I grew up in the Red Desert of southwest Wyoming. We used to joke that the snow never melted, it just wore out. It blew in from the west and blew out to the east. What stuck around was as likely to sublimate as actually melt.
I shoveled my fair share of snow. If you could get most of an overnight snowfall cleared first thing in the morning, then the sun would clear the rest and you’d have nice, clear, dry sidewalks. At least until the wind picked up. Then I’d grab the shovel and be back at it.
Dressing for the occasion was an interesting exercise. It was cold, so you’d have to bundle up. Boots, hat, gloves, scarf, and parka were standard. I even went full-bore and wore snow pants a few times, though my teenage pride usually restricted me to sneaking thermal underwear and sweats underneath my jeans.
At first, you’re still cold. It seemed like you could never bundle up enough. Then you get going. It doesn’t matter that it’s 12°F. You’re working up a sweat. Layers come off. You’re keeping yourself warm more than your coat is.
Kids love to draw. Any parent’s refrigerator knows this. Several of the walls probably do, too. But when you pay them to draw, they stop drawing.
Why? Because you’re shifting the motivation. Instead of drawing because they love to draw, they’re doing it because you’re going to give them something. Their motivation has shifted from internal to external.
You’re much more likely to do something you want to do. You have the desire. You’ve made the decision. It may take you a while to work out the details, but you’re determined to see it through. Come hell or high water, you’re going to do it.
Contrast that with those twenty pounds the doctor wants you to lose. Intellectually, you’re on board. You’ll look better, feel better, and live longer. Makes perfect sense. But when it comes time to choose between your regular diet and that new low-fat, low-carb, low-taste diet, your heart just isn’t in it.
When we do something because someone else wants us to do it, we’re going to stop as soon as they put down the stick or stop dangling the carrot. If the threat or reward isn’t imminent, we’re going to deprioritize their agenda and go back to our own.
This difference between internal and external motivation can sneak up on us, too. Derek Sivers argues that you shouldn’t tell others your goals, at least not indiscriminately. Sharing too much too soon—talking about your goal—can give you the same sense of accomplishment as actually achieving your goal. If you’re setting a goal to appease others, telling them what you’re doing is almost as good as doing it.
Sometimes, we may not want to do it, but someone important to us wants us to. We can use the significance of our relationship with them to transfer the motivation from external to internal. It’s important to them, so it’s important to us.
At first, we need to bundle ourselves up in external motivation. As we get going and begin to take ownership of it, we start working up a sweat. We get a fire inside of us that spurs us onward more than the external layers of motivation do.