Self-determination theory (SDT) is among the most widely accepted theories of human motivation and flourishing. It has emerged as the leading psychological approach for understanding how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation work on the human psyche. As part of their theory, Doctors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci propose that intrinsic motivation comes from the desire to feel competency, autonomy, and relatedness. According to SDT, anything done purely out of extrinsic motivation will fail to meet these needs and hinder performance over the long-term.
What’s an example of the self-determination theory in action? Imagine you’ve always had a dream to work in healthcare. You desire to help people feel better and can’t wait to see smiles on children’s faces when you heal whatever ails them. That sounds wonderful until you realize that’s a tiny part of what being in medicine is really all about. Waiting for the approval of your patients to keep you motivated sounds altruistic, but it may not be enough to sustain you through medical or nursing school, not to mention the years of actually practicing medicine.
To sustain a long-term practice in healthcare, you need to first understand what the job is really like. Many bright-eyed doctors and nurses to-be enter the field for the external rewards of gaining their parents’ approval or the respect of their peers, but as they often find out, that feeling is temporary.
Rather, healthcare professionals who stick with the profession don’t do it for the praise of parents or patients. And while the pay is good, there are certainly more lucrative ways to make a buck, so that can’t be the only motivation either.
Instead, those who make a lifetime career in the field do it for the intrinsic rewards. They relish the challenge of mastering a difficult procedure, the autonomy to call the shots during high-stakes situations, and the connection with colleagues working together to heal hard cases or reform procedures at a hospital.
Unfortunately, as many in healthcare today will attest, the job often involves completing loads of paperwork, navigating bureaucracies, and managing difficult personalities, all of which rely upon heroic amounts of extrinsic motivation. According to Ryan and Deci’s theory, the less intrinsic motivation people find in the work they do, the less likely they are to remain in their chosen career.
What do you do if you can’t find the intrinsic motivation in your work? How do you learn to do something for its own sake without relying solely on extrinsic motivation?
As I describe in my book, Indistractable, the answer lies in finding a way to “play anything.” According to Georgia Tech professor, Ian Bogost, play doesn’t have to be fun. Play simply has to capture your attention long enough to help you do whatever needs to get done. Finding a way to play a task is how you find the intrinsic motivation to keep you going.
For instance, when I transitioned out of my untidy manchild phase, I learned to find the intrinsic motivation in cleaning up by focusing more intently on the task at hand. I learned how others kept their homes clean and took an interest in methods to maintain a clean household. I remember taking a minute to appreciate the way IKEA thoughtfully designed it’s houseware to keep everything in its place and ogled at how amazingly well put together the furnished rooms in their stores looked.