How an Imbalance of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Leaves You Feeling Unfulfilled At Work

How an Imbalance of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation Leaves You Feeling Unfulfilled At Work

Everyone feels disillusioned by work at some point or another. But when you dread Monday mornings or constantly fantasize about a career change, it’s time to dig deep to figure out what’s going on. In many cases, dissatisfaction with work is related to an imbalance between your values and the rewards your work provides. Thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for work can help you find a healthy balance that brings you greater life satisfaction.

What are Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

Every job has its rewards (and its unrewarding aspects, too!). Some of these rewards are intrinsically motivating, meaning that the rewards come from within. Intrinsic motivators might include pride in your work, fulfilling your passion, having a sense of autonomy, or giving back to your community. These are the “feel good” aspects of your work.

Other aspects of work are extrinsically motivating, meaning that you get tangible rewards. Monetary compensation is the most obvious extrinsic motivator, but you might also get flexible work hours, good vacation time, a nice retirement plan, or year-end bonuses.

Assessing Your Motivations

If you’re feeling dissatisfied with your work, the first step is to make a list of all of the rewards — intrinsic and extrinsic — of your work. This helps you see what’s driving you to stay in the job, and whether it’s time to make a change.

For example, perhaps you work for a nonprofit organization that helps improve literacy among elementary school children in an underprivileged neighborhood in your city. Since the budget is tight, you make a much lower salary than you would get in the private sector. You also have to work a lot of evening and weekend fundraising and outreach events. However, you get an immense amount of joy and satisfaction from watching a child go from being barely able to read to making it through a chapter book.

This is an example of a job that is highly intrinsically rewarding but has very low extrinsic rewards. The downside is that you risk burning out because of the poor pay and lack of time off.

On the other end of the spectrum are paths that are highly extrinsically rewarding but low in intrinsic rewards. Take, for example, a financial advisor who helps wealthy people make savvy choices to decrease their tax liability. While this job is well compensated, helping the wealthy get wealthier may not generate “feel good” intrinsic motivation. You might end up feeling disillusioned or as though you’re squandering your talents.

Striking a Healthier Balance

The good news is that there’s no “perfect” job that precisely balances intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If your job is intrinsically rewarding but you lack extrinsic motivation, think creatively about ways to balance this. Would it be worth taking on a side hustle to supplement your income? Or would you rather take a more stable, better compensated job and pursue your passion during your free time?

If, on the other hand, you have a lot of extrinsic motivators but not much intrinsic motivation, explore your passions. What would you do if you had limitless money and free time? Go on a mission trip, take an art class, or reinvigorate your love of salsa dancing. A less well compensated position might be worth it if it gives you free time and flexibility.

Everyone needs a different balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, so figure out what works for you. Achieving a healthier balance will give you the deep life satisfaction you’ve been craving.


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