Stop Relying on Rewards for Motivation

ways to motivate yourself

It isn’t hard to find articles on motivation for a freelancer.

It’s only too easy to find five or 10 obvious steps to get goin’ on that approaching deadline (“picture the job already done” or “have a comfy work environment”).

But there’s a deeper philosophical issue at stake, and all too often these articles ignore it.

You don’t want to take just any advice on motivation techniques — some recommendations can hurt more than they can help.

From my experience, you really need to consider what type of motivation a particular strategy would speak to.

While some extrinsic motivators might work in a pinch, you don’t want to build up the habit of relying on them. Instead you need intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

You probably recognize “ex” as meaning “out” (as in external) and “in” as meaning “in.” Intrinsic motivations are things like:

  • a need to feel good about yourself
  • a feeling that you’d be letting yourself down by not being productive
  • a sense that you’d be letting yourself down by not producing high-quality work
  • a desire to maintain the freedom of a freelancer

External motivations could include

  • the need for praise
  • a desire for a good recommendation or some career stepping-stone
  • the work you’re doing being publicized or grabbing a lot of Facebook Likes
  • the necessity of money

So, with niceties out of the way, let’s look at why it’s crucial to be motivated by intrinsic factors.

Permanent vs. Fleeting

Alfie Kohn is one of the foremost thinkers on the topic of motivation. In 1994, Kohn published a now-renowned essay “The Risk of Rewards.” One of the studies he cited speaks to a lack of permanent change or results fostered by extrinsic motivation.

In it, children were asked to drink a soda called Kefir. Some were (incomprehensible as this seems) given treats for drinking more soda, while some were praised for it, and a third group was not given any encouragement.

A week later, the children who hadn’t received any external validation liked the soda as much or more as before, while those who’d received rewards liked it much less. Presumably, the experience of drinking the sugary pop was now flat for the kids who’d grown addicted to praise or rewards and were now no longer getting these.

What you’re looking for in motivation is something that will cause better results in the long term: pride in one’s work figures to motivate good work all the time, not just when we’re in a good mood or when there isn’t a great episode of Downton Abbey on.

If you are most motivated by praise, what happens with a client who wouldn’t tell LeBron James he was kinda good at hoops? Does that client deserve mediocre work? What happens when you’re feeling pretty good about your bank account? Do your clients then deserve work of less quality than those who find you just before rent is due?

Motivated to do What?

There’s the question of what motivation even consists of. If we assume that the idea is to be motivated, not just to get that drudgery done so you can watch DA, but motivated to do excellent, unique work with integrity, common extrinsic motivators may not be designed to help here.

Getting a project done just well enough to get paid isn’t a worthy challenge. The paycheck mentality alone will never produce good work. And even if there might be fussy clients out there, very few of them will push you to extraordinary work.

Rarely, as a writer, have I encountered a client who had the ability to critique or guide my work in a way that ensured good writing. In fact, most client preferences lead a writer toward a focus on simplistic or formulaic writing, with a bottom line of more site visitors or sales always looming large.

And of course, the worst extrinsic motivator of all: the deadline. It’s very unlikely that this will inspire good work.

Approval of Others is so Unkind

Another extrinsic motivation is some sort of notoriety or publicity. This applies to quite a few fields populated by freelancers: a logo you design can get you props from our friends who spot it while an e-book might become a best-seller.

But one of the biggest problems with looking for motivation in this way is that it’s out of your control. You risk losing motivation when, through no fault of your own, these things don’t come through for you. And this will probably lead you to change something about your approach, and that might compromise integrity.

Ultimately, intrinsic motivations speak for themselves. Pride in work and a sense that you owe it to yourself to produce quality will be the only things to power you through.

And while all of us slack off from time to time, a person who can motivate herself to quality can, through that same sense of duty, get motivated to get at it.

If you’re lacking in intrinsic motivation, that’s a post for another day. But it signifies a major issue, one that at least calls for some careful contemplation on your part.

(Photo by StartupStockPhotos / CC BY)

Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


  1. Camilla Hallstrom on the 27th June

    Great take on motivation, Jeff. Like your analysis of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation!

    • Jeff Maehre on the 29th June

      Thanks, Camilla. Glad you enjoyed!

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