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Intrinsic Motivation, how to change yourself and others

For those who have seen it, do you remember the two Bobs from Office Space? These two gentlemen come into a company as consultants, and advise them on how to change to be more efficient. For those who ask what I do for a living, the best analogy is I am the internal equivalent of the Bobs. No, I am not incompetent like they are, and frankly my job is not focusing on job cuts either. I work for a growing company in a high growth sector, so my job focuses on how we can reduce the rate of hiring, not reduce the number of workers.

My work results in higher bonuses for all employees, and it’s a lot of fun (to me at least) seeing the impact of improving a process or system to get rid of peoples’ day to day headaches. Essentially all my work boils down to is getting people to change. Personal finance, meanwhile, is essentially all about changing yourself.  

The Starting Point for Process Changes

I oversimplify my job a bit because the first thing I do with any task is assess a current state. I observe data, talk to people, and analyze customer feedback. After deciding on what the big gnarly problems are, I pick the top priorities to resolve based on analysis. Then I lead a team to make system or process changes to fix them. Sounds simple, right?

To be frank, system changes are easy. I figure out how a system should match a problem, write up a 20 page or so document on what needs to change, and hand it to IT to make it happen. IT does the hard parts of development: writing the code, testing, etc. The hardest part here is simply ensuring I have the budget and the IT resources understand the requirements.

Change is Hard

No, the real difficult part of my job is convincing people to change. I work at a well established company with many employees who have been in the same jobs for decades. I kid you not, I had one coworker who retired from her same role after 45 years.

So, some employees have been working their processes for decades. Then I come around, and want to change it up to be more efficient. Often, but not always, I do not even have a low level understanding of their job. Yet judging by my performance reviews, feedback of others, track record, and my company rewards I am very successful at it. So how do I do so, and more importantly what does this have to do with personal finance?

Always Changing, Even Personal Finance

Life is a constant flow of change. The job market changes, income changes, marital status changes, dependents potentially arrive, health varies, and eventually we all get to the point where we stop working (or worse, leave this plane of existence). Yet humans are creatures of habit.

In my work example, not a day goes by that I do not encounter someone with the mantra, “this is how we always do it”. Change is hard and most people prefer to stick to their existing world. The toughest part of my job is hauling them (hopefully not kicking and screaming) into the now. In the same way you as an individual must change your habits around finances, career, and investing. You must also convince those around you, like your spouse, to come along for the ride. This is also the hardest part of turning your finances around, how do you change yourself and others? So how do I do it?

How to Effect Change

Everything in my world starts with asking what is a person’s headaches and problems. What truly bugs them about their world? What would make their personal life better? Now, I do not just ask about the dislikes, I also ask about the likes. In the personal finance world you can do this with your spouse, or you can do it on your own, both are extremely valuable to what happens next.

Intrinsic Motivation is the Key to Change

Once you understand the things you value and the things you wish could be improve, focus on the changes that impact these areas. Focus on improving what you like and where possible eliminating what you don’t. Even if priorities mean you need to start somewhere else, focus your work in a way as to have some downstream impact on those areas. Then when it comes time to talk to the person who is most impacted, focus on those impacted areas.

If this is a personal change then start any thought process in the same way. Focus on the impacted areas that you care about. The key to getting a change to stick is Intrinsic motivation. That is, changes will only succeed if you are motivated from within. In my job it does not matter how many times you threaten to escalate to someone’s manager if they do not change or offer them a bonus if they do (extrinsic motivation), if they do not see the value to them of the change it will fail. In the same way if you’re trying to change your behavior of you or your spouse then you must speak to that intrinsic motivation. No amount of reward if you meet your plan goal will keep you on the path if it is not tackling something you value.

Intrinsic Motivation in Personal Finance

So I’ve spent a lot of this post relating to my current job, but let’s end with a personal finance example. I’ve written in the past of the impact living off one income has had on our finances. I did not set that goal arbitrarily, and tell myself I’d buy myself dinner if I made it. It was not even set because of some desire to retire. I do not want to retire anytime soon. So, if I set a goal based on retirement I would have failed. No, my intrinsic motivation was fear.

I remembered how money was tight for my parents as a kid. I looked around myself in 2008 and saw other families going into bankruptcy and losing their home due to loss of income. It was scary. I focused on eliminating that fear as my intrinsic motivation. Not being worried about losing one income driving us to be homeless led to us controlling our finances. It was not some drive to be financially independent.

Do you have a major change you are considering? What intrinsic motivation will drive you to change?


  1. I’m in an interesting spot – I’m building a start-up and trying to hustle on the side while also doing my 40 hours a week at my day job.

    My motivation is internal, though sleep and having a balance is key as well. It’s tough to rise and grind each and every day – though if I want to be successful, I must.

    Thanks for sharing FTF.

    • May 8, 2017

      Burnout is something you need to pay attention too. Grinding is important, but listen to your bodies signals. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Jack Catchem
    Jack Catchem May 8, 2017

    Whew. I already made a major change by abandoning a post in a Big City police department for a small one. Leaving the job (even for another city) is a big deal for cops (usually extremely risk adverse people). It was an awesome change, so my plan now is to buckle down to growth.

    As for motivation, it was easy to see my earlier work environment was toxic, being in a better run organization is awesome!

    • May 8, 2017

      A toxic work environment can be a real motivator, but even then it’s sometimes hard to get over the hump of change. I’m glad to hear your happier in the new position.

  3. SMM
    SMM May 8, 2017

    I recently sold an extra car I had and it felt GOOD! I was losing money because I wasn’t driving it as often, the extra cost of insurance, the extra registration fee, and pointless wear and tear. All of this was the motivation to sell it and I took most of the proceeds and put them into an ETF. So glad I did this and in terms of change, it was easy because as it turns out the extra car didn’t have much of an affect on my life.

    • May 8, 2017

      Great example. When you set down and think about it is the status quo really in line with your values? If not the change should be easier.

  4. Matt @ Optimize Your Life
    Matt @ Optimize Your Life May 8, 2017

    That’s a good insight. We can use all of the different methods that we want to try to change our habits, but if we are not intrinsically motivated it is not sustainable. you can eat healthier for a while because you feel like you are supposed to, but unless your health becomes a source of motivation, you will inevitably fall of the wagon.

    • May 8, 2017

      Dieting is a very common example. So many people start only to fail after a few weeks. The YMCA a few weeks after New Years is a great example of this. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Leo T. Ly
    Leo T. Ly May 8, 2017

    This may seem very obvious, but it’s based on your life experience. I grew up with very little money and I don’t get a lot of things give ly to me. So essentially, my motivation is that I don’t ever want to live a life with no money. I tried to maximize my income anyway I can and grow what I already have. This leads me to manage my money responsibly and value every dollar that I earned.

    • May 9, 2017

      I can definitely understand agree. My child hood led to my drive to earn more. I didn’t pick up the controlled spending until later. But we are definitely a product of our experiences. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Ty Roberts
    Ty Roberts May 9, 2017

    wow, lots of good info here, and all of it very relateable for me. My end financial goal is financial independence. My intrinsic motivation is also fear (and fear is a GREAT motivator). I was one of those people that got hammered in the last housing crash & recession. I went into that very unprepared and vowed coming out that I would NEVER let that happen to my family again. That’s what drive me. Great post!

    • May 9, 2017

      Thanks Ty. Fear really is a great motivator. I still wish I could say the motivation was something cooler though 😉

  7. Mustard Seed Money
    Mustard Seed Money May 9, 2017

    My intrinsic motivation is/was that I needed a career change and to do something different as I was getting completely burned out. Normally I stay in my bubble but I had to get out of my bubble to make some changes in myself to make myself more marketable. I took some stretch training classes which in turn led to me networking with folks that ultimately led to my position today. Definitely glad that I did 🙂

    • May 10, 2017

      I wondered what triggered your recent networking challenge. Burn out is a great motivator, I’m glad it helped you to find a better opportunity.

  8. Untemplater
    Untemplater May 10, 2017

    Fear is a great motivator. My parents were terrible with money and witnessing that scared me. Not wanting to grow up and have their problems, I got very motivated to prioritize my education and focus on building a solid career for myself that would allow me to become financially independent. It’s unfortunate my parents had problems, but they really helped propel me forward.

    • May 10, 2017

      Everything happens for a reason. I too wish my parents had less problems. But that could have meant something completely different for me now, so I wouldn’t change it. Glad to hear its working well for you.

  9. Wall Street Physician
    Wall Street Physician May 13, 2017

    “it does not matter how many times you threaten to escalate to someone’s manager if they do not change or offer them a bonus if they do”

    Interesting, so it seems like neither the carrot or the stick works 🙂


    • May 14, 2017

      At the company I work for these incentives are fairly weak to begin with. Even with strong incentives you usually end up with half hearted implementations that fail. After all rare is the flawless implementation so you need others to help fix gaps on the fly. Extrinsically that won’t happen.

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