Goals drive our lives. We all want to succeed, and we usually understand exactly what we need to do to do so. But, even though we wake up each day with things we want to accomplish, we often don’t try to achieve them. Why is this the case?
Sometimes, we’re simply just not motivated. In a world driven by goals, failure of this sort can be confusing. Why is it that your friend could pick up the guitar in a manner of weeks, but your guitar sat collecting dust? Why could they find the motivation to practice, but you couldn’t? This isn’t just an individual problem. Across the world, teachers, coaches, managers, parents, and mentors try to motivate others to no avail.
To motivate ourselves, we often rely on external rewards. Using money, grades, or others’ judgment can spur behavioral change, but it typically isn’t lasting or psychologically beneficial. On the other hand, people just as often seem to do things free of external motivators, driven by personal interest, curiosity, or internal values. This motivation facilitates our goals, as we don’t need to pull ourselves off the couch to work on things we’re interested in. Is it possible to harness that inherent human motivation to propel us towards achieving our goals?
Self-determination theory (SDT) is an overarching theory of motivation that explains why we feel intrinsically motivated to do things. SDT views human beings as active agents, constantly growing and striving within their social confines. According to the theory, our social and cultural environment can foster different motivational environments, which can either promote or thwart our intrinsic motivation. Across environments, however, the theory argues that we are fundamentally motivated by 3 things:
- Autonomy: The need to feel as if one agrees with and feels in control of their own behavior.
- Relatedness: The need to feel meaningfully connected to others.
- Competence: The need to feel that one does things well or is able to improve one’s ability.
In essence, a person will feel intrinsically motivated to achieve a goal if it supports an individual’s autonomy, shows tangible improvement over time, or bolsters one’s interpersonal relationships1. Taken together, the achievement of these three motives propels us towards personal growth and goal completion, but in a way that lasts and boosts well-being. Furthermore, if our environment thwarts these three fundamental needs, psychological issues will follow. In essence, the theory proposes that we can complete our goals easier by building our own environments and goal structures to meet our three basic needs.