How to Recognize and Avoid Extrinsic Goals and Motivation

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When setting goals, you might think it’s a good idea to go big and think of how much money you can earn or what fancy titles you can gain. But having aspirations like this would be what’s known as extrinsic goals, and you need to learn to recognize and avoid them if you want to be happy.

Here are four quick ways that you can recognize and avoid extrinsic goals and extrinsic motivation:

  1. Ask yourself why you set your goals in the first place.
  2. Think about where your validation is coming from.
  3. Consider how much you enjoy working on your goals.
  4. Set intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic goals from the beginning.

An extrinsic goal or extrinsic motivation is any goal that is based on outward outcomes. A few examples include striving for fame, money, or validation from others. 

When you set extrinsic goals and have extrinsic motivation, you’re less likely to stick with your aspirations in the long run. And you’re more likely to have greater stress and less fulfillment.

That’s why it’s crucial that you learn to recognize and avoid extrinsic goals and motivation.

Let’s jump right in!

1. Consider Why You Set the Goals That You Have

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.” — Albert Einstein

Set aside an hour and think about your current goals in the four main areas of life

  • Mental
  • Relationships
  • Finances
  • Fitness

If you don’t have any goals right now, think of what you want to accomplish in your life in these areas. Once you’ve got your goals listed, ask yourself these questions of each of them:

  • Is this a goal that I set for myself, or is it something that somebody else wants me to do?
  • Did I base this goal on something outwardly motivating, like money, status, or validation from others?
  • Am I conforming to a societal norm with this goal?
  • Is this goal centered around my personal values?

You might find some hard to face truths as you do this and that’s okay. You’re not a terrible person for that, it just means you’ve got room to grow! Plus, nobody taught you about this until now, so it’s not your fault if your goals are extrinsically motivated.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of what someone might find while trying to figure out if their goals are extrinsic.. 

A med student is having a hard time with her classes and feels like she can’t go on. While thinking about her goal to become a doctor, she realizes that she had this goal because her parents wanted her to do it and not because it was something she actually cared about.

Someone might also look at their fitness goals and discover that they’re only doing it because they want to look good and impress others. They’re running all the time and they hate it, when they could instead set intrinsic goals and be much happier.

Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t set difficult goals or go after a career that will let you provide for your family well. 

Sometimes we have to make the tough choices to do things that aren’t the most enjoyable, but for which the pain and difficulty bring greater benefits.

2. Ask Yourself Where Your Validation Is Coming From

“When you are your own best friend, you don’t endlessly seek out relationships, friendships, and validation from the wrong sources because you realize that the only approval and validation you need is your own.” — Mandy Hale

Validation is something that we all seek. It’s biologically built into you and me to help us to grow. But seeking it too much from the wrong places will leave you unfulfilled and not reaching your full potential. 

Most people think of validation in terms of getting it from others. They think that for them to be confident in what they’re doing, they have to have others agree with and support their every move. 

But life doesn’t work like that. You can’t get milk from the liquor store, and too often, people try to do just that when they seek validation from people and places that they’ll never get it from. 

Social media is the perfect example. You want likes because of that instinct to seek validation, but most of the time, you end up disappointed in the amount of attention your posts get. And even when you do get lots of views, the joy is fleeting and unfulfilling.

That’s because social media can’t give you the kind of powerful validation that you really need. Which is the validation that comes from within.

You might be extrinsically motivated if you’re on Instagram a lot and if you feel disappointed when you don’t get enough likes on your posts. But you also need to examine all of your goals and actions to see where else you might have extrinsic goals.

Following the same pattern as above, go through each area of life and question your goals. Are you doing them for praise or because some outward result could make people like you better?

If you are, then you need to change your goals to be more intrinsic. We’ll get to that in a moment though. For now, I want to share an example from my own life.

I used to think that everybody else was right and I was wrong to think and feel the way I did about things. At times I would want to disagree with their interests only to find myself being hard on myself saying that I should just enjoy everything. I sought validation from external sources rather than from within. 

Over the last few years though, I’ve begun to recognize that I’m free to like and dislike whatever I will. I’ve also learned to not be rude about my dislikes, but more than that I’ve discovered the power in my own autonomy. 

Now I’m far happier with my life and I have a lot more fun because I get to do more of what I love and less of what I don’t enjoy so much.

3. Think About Whether You Enjoy Working On Your Goals Just for the Sake of It

Have you ever been working on something exciting and without even thinking about it you work right through lunch and dinner? That’s what intrinsic motivation, the opposite of extrinsic goals and motivation, feels like. 

On the other hand, if you’ve ever found yourself procrastinating a task, you might have an extrinsically motivated goal. 

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are you procrastinating right now?
  • Which activities that you do throughout the day feel natural to you? 
  • What seems simple to you that is difficult for others? 
  • What work do you always lose yourself in? 
  • Which of your past goals that you’ve accomplished felt easy?

Really dive into how it feels to work on the goals. You want to find out if you love the process. If you don’t love doing it for the sake of it, then you’ve got an extrinsically motivated goal and it’s time to change.

If you are stuck in extrinsic motivation, you need to break the pattern by finding an intrinsically motivating process. The questions above will help.

Be careful though, you can’t make every task intrinsically motivated. Some things in life will just be difficult, and that’s a good thing because it will help you grow.

A few years ago I began to get into running. At first, it was because everybody always told me to run. But after a while, I realized I was doing it because I genuinely enjoyed running. 

I loved the process for the sake of it. The outcomes didn’t matter as much to me and I just kept going even when it was tough at times. That led me to reach a new level of health that I hadn’t imagined before. 

All because I had an intrinsic goal rather than an extrinsic one.

4. Set Intrinsic Goals From the Start

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. What that means is that it’s a lot easier to just not set extrinsic goals in the first place. And the key to that is to learn how to set intrinsic goals.

This will be just a brief overview of intrinsic goals. To learn more about them, read my post on how to set intrinsic goals and the benefits of intrinsic goals.

To summarize, here are the three main points:

  1. Find out what drives you by identifying your passions, values, and strengths
  2. Make a plan to work on your goals with action steps based on what you found in the first step.
  3. Act on your plan and adjust your goals to constantly make them more intrinsic. 

You might, for instance, complete step one by setting aside an hour this Sunday afternoon to journal about your passions and interests. You could take a values assessment online to find out what drives you.

Then in step two, you’d make a simple plan with two parts for each goal:

  • Action steps that are intrinsically motivating. 
  • Outcomes that are based on your values.

You might set an action step to go hiking for exercise every week. And your outcome could be to lose a certain amount of weight or body fat percentage.

Finally, you’ll act on that plan and review your progress regularly. That Sunday afternoon hour you set aside in the beginning is the perfect time to have a weekly review. During that time, you can check if your goals are intrinsic, or if you need to make them more engaging.

And with that, you’ll be on your way to having intrinsic goals so that you don’t set extrinsic goals and don’t even have to bother trying to recognize them!

Wrap Up

To summarize what we’ve gone over, here are the four steps to recognize and avoid extrinsic goals and motivation:

  1. Think about why you set your goals in the first place.
  2. Consider where you are getting your validation from, whether it’s internal or external.
  3. Ask yourself if you enjoy working on your goals or not.
  4. Set intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic goals from the beginning.