Which is a More Powerful Motivator? Internal Satisfaction or External Reward?

by | Apr 19, 2023 | Articles, Body, Mind, Personal Growth

Have you ever looked at someone, either online or in person, and thought, “How the heck do they stay motivated enough for *insert physical * business * personal accomplishment*?” I have. However, there is no right answer for motivation and how to obtain it.

First, I feel it is very important to mention that there is a difference between motivation and discipline. This piece will focus on the former.


Motivation can be broken down into two types: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated by a reward of some kind, or to avoid negative consequences. Think about getting attention for posting something to Instagram or TikTok or receiving a prize. It could also be performing a task so you don’t get written up at work. Intrinsic motivation is doing something because it makes you feel good. It could be exercising because you enjoy doing it or performing a task because of the personal satisfaction you get from being more productive. Most people utilize both kinds of motivation.

carrot hanging from a stick

While there isn’t necessarily an issue with extrinsic motivation, we must understand that this type of motivation alone can lead to some issues. A perfect example would be to diet and exercise because you are trying to be more like the edited photos you see on social media, rather than doing these things because you want to feel healthier. This type of thinking often leads to poor relationships with food, improperly prioritizing gym sessions, body dysmorphia, etc. It’s ok to be motivated in part by other people’s success; just don’t let that be the only reason you are doing something. I’m no mental health professional, but my own battles with body dysmorphia and my relationship with food allow me to speak from experience. I also work in the fitness industry and have/had many clients who struggle with these issues. The vast majority all have something in common: they are doing it because they feel they have to, not because they want to.

Cutout of the shape of a head with a sticky note on top in the shape of a speech bubble with the words Intrinsic Motivation on it

This is where intrinsic motivation comes into play. One of the many reasons I tell people to find a kind of exercise they enjoy is because a plan is only as good as its adherence. If you like weight training but try to run every day, you will have a very hard time keeping up with the program. This is applicable in most areas of life. (This is the part where I would normally give a talk about discipline but we are keeping this limited to motivation.)


I feel it is also important to mention inspiration. Here is a scenario: You are scrolling through social media, and you come across a video of someone – a short video documenting someone’s progress from rehabilitation after a car crash to competing in a marathon. Is that motivating or inspiring? Both? I want you to answer that for yourself. Why? Because it will cause you to give some serious thought to this subject. Why do you do the things that you do? Understanding this will not only help with the task at hand, but also in understanding how and why your brain works the way it does. A lot of people have never given this subject much thought. To be honest, I didn’t either until I was in my late twenties. By then, I had already developed some poor habits along with a case of body dysmorphia. 

Man standing in front of wall in boxing stance while large shadow behind him is of a man flexing his muscles.

There is no single correct answer as to how you should stay motivated, and there shouldn’t be one. Just as we are all different, we all require different approaches to staying motivated, disciplined, and inspired. I hope this has caused you to give some extra thought to something you may not think about often. Just remember to not rely too heavily on external motivational factors. Find some ways to enjoy engaging in these activities.

Life is too short to live your life for someone else.

Toby Ralph, author


Toby Ralph is a military spouse, father, and physical health advocate. As a personal trainer and natural bodybuilding coach, his focus is improving mental wellbeing through physical fitness. Gaining control over your mental and physical health is key to successfully navigating the stressors you face daily. His story was the cover article for Military Families Magazine in December 2022. 


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