What’s Motivating You: the Carrot or the Stick?


When it comes to making change, motivation matters.

You’ve seen this in your own life … maybe time and time again. You’ve started on big plans and goals which fizzle out, because you couldn’t stay motivated.

I know it’s happened to me. I’ve often wanted to change, only to find that I lacked the ability to really follow through. Something that’s helped me, though, is to understand the power of two different types of motivation:

“Towards” Motivation: The Carrot

Some people are primarily motivated by wanting to get something.

For instance:

  • They want to lose weight in order to get a great figure
  • They want to make lots of money in order to get a big house
  • They want to finish a degree in order to get into the career of their dreams

What are you hoping to achieve? What “carrots” are drawing you forwards?

Don’t discount your competitive spirit: setting a new record for ourselves – or our department or peer group – can be incredibly motivating.

“Away From” Motivation: The Stick

Other people are primarily motivated by wanting to avoid something.

For instance:

  • They want to lose weight in order to avoid health problems in later life
  • They want to make lots of money in order to avoid poverty
  • They want to finish a degree in order to avoid looking stupid

What “sticks” are keeping you on the path to your goals?

Most of us hate the idea of letting someone else down. This is where accountability can come into play: we’re keen to do what we’ve said we’ll do.

Which Type of Motivation is Better?

Both “towards” and “away from” motivation work.

You might find that you’re naturally drawn to one style rather than the other. If you’ve tried one sort of motivation and it’s not done much for you, give the other one a go.

For instance, many people who know they should make health changes and who want to do so don’t actually manage to stick to their plans. A health scare – like a heart problem, or a family crisis – can be the “stick” that finally jolts them into action.

I personally find that the pull towards something I want works well for my long-term goals – but in the short term, the fear of what I don’t want can galvanize me into action!

I’d love to hear your experiences with both types of motivation: which seems to work better for you? What goals and changes have you achieved in the past, using either type, or a combination of both?

Photo by needoptic

14 thoughts on “What’s Motivating You: the Carrot or the Stick?”

  1. I left a comment, and I don’t think it went through. Anyway, I’m mostly motivated by the carrot. However, I can see where I’ve been motivated by the ‘stick’ as well. In 2007, I wanted to move to Arizona, and I did. I now realize I wanted to move because I wanted a new experience. However, I can see it was a way to ‘avoid’ and get away from family drama-rama. I also forgot the words of Neale Donald Walsch, “You take yourself with you wherever you go.” Now, I feel as if I’m floundering. I desires, but do I have to ‘work hard’ for them? According to Abraham, “You don’t have to go and ‘get’ anything. It’s law of attraction.” Sigh.

    1. Well, I’m personally very unconvinced about the “Law of Attraction”! I think that focusing on what we want can encourage us to work hard for it (and to work smart) — but with almost any worthwhile endeavour, a fair amount of work — and courage — is necessary.

      Good luck — hope you find your feet in Arizona, and that you follow a path to what you really want in life!

  2. I’ve found the key is “inspired action.”

    Carrots and sticks tend to both be extrinsic forms of motivation. They aren’t durable.

    Intrinsic motivation is more durable because you’ve internalized it. It’s part of “who you are.” It’s part of your mental model and your drive. The most powerful drive comes when you connect what you do with your values … the “why” behind what you do.

    In the end, values are the key whether you’re focusing on extrinsic or intrinsic motivation, carrots or sticks, or inspired action.

    1. I guess for me, this IS about values (I probably wasn’t clear enough in the post!) But I agree that it’s very hard to make extrinsic motivation last.

  3. Hi Ali,
    From my experience, If people aren’t “motivated” they won’t change, anything. For the “motivated” among us I dare say the motivation comes in varying forms viz carrot, stick, pleasure, pain. Those who seek & enjoy ‘change’ have motivation in their DNA and just get on with it. Thank you Ali.
    be good to yourself

  4. There are 4 basic sources of motivation. Each of us move in and out of most of the sources depending on what it is we need the motivation to do.

    1. fear of punishment (the stick)
    2. hope for reward
    3. duty
    4. love

    I have done things out of the fear of social stigma. I bet we all have.
    I have done things for the reward of success or honor or glory. I bet we all have.
    I have done things simply because I thought it was the right thing to do. I bet we all have.
    I have done things because I loved the thing I was doing or loved the person or concept etc. I bet we all have.

    Sometimes we get the shove from life or friends or spouses to take action and do something long overdue. Sometimes we long for something we want and do what needs to be done until we no longer have to do it anymore (like getting through college to enter a career). And other times, there is that magic when motivation just doesn’t quite seem to be the right word anymore, when we just do the thing quite naturally as an expression of the beat of our hearts.

    But not all things can possibly be loved like that. We can’t be so motivated to do everything that needs to be done in life. I think all forms of motivation are likely important to most of us. It all depends on what the thing is in front of us that we know we need to get to … sooner or later.

    Thanks for the post, Ali! Always enjoy reading your stuff!

  5. Hi Ali,
    For me it often becomes a matter of running out of steam. I have to make sure that I keep myself balanced and healthy so that I can keep moving towards my goals.

    I generally don’t ever stop completely but I will take some time off for a while.

  6. Different motivations drive different people. But personally, the stick just makes me want to do the bare minimum in order to avoid it. The carrot makes me want to do more and better so I can reap great rewards.

  7. Hi Ali,

    Great post, thank you for sharing! You made a great analogy about the 2 different types of motivation and it reminds that instinctually, we are hard-wired to either avoid pain or seek pleasure. Tony Robbins like to put it as the “Pain Pleasure Principle”.

    For me personally – when I initially seek a change, I tend to avoid pain first and then seek out pleasure. For instance, being financially independent is a top priority for me, so I had to first reduce the stress that paying off debt was causing me. Then, I found ways to keep track of money, which in the end makes me feel good since I feel I am in control of my finances.

    Thank you again for this post, I really enjoyed it!



  8. “Move away” from the pain of “Move towards” the pleasure … both work, but only one is the real primary driver. It is not always what you think it is, because both are working as you say yourself. Eg you can loose weight because to avoid health problems later or to get more energy now. Both are always possible.

    I prefer to use “move towards” every day more and more.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. My primary motivation style is “away from”. It is the exact opposite of utilizing the Law of Attraction positively. For example, my kitchen is a mess and has been for weeks. The pain is reaching a climax to where I will do something about it soon, because I am running out of clean dishes. Yet, I am currently not motivated to clean because I’m focusing on the fact that I hate cleaning the kitchen INSTEAD OF focusing on how nice it would be to have a spotless kitchen. If a spotless kitchen could be the wanted desire and stronger than the current desire of not wanting to clean the kitchen, it would be clean, but this just isn’t the case for me right now (and hardly ever). Utilizing the Law of Attraction positively doesn’t mean there won’t be work involved on your part, it just means that it will be pleasant work because your mind is aligned with (and hence attracting) the desire that you are focused on achieving. As long as your mind is aligned with a positive desire properly, motivation comes naturally and pleasurably and your desire ‘manifests’ itself (with your help).

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