To be motivated means to be moved to do something. Who among us has not wondered or worried about how to motivate ourselves, our spouse or our kids to get things done, whether it be homework, exercise, or just doing the dishes? The good news is that this area of inquiry is so important that it has been and continues to be a hot topic for research.

One of the key distinctions when examining motivation–or lack thereof–is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When we are intrinsically motivated, we do something because it is interesting and enjoyable. When extrinsically motivated, we do something either for some type of reward or to avoid an external punishment–the proverbial carrot or stick.

Life is full of all kinds of activities, some fun and some boring. Most of us do not have to be prodded or praised to do something we inherently love. We just need to figure out how to get ourselves to complete tasks that are unappealing but necessary.

If you want to glimpse intrinsic motivation in action, just watch a baby or young child. Children, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious and playful. No one needs to beg them to play or to explore. Even if parents never applauded when their baby took a first step, you can be sure that toddler would keep walking nonetheless. This inborn motivation is critical to our survival, and underlies human beings’ desire to grow and to learn in all ways- cognitively, socially and physically.

In short, we were born to learn.

Unfortunately, much of what we do as parents and much of how school systems function inadvertently squashes our kids’ intrinsic motivation and sets them up to become more and more dependent on external rewards.¬†Research into intrinsic motivation has therefore placed a strong emphasis on discovering what conditions elicit, sustain and enhance intrinsic motivation versus those that undermine or diminish it.

The first part of what research revealed is that intrinsic motivation has several key ingredients: autonomy, competence and relatedness.

What is autonomy in this regard? Stated simply, people must experience their behavior to be self-determined or freely chosen if intrinsic motivation is to be maintained or enhanced. One of the fastest ways to know what your children are intrinsically motivated to learn is by noticing what behaviors they do spontaneously without any prodding or encouragement. While one child builds Lego towns, another reads for hours, a third, sings to herself while another kicks a ball over and over again.

A key piece of advice for parents and teachers: Allow children the freedom to explore and learn things, including making mistakes, on their own, in their own way. The more controlling you are, the less intrinsic motivation will be enhanced.

The second ingredient for building internal motivation is a sense of competence, or the ability to do the task or get the job done. If what you are trying to learn is either far too complex and difficult or if it is far too easy, then it is difficult to want to participate. In order to build the muscle of motivation, we need to help children learn by offering just the right amount of challenge to keep learning from being either too overwhelming or too boring.

All this is well and good for activities that are naturally interesting and fun. What about the other mundane, boring, exhausting tasks that we all have to learn to to do and should be doing–exercising, eating right, studying for exams, doing homework, memorizing details? Clearly some behaviors are done because there are consequences. We exercise to stay in shape; we dress a certain way to fit in with peers; we turn in homework to get a better grade; we come in on time so as not to be grounded.

For behaviors that have to be extrinsically motivated, here is another tip. The more the person understands the importance of a behavior, the more motivated they become. A girl who memorizes vocabulary words because she sees this as relevant to becoming a better writer, which is what she wants to be when she grows up, can identify with the value of this learning activity. Even though she would probably prefer to learn new words by reading a book of her own choosing, she is far less likely to feel resentful about being controlled by her teacher or parent.

Because extrinsically motivated behaviors are not inherently enjoyable, the primary reason people are more willing to comply is because they are valued by significant others to whom they feel (or would like to feel) connected.  So one last suggestion is to build a sense of connectedness and belonging at home and at school.

In homes and in classrooms where kids feel respected and cared for, they are more motivated to accept the rules and requests of others. Find a reason why you are requesting a behavior–it can even be to help you and make you happy.

Love can go two ways…

Boys playing in a puddle photo available from Shutterstock.