Self Determination Theory and my writing journey

 

Introduction

I’ve been re-reading some of the research papers that I read when I was a graduate student, and now that I have the leisure of ruminating on the concepts stated in them, I’ve started to correlate those concepts with my own experiences.

I decided to start reading about Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation, specifically the Self Determination Theory (SDT) developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. I think I picked this topic because I haven’t been inspired or motivated to write about new things for the past couple of months, and every time I set out to write about something, I haven’t seen it through.

What is Self Determination Theory?

Self Determination Theory is a meta-theory, or a collection of theories about motivation, self-regulation of behavior, and personality development. Self regulation refers to the process of internalizing extrinsic or social values into self motivations and personal values. Two of the key sub-theories with SDT are Cognitive Evaluation Theory, and Organismic Interaction Theory.

Organismic Interaction Theory and the Self Determination Continuum

The organismic Interaction Theory is a subtheory within SDT, and it describes more fine-grained distinctions between types of motivation.

Self Determination Continuum

The figure shows six types of motivation. Each type varies in the amount of autonomy the person has as well as in the level of internalization (i.e. how much the person has taken in a value, or how much the person values the activity).

My writing journey through the lens of the Self Determination Continuum

Amotivation- the beginnings

I didn’t actually start writing blogs until 2012, when I started to write for a football blog. My first foray into blogging was for a football website created by a group of friends and acquaintances at college. I wasn’t motivated in any way, extrinsic or intrinsic. I started off with a regular schedule but I soon found myself lagging behind, rarely writing new posts. Even when I did manage to get myself to write a blog post, I was simply going through the motions. Writing became a chore.

I consider my initial foray into blogging as lacking motivation. I begun with good intentions- I wanted to try my hand at writing on the internet. However,I never truly got engrossed in it as I wasn’t truly interested in football, and I wasn’t getting paid. Also, because I didn’t know much about football, I didn’t feel competent enough to write about it.

External Regulation – Writing for “exposure” and monetary rewards

When I started writing technology related blog posts and articles, my dream was to one day have enough clout to receive devices for review. In pursuit of that goal, I approached many a website, and agreed to write for “exposure” or in some cases e-commerce store credit.

There was little to no autonomy because it was just about slaving away writing “hot takes” , blindly copying and pasting information about the latest goings-on in the tech space. The only reason I ever wrote was because I loved seeing my name in the by-line, getting some sort of presence on the internet however infinitesimal it may be, and hoping that the relentless grind would get me one step closer to my dream of being a gadget reviewer on the internet.

This was a recipe for burnout, and I burned out in spectacular fashion. There was no feedback, positive or negative. There was nobody guiding me, helping me find my way, nobody helping me grow as a writer in any sense. I was all just a blind rush to get the latest “Hot Take”, and get the most page views by any means necessary. I felt like a hamster in a wheel. At the end of it all I wasn’t interacting with an audience. I was simply throwing hastily spewed out words their way in an attempt to get more clicks. I was neither forging an identity and for the most part, nor was I getting any sort of proper remuneration for it [1]

Introjected Regulation- Writing for validation

There was a point in time where I used blog posts just to get validation from people. The act of actually writing the blog post was secondary to the act of sharing the blog post on social media and on messaging apps. I spammed links to my blog posts everywhere and found inventive ways of trying to get as many views as possible. I was only writing blog posts as a method of ego enhancement. I wanted to show the world that I was a writer, a content creator, who took the time and the effort to write blog posts regularly. I wanted to prove to the world I could do it, and I also wanted to show off to the world. I tied the act of writing with my own inherent self worth- I would feel guilty or anxious if I didn’t write and share it with the world.

I consider writing for validation as a form of Introjected Regulation, because even though this form of motivation may seem internal, but it’s still caused by external factors- in this case my need for validation by others, may it be through likes or comments or social media, or even the number of hits each blog post got[2]

Identified Regulation- Writing about UX

This form of regulation is more internalized as the person perceives the action as personally important. During my final semester in the Master’s in HCI program, I realized I needed to showcase my writing skills and use them to talk about concepts of UX that I was learning at school. This was because having a web presence was integral to my job search which was in full swing at the time.

I consider this a form of Identified regulation, because I valued the goal, and considered the action personally important. It was important to me because it lined up with my goal of creating a digital identity, a writer’s equivalent of a UX portfolio.

Integrated Regulation- Writing for Pocketnow

In the summer of 2015, I got the opportunity to write for pocketnow.com, a website that covers mobile technology. I was very excited because writing for a tech website was a long time dream of mine. This was different from the “writing for exposure” days because I was given increased autonomy by my editor in chief, and I was actually being paid for my work.

When I look back at those days I feel like that experience was the single most helpful thing that ever happened to me in terms of growing as a writer. I discussed ideas for articles with the editorial team, and after getting the go-ahead, they always provided constructive feedback about what I wrote[3]. Writing for a legitimate website like Pocketnow also helped me communicate with a community of readers.

