Intrinsic Motivation Matters: Are You Killing Your Creativity?

All work requires motivation. Whenever you do something, you’ve got a reason – whether or not you’ve thought that through. And while you can probably do a decent job of cleaning the kitchen sink even when you’re thoroughly fed up, when it comes to creative work, being motivated (for the right reasons) can really boost your results.

Learning what motivates you – what drives your creativity and makes it tick – is an important part of reaching towards being consistently creative and productive. Yes, there’s the romantic idea of the muse – inspiration descending upon you at random – but honestly, does it really work like that for you? For anyone?

Whatever you create, whether it’s a blanket or a batch of cookies or a blog post, you have a reason. Maybe you simply enjoy the creative act: you’re making a blanket because you love to quilt. Maybe you want the end result: you like making cookies, sure, but the best part is eating them. Maybe you’re being paid: that blog post might not be all that thrilling to write, but there’s a check at the end of it.

Without motivation, you’ll never create much – and the things which you do create aren’t going to be so innovative or rewarding as they could’ve been. One of the biggest motivation killers for creative types is focusing too much on external rewards.

Where Does Motivation Come From?

It’s worth thinking about what motivation is. You know how it feels – that sense of being fired up, energised, eager to tackle your current project.

But what causes it? For anything creative, you need at least some level of interest in the work you’re doing, and generally some skill. I love writing because I enjoy the challenge of putting together words and crafting an article or story. The writing itself is fun.

The same applies to the creative things which you do. You simply enjoy painting, or drawing, or sewing. You might be attracted to a challenge, or keen to make something beautiful.

So far, so good. Problems start coming in when too much of your motivation comes from outside – when you’re looking to external factors for your energy.

Money, Money, Money

Now, before I get into this, I want to say that there is nothing wrong with earning money from your creative work. In fact, if you’re producing something good and valuable, it’s only fair that you should be rewarded financially (if that’s what you want!)

Problems come up, though, when all your creative impulses end up subordinated to the need to make money. If all your writing is for clients, never for yourself, you’ll find that you lose the joy of words. If you only ever paint when you have a commission, you’ll be out of touch with your creative desires.

By all means, use your creativity in your daily life. But don’t let money become the only consideration – and don’t tell yourself that you “should” be motivated because there’s a paycheck waiting. Instead, look for motivation that’s more intrinsic to your task:

  • What challenges can you seize?
  • What could you learn from this particular piece of work?
  • How can you make it really good (not perfect – but good)?
  • Where is there room for you do to something new and imaginative?

The irony is, if you’re working with your eyes on what you’re doing, not on the money, you’re going to be doing better work. Novelists are often warned not to try writing something which they think will be “popular” – they’re much more likely to write a good, publishable novel if they write from the heart.

Should You Reward Yourself?

I’ve seen a lot of motivational advice that suggests a good way to keep yourself on task is to have little rewards. I’ve finished this sketch so I’ll have a chocolate bar. I’ve spent two hours working on my new design so I’ll take a break to watch TV.

Taking a rest, recharging, enjoying life … that’s all good. Tying your creativity to rewards, though, could end up backfiring.

Why? Because those rewards aren’t direct results of what you’re doing. The true reward for finishing that design isn’t having a couple of hours off … it’s the satisfaction of the creative work itself. If you keep bribing yourself to be creative, you’re going to start feeling that your creative work isn’t so fun.

Internal motivation isn’t something you can switch on and off like a tap. One tip for you to try, though, is to stop waiting until you’re in “the right mood” to be creative. Don’t try to motivate yourself with the thought of money or a reward, either. Just pick up your pen or paintbrush, and make a start. You can always stop if you don’t enjoy it – but chances are, once you get going, you’ll find your creative energy bubbling up again.

(Image from Flickr by denn)

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3 Responses to “ Intrinsic Motivation Matters: Are You Killing Your Creativity? ”

  1. Willie Hewes says:

    Rewarding yourself or not is an interesting conundrum. I do it sometimes but more in a “you work really hard all the time. Have a new potplant!” kind of way, rather than “if I work for three hours on this stupid thing this morning I get to have bacon for lunch”.

    If I really need to bribe myself with bacon in order to do something, it’s time to look at why I’m doing it at all.

  2. [...] also like this article about Intrinsic Motivation by Ali Hale. It’s so important to understand what motivates you and to learn how to nurture [...]

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