Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

I used to think it would be awesome to have a job that allowed you to work from home; just get up, walk 30 feet or so to your “office,” and get on with your day.

No longer do I think that.

Summer vacation makes me realize what a freakin’ slacker I am in my house. I have approximately 13 million projects that I want to work on this summer; I have started one of them. And I spent all of an hour on it before I got bored and wandered off to play on the internet. I have also spent time this summer reading, writing, going to the gym, talking on the phone, lying on the couch, playing with my dogs, and watching movies. All are fine things to do – excellent, even. All are things that I don’t have enough time for during the school year, so it’s nice to take the time now and help me rejuvenate. But I also have alllllll these other projects that I really truly want to get done. I just don’t want to DO them.

I think the problem is that I do better on stuff that I don’t want to do when I’m accountable to someone else. If someone else is counting on me to complete something I’ve committed to do (like, say, students who depend on me to grade the work they’ve poured their little hearts into) and if I have a specific deadline for when to get it done (like every three weeks minimum because that’s when we do progress reports), then I’m more likely to actually make it happen.

No one but me really cares if the living room and bathroom get painted. My husband doesn’t even really notice home décor and he HATES painting so he’d probably prefer it if they didn’t. No one but me really cares if I rearrange my laundry room to be more efficient. Though my husband actually does a lot of the laundry, he’s fine with the current system (or, really, lack thereof). No one but me really cares if I take all the recipes I tear out of magazines and put them into binders to be more easily found. I do most of the cooking from those recipes (he uses cookbooks), so I’m the only one who has to sort through the mess. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

And when no one but me cares about something, if it’s not a big enough priority, it doesn’t necessarily happen. I will be happy when these tasks are done but the process of getting them done…bleah.

This makes me think about motivation – extrinsic vs. intrinsic (ha, school tie-in! Word!). Yep, it’d be sweet if we were all intrinsically motivated, if kids wanted to do stuff just for the sake of the learning, and sometimes we are, and sometimes they do. But not all the time, and…I kinda think that’s okay. Here’s the thing. I teach because I love my job, and I enjoy spending time with kids, and I love reading and writing and I like to share that love. But I also get paid for it. Which is my extrinsic motivation. Now, I could do something else and get paid more, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much (I did that for several years and I don’t miss it). And I do work my butt off on my job, going WELL beyond contract hours every single day and taking on plenty of tasks that aren’t part of my job description but that I think matter. And that’s all intrinsic motivation. But the two coexist, and that works.

So sometimes kids learn for the sake of learning, and sometimes they learn for grades, and sometimes they learn because they like the teacher and they want to please that person, and sometimes they learn to avoid punishments for not doing what they’re supposed to. Lovely when it’s the first, but in the end, if they’re learning, isn’t that the most important thing?

As for all my house projects…we’re having a barbecue in a few weeks, so I’ll have to get at least a couple of things done by then, because I want to show off my home to people. And yes, I’m extrinsically motivated by praise for stuff I’ve done. At least that way it gets done, right?

(Photo credit to Simon Clayson, I totally love this board. My favorite comment is in the bottom left - I hope that IS the smell I have.)


"I'm a dreamer but I ain't the only one Got problems but we love to have fun" -K'naan, "Dreamer"

I teach eighth grade Language Arts at an urban school. My kids kick ass and will change the world. I want everyone to know.
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