I consider this a form of Integrated Regulation because writing for Pocketnow helped me really identify as a writer. However, even though I the experience was enjoyable and helped me identify as a writer, the motivating factors were still external- getting paid, gaining an audience, and improving my writing skills.

Intrinsic Motivation- Writing for myself

There are times where I write just because I enjoy it. I like the whole process – coming up with a topic, doing some research, writing, editing, sometimes rewriting. Sometimes what I write doesn’t see the light of day, but I enjoy it anyway. It’s not about the validation, or getting money, or the pageviews. It’s just about thinking about something, writing it down, and crafting something cohesive. It’s about getting engrossed in the act of writing itself, and losing track of time.

I’m at a stage now where I have a strange compulsion of sorts, to write something, anything. I use the word compulsion because there’s something that truly compels me and I can’t explain it using external motivators. I want to , I have to write because I like it. This is, in my opinion, true intrinsic motivation.

My writing journey through the lens of Cognitive Evaluation Theory

My writing journey can not only be categorized using the self-determination continuum, but also using Cognitive Evaluation Theory. Within Cognitive Evaluation Theory,  the authors mention three factors that influence intrinsic motivation:

Autonomy: a sense of being in control and having freedom.

Competence: a sense of being able to do something.

Relatedness: a sense of being associated or connected to others.

Initially during the football blog days I was unmotivated because:

There was no autonomy- others decided what I should write about, and I could not deviate from the section I was assigned

There was no competence- I had no idea if I was good enough, and I was able to capture what people wanted from a football blog

There was no relatedness- I really wasn’t that into football and hence couldn’t really relate to the other writers and their football enthusiasm

When I was writing for “exposure” , my autonomy was restricted to writing about whatever had the potential to get the most page views. I may have felt more competent, but that was because what I wrote was formulaic and had low complexity. All my initial feelings of relatedness quickly vanished because I was doing nothing to connect with other people.

As I started writing for my personal blog and even for Pocketnow, I had increased autonomy because I could decide what to write about. The subject matter was always about what I liked (technology) or what I was learning (User Experience). I felt more competent because I always got feedback from my peers, and I could see a progression in my skills as a writer.

When I write for myself, I have complete autonomy. I am confident in my ability to write, I feel competent. I try to write things that encourage a discussion with other like-minded people, which helps with relatedness.

Reflection

The path between Extrinsic Motivation to Intrinsic Motivation is non-linear:

Although the self determination continuum looks like a linear progression, it doesn’t imply that motivation follows that order. In my personal experience I have gone from External Regulation to Intrinsic Motivation, and then fallen back to one of the intermediary phases when I lacked inspiration. Inspiration is fleeting, and I feel like I’m intrinsically motivated or experiencing “flow” when I am inspired. However, there are times when I am not inspired or intrinsically motivated, and I need some form of external regulation, or an intermediary form of regulation such as Introjected, Identified or Integrated. I think the Self Determination Continuum really adds more nuance to the idea of writing as a disciplined practice versus motivated or inspired writing.

Going through the intermediary forms of motivation helped me fully incorporate intrinsic motivation:

When I started writing, I thought that inspired writing was always my best work because it was “from the heart”, a stream of consciousness captured as words and sentences. The more I forayed into writing about specific topics however, I realized that writing, getting feedback and rewriting until you have a cohesive narrative was great as well.

Now when it comes to writing, I realize how important it is to have a proper procedure. Having a stream of consciousness is great, but it needs to be channelized properly. Getting feedback from others more skilled than I am really helped in that regard. In my initial attempts at writing for myself, I didn’t really have a sense of direction. I had complete autonomy, but I had no competence, and others were unable to relate to what I was saying. In the case of writing for Pocketnow, the slight reduction in autonomy was worth it, just for the increase in competence that I experienced as a result of working with more accomplished writers.

In my writing journey, I started off like a bullet shot from a gun- I had plenty of ideas, and I put them into writing as fast as possible. Soon, I was out of inspiration. I went from intrinsic motivation to being unmotivated.  Nevertheless, I continued writing for various reasons. I slowly went through the intermediary phases and regained the intrinsic motivation I started with. I feel like my intrinsic motivation is in fact stronger than when I started writing, because I continued to write and gain feedback.

References:

Footnotes:

  1. I eventually realized this wasn’t the right way to go about writing. Looking back, I still feel quite bad about the incessant spamming of links that I used to do. A few people even blocked me on social media because of it. I wrote this blog post around that time, describing what was on my mind.
  2. Spamming friends and family with blog posts was not only a form of seeking validation, but was also a fun activity. I’m not so proud of it now that I look back at it. But I think I needed to go through that phase to get it out of my system.
  3. Shout out to Michael Fisher, Stephen Schenck, and Anton D’Nagy, the editors at Pocketnow who helped me hone my writing skills. (Also Adam Doud, who helped me learn to deal with haters/trolls/ general negativity in the comments section.)
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