What’s the Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals?

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I’ve learned a lot over the last week as I’ve been studying intrinsic goals and motivation. One of the most important things to understand about it is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic goals, which is what we’re diving into today.

Intrinsic goals focus on internal passions, values, and interests, while extrinsic goals are those you do for external rewards like approval from others, fame, or money. When you set intrinsic goals, you are happier and more motivated while pursuing extrinsic goals can cause anxiety and stress.

Generally, it’s better to have intrinsic goals. By understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic goals, you’ll be able to set more intrinsic goals and find more satisfaction and passion in your life. 

But you’ll also be able to see the potential downfall of focusing so much on intrinsic motivation. And that will show you how to set even more powerful goals than you can with intrinsic motivation alone.

Let’s get into it with some word math!

Word Math: Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Goals

A few years ago I was studying something and came across a phrase I wanted to understand better. I decided to look up the definitions and combine them to gain a deeper level of comprehension. 

The more I did it the more I saw an increase in my ability to grasp complex concepts and apply them to improve my life. I eventually decided to call it word math since it’s a little like plugging numbers into equations. 

You can learn more about word math right here.

To begin, let’s get the definitions, all from Oxford Languages:

Extrinsic: not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside. External or externally motivated. 

Synonyms: outside, alien, foreign, external

Origin: From the Latin word “exter” or “extrinsecus” which means outward.

Intrinsic: belonging naturally; essential. Internal or internally motivated.

Synonyms: inherent, innate, natural, deep-rooted

Origin: From the Latin word “intrinsecus” which means inward.

So the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic is that one is outward and the other is inward. We’re talking about these within the context of goals and motivation, so let’s define those also:

Goals: the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result. An objective, a target, or a purpose.

Motivation: the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way. “Incentive,” “motive,” and “reason” are some synonyms. 

We’ve got a lot here so let’s just simplify to the basics:

  • Intrinsic goals and motivation would be when you have internal, inward, or internally motivated reasons for working on something. It’s doing it for the sake of it.
  • Extrinsic goals and motivation is focusing on the outside, outward, or externally motivated purposes for doing something. It’s when you want a result from your efforts and the work itself doesn’t matter.

That makes sense but let’s go a level deeper with some examples.

Examples of Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Goals

“Intrinsic motivation is perhaps the holy grail of all human endeavors and behaviors because it encompasses so much of what brought us to this point in our species’ evolution and also what brings each and every one of us closer and closer to our goals. And if it’s happening within enjoyment without the need to layer in additional tools, well then you’ve really tapped into the source.” — Andrew Huberman

Here are three examples that highlight the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic goals and motivation:

  • Tiffany wants to become a doctor so she can earn a lot of money but she doesn’t really love medicine. She’s extrinsically motivated compared to her friend Stacy, whose fascination with the human body gives her intrinsic motivation to practice medicine.
  • While setting fitness goals, Brad considers how much he enjoys hiking and decides to hike for exercise rather than go to the gym. Focusing on his interest gives Brad intrinsic motivation. His neighbor Chris instead tries to run every day to lose weight even though Chris hates running because Chris is extrinsically motivated.
  • John sees how much time his friend Ben spends with his kids and wants to do the same because it seems like the right thing to do. What John, who is extrinsically motivated to be a better dad, doesn’t realize is that Ben enjoys playing with his kids and has intrinsic motivation to do it.

Here are a few more examples of extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation and goals:

  • Working hard so you can buy expensive clothes and cars to impress your neighbors (extrinsic motivation) rather than because you love your work (intrinsic motivation).
  • Trying to get the perfect picture on a hike so you can get more likes on Instagram (extrinsic motivation instead of just enjoying hiking for the sake of it (intrinsic motivation).
  • Leaving your phone in the car when you go to your friend’s house so you can enjoy hanging out with them (intrinsic motivation) so you don’t just scroll through social media wondering how you can get more friends the whole time (extrinsic motivation).

Which is Better to Have, Intrinsic or Extrinsic Goals?

“If an activity is rewarding enough in itself, be careful with rewarding yourself for it. You may find that you inadvertently start doing it for the reward rather than just enjoying it.” — Markus Skårnes

By now you’re seeing that intrinsic motivation is generally better. This is even backed by research. Check it out here

Don’t be so quick to set aside extrinsic motivation, though. It has its benefits and there are some drawbacks of only focusing on intrinsic motivation.

But what if you could have both?

It’s not only possible, it’s likely, it’s helpful, and it’s simpler than you might think. All you have to do is break your goals into two parts:

  1. Action steps
  2. Outcomes

Both of these can be intrinsically motivating and extrinsically motivating at the same time.

A few years ago I got into running. I bought new shoes, set a goal to run every day, and loved it just for the sake of it. The action steps were intrinsically motivating.

As I continued to run though, I thought it would be fun to set a few goals with it. I decided I wanted to lose some weight and I did. Then I set a goal to run a half marathon and ended up running three of those and eventually completed a full marathon. 

I enjoyed every minute of it even though a lot of it was really tough because I had intrinsically motivated action steps and some extrinsically motivated outcomes that were based on my values.

Think of what you like to do just for the sake of it and you’ve got the first component of intrinsic goals, which is your action steps. Then consider how you might set outcomes, or extrinsic goals, that those action steps can lead you to. 

If you want to discover the full process of setting intrinsic goals, click here.

As you start setting intrinsic and extrinsic goals, make sure to put most of the emphasis on the action. The reward should be the activity itself. As you do it, you need to pause regularly to think about how much you’re enjoying it and how you’re progressing. 

This is the key to having infinite energy to pursue your goals, and you can learn more about how that all works right here.

A Word of Caution

There is a potential downfall of intrinsic motivation that you’ll want to consider when thinking about setting intrinsic goals.

While you need to love the work for the sake of it, you have to be careful to not think only about doing it because you feel like it. 

The danger here is that you might end up thinking “I need to set goals I enjoy so I’m happy all the time while working on them.” When the truth is, you’re going to have a lot of tough days still and you’ll need discipline.

Do set intrinsic goals and have some extrinsic rewards as well, but don’t place so much emphasis on how you feel. Many days you’ll need to push through tiredness, boredom, or sadness. 

And you’ll often find, like I have, that once you get past the difficulty, you start to find why it was so intrinsically motivating in the first place.

I’m doing a personal growth challenge right now. For 12 weeks I’ve got five critical tasks that I’m doing every day. I’ve made them intrinsically motivating, but I still get up really tired some days and I don’t want to do the work.

Just the other day I woke up tired and sore from having hiked eight miles the previous day. But I had committed to getting up early and exercising, so I did it anyway. And as I got going on my walk, I found that I was happy I got up and I felt much better than I would have had I not put in the work.

Discipline saved me where intrinsic motivation alone would have failed me. How you feel isn’t always the most important thing. Much of the time you will need to push through tiredness and more. 

Do the action steps anyway and you’ll find yourself happier and more motivated than intrinsic goals and motivation can make you on their own.

Let’s Wrap This Up 

In summary:

  • Extrinsic goals are outwardly motivated, like wanting to make money, impress others, or become famous.
  • Intrinsic goals, on the other hand, are internally motivated and are based on your values, passions, and strengths.
  • Setting intrinsic goals is generally better. But you can and should have both action steps and outcomes for each of your goals.
  • Be careful to not place too much emphasis on how you feel. Practice discipline in the moments when it’s tough to act on your goals.