The 3 Main Disadvantages of Extrinsically Motivated Goals

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An extrinsic goal is any goal that is motivated by something external. You might want more money, to become famous, or to have others like you. These days it’s easy to accidentally set extrinsic goals. But you want to avoid them because there are some significant disadvantages of extrinsic goals.

Here are the three greatest disadvantages of extrinsic goals:

  1. They lead to decreased well-being and happiness
  2. You’ll have less fulfillment from working on your goals and it will be harder to reach your goals
  3. While working on extrinsic goals, you might compromise your standards as you use unethical means to reach them

Instead of setting extrinsic goals, you should have intrinsic goals, which you can learn all about right here. In summary, you want to find motivation from the inside and enjoy the process for the sake of it. 

Seeking external rewards just leads to difficulty and emptiness, as we’ll see throughout this article.

Here we go!

1. Lower Levels of Happiness and Wellbeing

“Not only do extrinsic goals not make us happy… they are actually associated with narcissism, anxiety, depression, poorer mental health in general, and even poorer social functioning.” — Nils Salzgeber

Imagine someone who is committed to a goal to make $500,000 per year. They might do anything to get there. That includes going into a career that they might not like, which would be incredibly difficult. 

A good example of this is med school students who are in it for the money. 

Research shows that they and others with extrinsic goals like this tend to have less happiness and more stress and anxiety than those who have intrinsic goals. 

Like someone who is in medicine because they enjoy it or feel called to it.

You might also find this in someone who wants to be famous or get a lot of attention online. If you’ve ever had a friend with a social media addiction, you can clearly see how it drains the joy they get out of life. 

It’s impossible to be happy when you can’t find satisfaction with who you are or how much you make. Or if you’re constantly having to try to follow the newest trends just to “fit in.”

The truth is, those who “fit in” are just confident in who they are and they don’t need that external validation. They’re happy with themselves because their validation comes from within. Not from external rewards like those that come from setting extrinsic goals. 

Instead, consider whether the goals you have are what you actually want or if they’re what other people want for you, or what you feel pressured to accomplish because of social norms. 

If you find that you’re motivated by external factors, find what you value and set goals based on those instead.

2. Decreased Fulfillment and Success When Working Toward Your Goals

“Some research suggests that too much extrinsic motivation may undermine learning and goal achievement over time and reduce intrinsic motivation.” — Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD

Consider again that medical school student who is only in it for the money. Can you imagine how much harder it might be for them to stick with it when their workload gets difficult? 

This is the other problem with extrinsic goals and extrinsic motivation. There’s no joy in the journey so when you get into the messy middle, as you always do, it’s much harder to keep going. 

When you’re extrinsically motivated you’re less engaged with your goals. You have less capacity for curiosity, satisfaction, and creativity. It’s easy to lose interest, so you’ll procrastinate more often.

A few years ago I had the extrinsic goal to go to grad school. I do love learning and so I knew that part would be intrinsically motivating. But I thought it would be cool to be able to say that I had a master’s degree. 

And I underestimated how hard being extrinsically motivated would make it. 

But I’m grateful for this mistake because I learned a lot from it and now I can speak from experience.

At first, going to grad school was exciting. It was a new experience, I was learning a lot, and I got to spend time in a new place. But after a few semesters, it got really demanding.

Once in 2020 just before the pandemic began, I remember a particularly nasty homework assignment for my Structural Analysis II class. It was so tough that when I went to the professor to get some help, I felt more confused an hour later after we’d gone through how to do it.

That night I spent too much time stressing over this one problem. It was nearly impossible to find the motivation to keep going because I wasn’t enjoying the process. I just wanted the title. 

Thankfully, though, this story has a happy ending. I love learning enough that the intrinsic motivation that I had from that aspect of it was enough to get me through and I did end up graduating. 

If you ever find yourself setting a goal just to get an award or title, think carefully about if it’s something you’d truly enjoy. If you aren’t going to love the process, it’s going to be rough.

3. Increase in Unhealthy Behaviors That Make You Less Likeable

“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.” ― Daniel Pink

A few years ago there was a clip circulating of what appears to be cheating in the Olympics. 

It’s during the speed skating event. From what it looks like, one of the skaters slides a lane marker into the path of another, causing her to fall and be disqualified. Check it out here and see for yourself.

This is the definition of the classic adage that “the ends justify the means.” And it’s a nasty trap you might fall into if you find yourself if you set extrinsic goals.

I don’t know any of the Olympic athletes in the video. It’s impossible to say for sure the intentions of the one who pushed the lane marker. But it’s reasonable to guess that their goal to win a medal was extrinsic enough that they’d do anything, even cheat, to achieve it. 

This is the final of our disadvantages of extrinsic goals and it’s a pricey one. Look at the video one more time and think about how watching it makes you feel about the one who slid the lane marker. You’re disgusted at their actions, right? 

In the same way, when we set extrinsic goals, we might start to act against our values and against reason and logic in such a way that it’s embarrassing for others to watch our lack of honor. 

It skews our perspective of what really matters when we want to win at all costs. We become blinded by our competitiveness and fail to see that all that lies ahead is burnout and despair.

This is also something that I, unfortunately, have experience in. Right around when I started grad school, my work had a weight loss challenge. I lost 25 lbs in six weeks. But I’d never do it again because of what I did to myself.

It got so bad that at one point I was just eating an avocado for breakfast and an apple for lunch and then I’d have only a small plate of dinner with my family. I had low energy, it was hard to think, and I just felt awful. 

I ended up winning but at a terrible cost of my sanity and overall health. And it was a little embarrassing knowing what I’d done to myself just to beat everybody else. 

Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t have a healthy and fun competition with others. You just can’t make winning so important that you’ll sacrifice your values and make yourself miserable to get there.

Plus, when we achieve these kinds of extrinsic goals it usually doesn’t last. Just a few weeks after the weight loss challenge ended I had gained all the weight back. 

When you find yourself doing unpleasant things, stop. Reassess your goals and values. And quit before you do something you’ll regret.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Setting extrinsic goals is a bad idea. To recap, here are all the disadvantages of extrinsic goals that prove why:

  • Having extrinsic goals decreases happiness and increases stress.
  • You’re less fulfilled and it’s harder to succeed when working to achieve your extrinsic goals
  • Being extrinsically motivated can lead you to do things that you’ll regret