Using intrinsic motivation to pursue long-term goals

  • intrinsic motivation for means to goals

A recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examined people’s willingness to invest in their goals. The researchers found that people are happy to spend time and money on things when they are seen as directly impacting their end-goals, but less so when it comes to the indirect means of achieving those goals. The reason relates to the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

The implication of these findings is that it is still possible to enhance your motivation towards the means themselves. It’s simply a matter of internalizing goal pursuits so that you can begin to attach importance not just to the eventual goal outcome but to the process that gets you there.


Look inward for intrinsic motivation

Research in motivation psychology shows that the type of motivation matters for achieving goals. The two types are: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

For instance, you’re more likely to use extrinsic motivation to push you toward behaviors associated with a means to a goal. For example, you might work a part-time job under the extrinsic incentive to earn money towards your end-goal of starting your own business.

On the other hand, many of your end-goal behaviors are pursued under the influence of intrinsic motivation. In this state, you find the behavior itself rewarding regardless of the outcome.

Intrinsic motivation is far better when it comes to achieving goals, especially in the long-run. So, we’re left with a bit of an issue: If extrinsic motivation is the suboptimal choice for lasting goal success, and if the means to a goal are typically extrinsically pursued, are you not setting yourself up for goal failure? After all, the only way to achieve the end-goal state is to get through the smaller steps along the way.

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The solution, according to research, is to pursue these smaller step “means” behaviors as an end in and of themselves, and to see the process itself as intrinsically rewarding.

By learning how to shift extrinsic motivation to a more intrinsic style, you can ensure lasting goal success from the very beginning, all the way through to the end. In this post, we show how you can use the three D’s: Differentiate, Dissect and Defend, to help reframe your motivation to invest in the means to your goals.


Step 1: Differentiate your types of goal-related behaviors

In your busy day-to-day, it’s easy to confuse your actual goals from the means to getting there. Before ‘fixing’ your motivation, it’s important you discern between the daily behaviors that directly relate to your goals and those that play a crucial, yet indirect role. This way, you’ll be better able to identify where and when you might need to brush up on your intrinsic motivation.

distinguishing between goals


It’s not difficult to differentiate between end-goal behavior and means-goal behavior. Here are 3 easy steps to help you discern between your goals and the means to reaching them.

  1. Write them: Freestyle a list of your weekly priorities and responsibilities. Don’t shy away from including any boring details in here like ‘cook breakfast’ or ‘walk to the bus shelter’. This will give you a quick visual of what you do on a day-to-day basis.
  2. Rank them: On a scale from 1-10, rank every single priority and task from least to most enjoyable. This is a super easy way to tell you which ones directly relate to goals and which ones are more indirect because you’re likely ranking the latter as less enjoyable.
  3. Separate them: Once you have a list of ranked responsibilities, separate them into two distinct categories. Anything that falls under 5 is probably a means to your goals, while anything that falls above 5 is likely an end-goal itself.


Step 2: Dissect your means-goal behavior

Once you’ve painted a broad picture of your goals and their respective means, it’s time to zero in on that pesky latter group and get to the bottom of why you don’t enjoy them.

Spend some time dissecting each task on your means list by reflecting on 3 reasons preventing you from enjoying the task. For example, looking at meal prepping as a means to the goal of healthy eating, three reasons why you don’t enjoy meal prepping could be that it’s 1) time consuming, 2) expensive, and 3) somewhat complicated.

defense against fading motivation


Now, instead of just ‘not liking meal prepping’, you’ve added a ‘because…’ to the story. This makes it a whole lot easier to come up with solutions to why the task is causing you grief.


Step 3: Defend against motivational threats

You’ve now laid all of your threats to intrinsic motivation and have come up with their respective solutions. However, this isn’t to say you’ll never be hit with moments of low intrinsic motivation when it comes to pursuing your means. It’s essential to develop a defense mechanism you can use when faced with a diminishing level of intrinsic motivation.

New research in motivation psychology is examining the potential for nostalgia to aid in augmenting intrinsic motivation. Researchers have found that you’re more apt to report high levels of intrinsic motivation after reflecting on a nostalgic event.

Next time you feel that your intrinsic motivation is lacking as you pursue your goals, consider the following 3 tactics to elicit feelings of nostalgia:

  • Watch a home video
  • Visit an old school yard
  • Crank up the throwback tunes


The studies and their findings

In study 1, the authors aimed to examine whether people are willing to pay more for goals than for their respective means. They set up an auction for both a chef’s knife and a cutting board and predicted that people would be willing to pay more for the item perceived as the goal. In one group, participants were led to believe that the knife was a means to using the cutting board and in another group they were led to believe the cutting board was a means to using the knife.

In order to observe actual willingness to pay for the item, the researchers used a ‘second-price auction’ where the winner would only pay the price of the second highest bid. The authors found that willingness to pay for the ‘goal’ was significantly higher regardless of which item was framed as the goal (versus the means).

Study 2 was designed to examine whether people are willing to invest less in a means that is paired with a goal (i.e., you get the product free but pay for shipping) than for the goal itself. In one group, participants were asked to submit bids for an autographed book (the goal) while the other group was asked to submit bids for a branded tote bag containing the autographed book (the means paired with the goal). On average, participants were willing to pay $11.20 less for the tote bag than for the book itself.

In study 3, the authors measured time spent as opposed to money. They presented two articles; one was framed as a means to understand the other. They found that participants spent  significantly more time reading an article perceived as the ‘goal’ than they did reading the article perceived as the prerequisite (means) to understanding the ‘goal article’.

In study 4, the researchers asked participants who exercised regularly how much time they’d be willing to spend planning their diet and exercise regimens as part of their New Year’s resolution. They found that participants were willing to spend more time planning an exercise regimen when it was viewed as a goal, and less time on their diet when it was viewed as a means.

Studies 5 & 6 aimed at examining whether people are more likely to reduce the cost associated with a means compared to that associated with a goal. In one example, participants were given a scenario where they had to choose to use a tuition waiver on either a prerequisite course or a ‘goal course’. Study 5 found that participants were more likely to eliminate the cost of the prerequisite when given the choice between the two. In turn, study 6 found that people were happier with the outcome when the cost associated with the means was reduced rather than the cost of the goal.


Recap on the intrinsic motivation for the means to a goal

Taken together, the current research shows that people are more willing to invest resources into something when it is seen as a goal rather than a means to a goal. These findings suggest that the reason we often fall short of our big, long-term plans is because we overlook the importance of investing in the smaller, yet important, means of getting where we  want to be. The reason is because the means to achieving said goal might be plagued by the weaker style of extrinsic motivation.

In order close the gap between goal setting and actual goal achievement, you can attach greater level of intrinsic motivation to the steps involved in the process. It’s a matter of 1) differentiating between goals and means, 2) figuring out what’s preventing you from investing in your means and 3) using the emotion of nostalgia to encourage greater intrinsic motivation.