Are you inwardly or outwardly motivated?

Oct 30, 2015

When I first started freelancing, I struggled a lot with completing independent projects – the ones I was just doing for myself, by myself.

Starting was rarely a problem, but finishing? Almost impossible.

Faced with a growing pile of half-done, partially-finished projects, I wondered if I was just, fundamentally, incapable.

I flopped around in this state for a while before I had an epiphany: The problem wasn’t that I was fundamentally unproductive; it was that I was not embracing my own particular work habits.

I was trying to self-motivate, but being beholden only to myself wasn’t very effective. I, personally, am mostly an outward goal-setter. I do best when I let other people know about my goals, and thus feel incentivized to reach them.

My motivations are socially based in fear (“Oh, God, if I have to tell Jose I didn’t finish this, it’ll be so mortifying”), guilt (“I promised”) or inspiration (“I can’t wait for him to see it”).

This is a valuable bit of self-knowledge for most freelancers! Knowing whether or not you’re a primarily an inward or outward goal-setter can help you break through productivity blocks – especially when you’re working on a non-paying passion project, FOR yourself and BY yourself.

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With that in mind, here’s a deeply unscientific method to tell if you skew outward or inward:

“Inward” goal-setters don’t like the pressure of an outside force spurring them on; it tends to make them shut down, rebel, or panic. Instead, they choose to set their own timetables.

You might be an inward goal-setter if:

  • You don’t like to check in with other people (at least until you’re more-or-less finished)
  • The idea of being accountable to another person is irritating
  • You’re good at structuring your time
  • You find premature feedback disheartening
  • You work better when keeping a project private
  • You do your best work on your own
  • You’re pretty disciplined about your workday, and have an established routine
  • When you were a kid, you were pretty good about doing homework / independent assignments

“Outward” goal-setters may not ENJOY the existence of an external deadline, but they find that it’s the added push they need to get the work done.

Indeed, some outward goal-setters actually like the added incentive of collaboration or regular check-ins; they struggle with isolation.

You might be an outward goal-setter if:

  • You struggle with completing projects – unless you’re accountable to others
  • You work pretty well on your own, but you work best when you feel like you’re part of a community or team
  • You like and value feedback
  • You find collaboration motivating
  • You’re not great at independently structuring your time
  • You’re able to distinguish between preliminary feedback and final edits
  • You struggle with procrastination
  • When you were a kid, you weren’t great about doing homework / independent assignments – but you did well in the classroom

Of course, you may identify with both goal-setting styles. You may even find yourself skewing wildly towards each extreme depending on the situation!

Knowing what motivates you most effectively – and indeed, experimenting with both inward and outward goal-setting – is a great way to get complex projects completed.

If you’re outward-focused, try finding peers, communities, or even friends who can serve as your goalkeepers: people to whom you feel accountable.

Tell them your goals, and ask them to check in with you about your progress. Pick folks who will be supportive, but meticulous– find people who won’t let you off the hook!

If you’re inward-focused, examine how you can make yourself more accountable to your own timetables.

Set definite goals for forward motion: when do you want to be done with the first part of your project? When do you want to finish? Set specific parameters.

Finding your specific goal-setting style can work miracles. I won’t say it was painless, but the minute I started promising completed projects to other people is the moment my desk transformed from a graveyard for half-finished work to an always-changing platform for progression… and that, itself, was a goal accomplished.

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.

Kate Shea

Kate Shea lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily.