How to Motivate Yourself in Retirement

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Every time we go back to visit family, I always find it fascinating to watch Wanderer’s 4 year old nephew play.

Because when you get down to it, a child playing is the purest form of intrinsic motivation.

When he gives me a picture, he holds his tiny crayon masterpiece in his sticky hands, beaming with pride. He doesn’t care that the stick figures are lopsided and doesn’t look anything like mom or dad. Nor does he care the grass is yellow instead of green. He’s ecstatic because he’s drawing. He doesn’t give one crap about how much he’s getting paid or whether he’s going to get a promotion for doing it. He draws because he loves it.

This is called Intrinsic Motivation. We do it because it makes us happy. Not because some external source is paying us or telling us to do it.

Now, what if I were to start paying this kid for his pictures? What would happen then? He wouldn’t be drawing for the fun of drawing anymore; he’d be doing it with an extrinsic motivator—money (or chocolate, or whatever). And I bet you, after the high of getting paid for the first few pictures, this extrinsic motivator would get old fast. He would now be expecting to be paid for his work. And if he didn’t get paid? He’d throw a tantrum and probably stop drawing.

This is exactly what happens when we go from intrinsic motivation (doing stuff we loved as a kid) to extrinsic motivation (our jobs) as adults.

By Asa Wilson (CubeSpace) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Would you continue doing your job if you didn’t get paid for it? I wouldn’t.

But as an adult, that’s not a choice. As kids, our parents took care of our necessities (food, shelter, security) so we had the luxury of doing things we like because we were intrinsically motivated to do them. But as we got older, those necessities become our problem. We could no longer just show up at the dinner table and expect food to magically appear. We had to labour for hours at work for food and rent. If we didn’t do the tasks assigned to us, our bosses would yell at us and our pay checks would stop coming. Our motivation became extrinsic.

And over time, since we spend the majority of our time at work, this extrinsic motivation become so ingrained in us, we no longer have any clue how to revert back to intrinsic motivation. We think if we don’t get paid for something it’s not really worth pursuing. After all, we need that money to live.

But what if someone else—or something else–were to take care of our living expenses, like our parents did when we were children, we would revert back to learning how intrinsic motivation works.

And after being indoctrinated into the work force for a decade, that kind of motivation is kind of terrifying. After all, extrinsic motivation is easy. Someone is yelling at you to do something. If you earn money, you feel useful and accomplished at the end of the day. If you don’t, you don’t.

But does extrinsic motivation actually make us happy? If extrinsic motivation—like money—is the only factor we need to be happy, then why does money stop having an effect once we have enough? Research has shown that your happiness doesn’t actually increase past a $75,000/year salary.

In fact, at a certain point, using extrinsic motivation, actually yield negative returns. Like the story Dan Pink tells in his TED Talk on motivation:

Encarta was build by well paid professionals and managers, incentivized with standard extrinsic motivators. Wikipedia was built by unpaid (autonomous) volunteers for fun, and because they believed in the project. In 1999 no economist would have tipped that Encarta’s model would be overtaken by Wikipedia’s, but it has.

I use Wikipedia on a weekly basis, but I’ve never heard of Encarta. Have you?

So in a way, early retirement is like reliving your childhood. Your primary needs are now taken care of—by your portfolio instead of your parents—and now you are free to doing things because of intrinsic motivation.

You get the chance to look at things in a completely different way. You get to do something just for the fun of it, rather than trying to make money. And you get to take risks, like writing a book, start an online business , just for the hell of it. Who cares if it makes any money?

Except, in a way, it’s way better than childhood, because of experiences like this.

That being said, going from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation is way easier said than done. And part of that reason is that since we haven’t been kids for so long, we’ve forgotten what that feels like. It becomes difficult for us to fathom what it’s like to have intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic motivation.

So what should we do? How can we use intrinsic motivation to help us enjoy early retirement?

I’ve been lying in this hammock for 3 months. Should I actually get up and do something?(Photo credit: Kent Larsson @ Flickr)

Well, one way is to use what psychologists like to call “self-determination theory” or SDT as the cool kids like to call it (for a more detailed explanation on self-determination theory watch this video here)

Developed in the 1970s, SDT is a theory of human motivation that indicates 3 needs facilitating our mental well-being and personal growth:


  • Positive feedback or results from being good at something.


  • The ability to choose what you want to do


  • Having other people to do that thing with

These are actually the 3 needs behind the idea of Gamification. The reason why a game is so fun and addicting is become it satisfies these 3 needs. And also the reason why game makers seek to satisfy these conditions.

Now, the researchers did note that this theory doesn’t take into account all personalities. Some people have stronger needs in certain areas than others so it won’t be the same results for everyone. But personally, I find it pretty accurate in explaining why I love board games, blogging, writing, and travelling because they satisfy all 3 needs.

Back when I was working, I only had 2 out of 3 at best and 1 out of 3 at worst. I never had autonomy (deadlines were always too tight and I had no say in which projects I could work on) and at times I didn’t feel competent (despite my clients giving me positive feedback, the results of my work never had enough of an impact on the world).

Which is why once I had enough money to take care of my expenses, I no longer felt motivated to keep working that job.

Writing, on the other hand, despite not earning enough money to even pay for groceries, I kept going because the motivation was intrinsic. Sure, there were bouts of doubt (every time my phone pinged with another rejection for example) but the little milestones along the way (winning a pitch contest, getting a request from a literary agent, getting positive feedback from my writing partner) kept my competency level up. The ability to write what I want, when I want and connecting with other writers checked off the “autonomy” and “relatedness” boxes. And eventually, getting good enough to get published checked off the “competence” box.

And this is why I continue writing to this day without the need for extrinsic motivation. The feedback I get from readers in e-mails and comments everyday, gives me the relatedness I need and helps me feel confident that I’m making an impact.

So to stay happy in retirement, find your intrinsic motivation. What do you think of the 3 factors for intrinsic motivation? Do they work for you?

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36 thoughts on “How to Motivate Yourself in Retirement”

  1. Thanks for another thought provoking article. Having been retired just shy of one year, my life has been very busy. But like the little kid, I’m doing things that I want to do, when I want to do them. In fact, it’s time to go out and play! 🙂

      1. Totally – I always felt like one lifetime just isn’t enough to do the things I want to do in life and that’s without having to work a full time job.

        you know those people who say you would be bored without a job ? I feel such pity for them because it means there isn’t anything in life they want to do. They just alternate between doing shit they hate and being bored.

        1. I think it’s a personality thing. Maybe for the extroverts, it’s harder for them to imagine not having co-workers around them all the time. Also has to do with being a self-starter. Some people need more direction. They can always go back to work though–retirement doesn’t have to be permanent. That’s why my response to them is always “you’d be bored without a job? Then go back to work. Or continue working. Do whatever you want”. FI part is mandatory, RE part is optional.

  2. Well doesn’t this neatly (and retroactively) explain why I got a music performance degree. Competence and autonomy and relatedness are all purely applied in the middle of an orchestra, striving that your interpretation can do justice to the little black dots on the page in front of you. I play in a few amateur groups FILLED with retirees — and they’re often the most focused and driven of us all.

    There are likely fewer than a hundred people in the US on my instrument who make a living by playing alone; in a good year I’ll crack four figures. Good thing my day job renders that irrelevant. Meanwhile, I look forward to investments rendering my day job irrelevant. 😀

    1. “in a good year I’ll crack four figures”…that’s what novel writing is like 🙂

      Doesn’t mean I’ll stop writing though. *pats portfolio lovingly*

      I’m also looking forward to the day your investments renders your day job irrelevant 🙂 What is your day job if you don’t mind me asking?

      1. I stumbled into a veterinary software startup just before the recession hit. Been with the same company twelve years now. The pay stagnated a bit, but generous vacation policy and full-time telecommuting have more than make up for it!

  3. Amazing post. It makes us rethink our lives for a second.
    Our work, except rare exceptions, is absolutely not our intrinsic motivator. We need to get it back like that kid drawing for the pleasure of drawing before it’s too late!

    1. Hard to switch that mindset from “needing to make money” to “doing things for the love of doing it”. But once you do, it’s amazing!

      Time to go back to being a kid…

  4. Another great article full of food for thought. 5 years retired next month for me… hard to believe as the time has flown by. I read a great book a while back by Canadian Riley E. Moynes who very succinctly put retirement into 4 distinct phases. 1) Vacation Time just after you retire 2) Feeling Loss and Feeling Lost 3) Trial and Error 4) Reinvent and Repurpose. While these phases might not hold true for all retired types… it resonated for me. Thanks again for your awesome post!

    1. Going to check that book out. Thanks for the rec! Those 4 phases are pretty accurate. In our case, we kind of skipped phase 2 since we started writing while we were working, so already had volunteer work and passion projects going before retirement. But it is such a big change going from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation that I can see why it would be challenging for most people.

    2. Hi Manning,

      I believe that it will be 6 years in retirement for you. Not an easy feat.

      Don’t mind if you could share more details on how you went about having a long retirement for sustainablity.


  5. Spot on, FireCracker! Work is work because they have to pay you to do it. 🙂 I really loved this article – it will encourage me to continue increasing the size of my portfolio so that it can one day take care of me and let me get back to re-discovering and relying on my intrinsic motivations. Second childhood, here I come!

  6. This is one the main reasons why I don’t call what I do now as “work”. It isn’t work when you’re having this much fun!

    We pretty much live a life of intrinsic motivation these days, and it’s a far happier life!

    1. Right on, Mr. Tako! With all those mouth-watering food pics you put up, I can totally see you are living the life!

  7. Brilliant, as usual. The autonomy piece is part of why doctors are so angry: bureaucrats who know nothing about health care and are never making life and death decisions at 3 a.m. are now charging gazillions of dollars to take over the system.

    I personally relate to the writing aspect, and relatedness explains why comments and Facebook likes have such an impact. Thanks!

    1. Huh, that’s very eye-opening, Melissa! I’ve always thought being a doctor satisfied all three, but now that you mention it, the autonomy piece isn’t there. I hate bureaucracy too–horrible road block for creativity and problem solving.

  8. Totally agree. It’s about doing stuff that you would do regardless of whether you get paid or not. (It’s a bonus if you make big bucks at it as well!) Keep writing. I enjoy your voice.

    1. Thanks, MI! Definitely a bonus if you make big bucks doing what you love–but if not, your portfolio’s got your back 🙂

  9. Thanks FIRECracker!

    I think that explains why I love volunteering so much. I have complete autonomy to support whatever causes I choose with a bunch of others who also care about those same causes. I’d like to think we’re also competent in our efforts, based on feedback and world impact touchy-feely stuff 🙂

    1. Feel the same way, Chris! Volunteering gives us autonomy, relatedness, and competency. And the “world impact touchy-feely stuff” is a bonus 🙂

      1. He said he used it, he didn’t say it was any good 😉
        Seriously, between the good old Britannica and the new Pedia was a time of awkward experiments.

        1. Ha ha so true. Though I do worry too many people rely on Wikipedia now thinking “if it’s on wikipedia, it must be true!”

  10. Yeap, blogging scores pretty high on all 3 for me. The relationship part of it is tricky because it’s all online. Twitter and Instagram made it easy today. I feel more connected to other bloggers and readers than ever.
    Although, I’d probably cut way back if I don’t make any money. The insidious extrinsic motivator is everywhere.

    1. I feel the same way. You’re right that the relationship part is trickier when it’s online. Though I’ve met many other bloggers and readers in person after connecting with them online. It’s an awesome community 🙂

  11. My Retirement plan, so It feels like work:

    1. Put an ugly small cubicle in my house, and sit there 7 hours a day
    2. Invite stupid arrogant people to my house to dictate to me how to do my job
    3. Have a bot that sends me hundreds of useless stupid emails every day, that have
    nothing to do with me…
    4. Find a group people who like to bitch about everything, but won’t lift a finger, even if it was stuck in shit.

    Or… join a band and play Classic Rock until my fingers bleed…

  12. Don’t forget 5. Get carpal tunnel and severe back pain, try different physiotherapists, pay to get needles stuck in your skin which do absolutely nothing.

    Pain completely gone after a year of retirement even though the doctor told me my wrists were done for and it’s chronic.

    Love the idea of joining a band…

  13. This post is a must read for my hubby who is afraid to retire early (!!) because he worries he will stay in bed and get depressed!

    As a part of my work coping mechanism I build a network of volunteer opportunities, side-kicks that are fun (and pay, or at least pay for travels), that I will easily fill our days with, but he is afraid that no structure in a day will be a life killer!

    1. Sounds like a great plan, Agata! Volunteering helped us build a network and have some structure while we were travelling during our first year in retirement. After that, the blog kicked in and then the book. You don’t have to have it all figured out right away. Sometimes one passion projects leads into another. You never know what opportunities will turn up.

      To help your hubby get over his fear, starting a passion project or volunteering while he’s working so he has structure to step into might be the key.

  14. I read this post twice. Loved it. Spot on.

    I think this explains why I love video games so much. And anime. They bring me no tangible benefit, but I invest in them for myself. As they say: “It’s the little things in life.”

    Speaking of anime, go watch “The Devil Is A Part-Timer”. You’re welcome.

    ARB–Angry Retail Banker

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