How to Set Intrinsic Goals in Just 3 Steps

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If you’ve ever felt like working on a goal came naturally and was something you enjoyed doing for the sake of it, that’s an intrinsic goal. Today, we’re getting into the details of how to set intrinsic goals so you can unlock the power of intrinsic motivation.

There are three basic steps to setting intrinsic goals:

  1. Establish what drives you by journaling to identify your passions, values, and strengths
  2. Make a plan to work on your goals with action steps based on what drives you
  3. Act on your plan and refine your intrinsic goals so you can get even more intrinsic motivation

Setting goals like this rather than goals that focus on external factors like looking good or having money makes it easier to stick to your goals and improve your life. 

Let’s dive right into how to set intrinsic goals with step one!

1. Find Out Which Values and Passions Drive You

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains what’s required to get intrinsic motivation, which we’ll consider the same thing as intrinsic goals. He says:

“The three things that motivate creative people — autonomy, mastery, purpose!”

Don’t worry if you look at “creative people” and think you’re not creative. Pink is talking about all of us in this quote and if you want to get intrinsic motivation, you need to figure out these three components. 

Here’s what they each mean:

  • Autonomy is “the right or condition of self-government”
  • Mastery is “comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject”
  • Purpose is “the reason for which something is done”

Autonomy is the ability to choose for yourself. That means being able to choose what goals to set. You can choose to run, bike, hike, or swim to exercise, for instance.

For mastery, you need to practice a skill or study a subject to get that expertise and ability. In this case, we’re talking about abilities you already have that you might want to improve, such as playing the piano.

Purpose includes working on the goal for a reason. This includes the joy of working on the goal for the sake of it or to achieve a meaningful outcome. You could set a goal to get better at tennis because you love it and want to stay sharp so you can play it with your kids.

How to use Autonomy, Mastery, & Purpose

You’ll have to set aside some time to answer a few questions to figure out these three components of intrinsic goals. Set a reminder on your phone for this Sunday afternoon and in the notes section, write these questions:

  • What am I already good at that I want to get better at?
  • Which goals do I feel drawn to, like I’m called to accomplish them?
  • When in my life have I felt the most alive and excited? What values was I living in those moments? Look up a list of common values if you need ideas.
  • When have I been my best self? Which jobs, volunteer opportunities, social events, or other experiences brought out the best in me and made me the happiest?

Once you have a few ideas, look through the list and find the most important ones. As I’ve done this, I’ve found that I’m always drawn to a couple of them more than the others.

During my last quarterly review, for instance, I realized how much I had been enjoying hiking in the last six months. It hit me that all my life I’ve felt like for exercise, hiking is my “thing” that I love to do. When people ask me “What do you do for fun?” my answer has often been hiking.

Looking back at it, I have autonomy with hiking, or the ability to choose where to go and how to do it. 

I have mastery because I’ve spent years in the outdoors hiking, running, and camping. 

And it serves a higher purpose because the exercise and time in nature contribute to improvement in all of my goals by improving my physical health, mental health, and overall happiness.

2. Set Action Steps for Your Goals Based on What Drives You

Once you have an idea of what values drive you and how you can have autonomy, mastery, and purpose with them, it’s time to make a plan. To do that, you need to understand a little more about how to break goals down.

The best goals come in two parts:

  1. Action steps, which are what you’ll do each day or week
  2. Outcomes, which is what you’re looking to get out of your action steps

A simple example is that an action step is to exercise 3x per week and an outcome is to lose 1 lb per week. If you’ve ever heard that you should set SMART goals, this is how you can do it in half the time. 

Another word for these is lead and lag indicators and you can read more about how to take advantage of them in this article.

For setting intrinsic goals, though, you’ll need to consider which core values, passions, and strengths you want to set action steps and outcomes for.

By setting up action steps, you create more autonomy and you give yourself more ability to master your skills. 

And when you establish outcomes, you give purpose to your efforts, making them even more intrinsically motivated.

An Example of Using Action Steps & Outcomes to Set Intrinsic Goals

Going back to my example of hiking above, during my quarterly review I realized that I had been hiking a lot but hadn’t really set a goal with it. 

I’ve since established the action step of hiking at least once a week on Saturday mornings. My outcome is to lose 0.33% body fat per week and gain more stamina so that I can have more energy to play with my kids and take them hiking.

When Saturday morning comes, I’m even more excited to get up early and go hiking because I’ve prepared to take advantage of all the components of intrinsic goals: 

  • My outcome of losing body fat and gaining stamina for my kids provides purpose
  • Autonomy comes from the ability to choose where I go hiking and from me having chosen hiking in the first place. 
  • And mastery I got from years of doing it and I’ll get more of it by continuing to do it. 

For your own intrinsic goals, set action steps and outcomes so you have each piece of the intrinsic goals recipe. Make sure that you’re establishing goals based on your values, what you’re already good at, and what you can control.

3. Act and Keep Adjusting Your Goals to Become More Intrinsic

In Spiderman 2 (the one from 2002), there’s a remarkable life lesson in the middle of the movie. At one point Peter Parker can’t decide whether he should continue to be Spiderman or not.

The problem is that being Spiderman is getting in the way of everything he wants as Peter Parker. 

He can’t make it to Mary Jane’s musical because he’s too busy fighting crime. And although he’d love to help prevent his Aunt May from getting evicted, he doesn’t have the time or energy to do much about it. 

Nothing moves forward for Peter while he’s stewing over the decision to give up his life as Spiderman. He keeps dealing with all the same issues until he makes a final decision to give up the superhero life for good.

Things are great at first, but soon Peter realizes there are many reasons that this isn’t going to work. He returns to being Spiderman and saves the world and the movie once again. And life as Peter gets better too.

The principle we can take out here is that nothing happens in life until you act. It doesn’t matter if you make the wrong choice, because you’ll quickly know from the consequences whether you made a good decision or not. 

This is as true for you setting intrinsic goals as it was for Peter Parker when he was deciding to quit being Spiderman. All you need to do once you know your values and have a plan is to take action.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel ready. Nor does it matter if you’re uncertain if these are the “best” or the “right” intrinsic goals. You can only know that and change it once you begin. 

Plus, you’re never really ready anyway, and that’s okay.

The Last Step to Setting Intrinsic Goals

The final step to setting intrinsic goals is to just start and adjust your goals as you go. Follow this pattern:

  1. Set a date to start working on your goals. Research shows us that motivation is higher at the beginning of a week, quarter, month, or year. Don’t put it too far off though.
  2. Work on your action steps every day. Make sure you have what you need to work on them, like running shoes.
  3. Review your progress weekly. Ask yourself:
    1. Did I do my action steps?
    2. Did I accomplish my outcomes?
    3. Can I adjust either of these so I have more intrinsic motivation?
  4. Repeat.

I’ve been doing this for a few years now and it’s always incredible how much I learn when I just start working on my goals even if I don’t feel ready. 

I’m doing this right now by writing this post. Even though I’m far from perfect at it, I’ve started. And that’s made all the difference in my ability to improve and make this goal even more intrinsically motivating.

Through the “just begin” process I can set intrinsic goals and maintain them throughout an entire quarter. This leads to my goals constantly trending toward being more intrinsically motivating, and it will do the same for you.

Let’s Wrap This Up 

Setting intrinsic goals is amazing because it leads to higher happiness, satisfaction, and longer-lasting improvement. Here’s a quick run-down of how to set intrinsic goals:

  1. Establish what values, passions, and strengths you have.
  2. Make a plan with action steps and outcomes that are based on those values, passions, and strengths.
  3. Set a date and just start working on your plan, adjusting as you go to make your goals more intrinsic.