architectures. If I’m simply attempting to avoid a ticket, then a deserted stretch of highway becomes the German Autobahn. However, if I have internalized the behavior as a component of my values or self-concept, then I’m going to obey the posted speed limit.

I believe it’s safe to say that many of the important activities in which we engage fall into the category of ‘self-determined extrinsic motivation’. We don’t do them because they’re innately pleasurable, but because they align with our values, desires, and sense of self. But what happens when we find ourselves lacking motivation? If we circle back to Sir Isaac Newton’s law on energy conservation, we can relate our motivation to that object traveling through space experiencing positive and negative forces. In this thermodynamic framework of motivation, detriments in motivational initiative arise from an overall negative net energy acting on our drive to complete the task. So, how can we increase the accelerating forces on our motivation? The authors of SDT posit three main elements that positively impact self-determined motivations: autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Autonomy can be described as freedom, but it is better understood in this theory as the ability to make choices (i.e., one may not have complete freedom, but may have the ability to select from various options). Relatedness is the perceived social connectivity ranging from social support to active engagement in the activity by others. Competence is the confluence of knowledge and skills that allow a person to accomplish a task. If we view these components of self-determination as potential accelerators, we have now have numerous opportunities to add energy into the motivational system. The SDT framework allows us to ask a series of questions when we recognize our motivation is starting to wane. The following prompts are a sample of questions that you can ask, with examples of interventions that will act as those accelerating “outside forces.” 

  • Does this task require knowledge or skills that I don’t have? (Competence) Seek training or expertise from a mentor, colleague, or training program. Sometimes knowing how to do something doesn’t mean knowing how best to do it.
  • Am I feeling disconnected or alone in this project? (Relatedness) Seek opportunities to invite collaborators or join a community of like-minded individuals working on similar projects. Misery may love company, but many hands make light work. 
  • Do I believe that I have freedom to make choices on the who, what, when, where, how, and why’s of this activity? (Autonomy) Seek out opportunities for making choices, even if they are small. Sometimes a simple decision on where you will do your work is a sufficient energy boost.

The SDT framework provides greater opportunities to assess and intervene on motivation compared to Drive Theory. The addition of framing SDT within thermodynamics simply offers us a different perspective on how to think about those interventions. Typically, we think of motivation as something that we have or don’t have. However, if we view motivation as a moving object that may just need some acceleration, we may consider options that may collectively provide enough energy to get the ball rolling.

Andy Cheshire

Andy Cheshire, PhD, (Educators’ 18) is the inaugural post-doc fellow in medical education at Duke University School of Medicine, working on projects to support integration between the biomedical and clinical sciences. Andy holds bachelor’s degrees in Health & Exercise Science and Psychology, a master’s of science in Sport Psychology & Performance, and a PhD in Kinesiology with an emphasis on human performance. Andy’s work in motivation stems from his six years as a Texas high school football coach.