the path is the goal - the most reliable way to enjoy the journey, even when it’s hard

tap into your intrinsic motivations to reduce stress and level up on joy

Written BY

Helen Lawson Williams

PhD in psychology, 15+ years in consulting and corporate leadership, respected coach and mentor, committed to solving burnout

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December 13, 2023

"I understand exercise and sleep are important, but I find getting to the gym stressful, and going to bed at a reasonable hour can feel stressful too. What should I do?"

This question came up in a workshop we ran recently. It’s a great example of the knots we can tie ourselves in when we’re trying to follow health advice without paying attention to the context that advice needs to fit into. Things that are meant to be good for us somehow turn themselves into further sources of stress.

Context here means two things:

  1. other demands on our time - for our workshop participant, it wasn’t really “getting to the gym” itself that was stressful, it was trying to squeeze it in among other commitments that hadn’t changed
  2. what’s intrinsically motivating for us - it turns out going to the gym wasn’t really important or enjoyable for this person. She just felt it was something she should be doing

If it feels like a struggle to change something you’re doing, pause and look at what’s holding it in place. What’s going on in the broader context? What rewards do you get for not making the change? Anything that’s hard to shift is more than just a habit - it’s the product of a system that’s rewarding the status quo and inhibiting the change you’re trying to make.

snakes and ladders

Rewards can be actively positive - a well-timed thank you, for example - or they can be about making something negative go away, like finally finishing a frustrating project. Either way, when you Do The Thing, something good happens, which makes it much more likely we’ll Do The Thing again. Inhibitors are often a little more subtle, but just as powerful: fear of letting the team down; a lack of enthusiasm or approval from someone important.

Getting clear on those dynamics is useful in tackling the first element of context: changing how you allocate time so you can add something new into your routine will almost certainly mean running into a few barriers. It can feel very uncomfortable to confront them, but ignoring those barriers will cost you time and energy.

The rewards lens may be even more useful when it comes to motivation. Intrinsic motivation is core to you - it’s what drives you to do the things you’d happily do for free, even if no-one was watching. Extrinsic motivation relies on rewards that other people supply: approval, advancement, pay. If you’re having trouble changing a behaviour that’s important to you, even when you’ve allocated time for it, it’s worth asking yourself why it’s important, and whether this is the best way to pursue that goal.

making it easier: more ladders, fewer snakes

For our workshop participant, putting better boundaries around work would have made time for the gym, but it may never have actually got her there. Her why was to look after her general health, not to train for an event that might have required serious gym time. She had dozens of other exercise options available - she just needed to pick one she knew she’d look forward to, one that would be rewarding well before any long-term health impacts appeared.

Understanding your intrinsic motivators can help with the stress side of the stress / recovery balance too. Multiple studies1 have linked higher levels of intrinsic motivation at work with lower burnout risk. That makes sense - if you’re doing something that just feels good to you, that’s enjoyable for its own sake, you’re making less effort and getting more immediate, reliable rewards. Extrinsic motivation tends to be both longer-term (that pay rise) and much less of a sure thing. It takes more effort to maintain.

Our culture tends to downplay joy in favour of work ethic. When the extrinsic rewards that come with hard work are always so clearly in focus, it’s easy to lose sight of the joy that comes with spending time on things that we just enjoy doing, even when they’re hard - maybe especially then.

Putting your intrinsic motivations to work does more than just make it easier to reduce stress and improve recovery. It puts you on a path you’ll enjoy treading, regardless of what other rewards come your way.


1. For example, in doctors and executives:

Tung, Y. C., Chou, Y. Y., Chang, Y. H., & Chung, K. P. (2020). Association of intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors with physician burnout and job satisfaction: a nationwide cross-sectional survey in Taiwan. BMJ open, 10(3), e035948.

Rawolle, M., Wallis, M., Badham, R., Kehr, H.M. (2016). No fit, no fun: The effect of motive incongruence on job burnout and the mediating role of intrinsic motivation. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 89, 2016, Pages 65-68.

Further Reading
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