Life is the sum of your decisions.
Professionally, the way you find yourself in a certain career isn’t serendipitous — it’s informed by a series of choices.
Let’s say you’re a mathematician. In high school, you excelled at calculus and trigonometry, joined the math league, and practiced in your free time. In college, you attended office hours and study groups to expand your learning and pursued internships and externships to level up your skills.
When you joined the workforce, you moved between industries to find your niche and pursued a master’s degree to open more specialized opportunities with better pay.
This journey was filled with many small decisions, too. A little extra study meant a better test score, and attending a networking event convinced you to pursue an advanced degree.
Similar journeys occur throughout your life. You improve or derail your physical and psychological health, relationships, and personal development depending on your decisions.
And these decisions all have one thing in common: self-determination.
Self-determination refers to the intentional decisions you make of your own volition. These decisions reflect your capacity to motivate yourself to act on your interests and goals.
You can determine your capacity for self-determination by noting your internal locus of control. Highly self-determined people feel a sense of responsibility and accountability over a large area of their life and, thus, take an active role in their decision-making and actions.
People with low self-determination often feel their willpower is low and that external factors guide their life. This sense of lacking personal control over their life might mean their problem-solving skills never get the chance to kick in since they may give up on things before trying.
Everybody can develop self-determination over a lifetime, and how you develop this is often determined by your motivators, as proposed and popularized by the self-determination theory (SDT).
In 1985, American behavioral psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan created SDT, a framework that outlines the components of self-determination. They aimed to define the necessary conditions people need to perform well, overcome challenges, and grow.
According to Deci and Ryan, healthy self-determination requires these basic psychological needs:
Autonomous motivation: Your capacity to make choices of your own free will in alignment with your authentic self.
Feelings of competence: Learning and applying new skills in positive social environments.
Relatedness: The sense of being connected to and valued by others.
When all three are fulfilled, you feel capable of making self-determined choices. But you also need to be motivated to do so. Deci and Ryan outline two primary sources of motivation:
Intrinsic motivation: Intrinsic motivators are rewards you get from doing things that please you and improve your well-being. For example, you might learn a new language because you’re fascinated by the puzzle-like challenge of linguistics, so this meets an intrinsic motivation of satisfying your curiosities and interests.
This motivation type is involved in your sense of self-determination. You must have intrinsic motivators to make choices you feel are autonomous, reflect your competence, and improve your relatedness to others.
Extrinsic motivation: Also referred to as non-self-determination, this covers doing something because of an obligation or material reward. You’re not making these decisions of your own volition based on gaining intrinsic rewards, so it doesn’t reflect your self-determination.
An example of an external motivator is learning a new language because it’ll look good on your resume.
Why is determination important?
Subsequent studies of Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory and autonomy psychology have proven that high relatedness, a sense of competence, and autonomous motivation are key to a person’s well-being.
Here are a few benefits of developing strong self-determination:
Greater need satisfaction
Improved overall well-being
Increased positive emotions
Decreased negative emotions
Positive affect in daily interactions
Better academic performance
How to improve self-determination
While some people are more naturally predisposed to self-efficacy and believe that they can set goals, overcome challenges, and reach objectives, self-motivation isn’t a part of someone’s nature. Anybody can nurture the basic psychological needs to improve self-determination skills.
The first step is accepting that choices and decision-making opportunities are within your grasp. Then, you must create an environment that nurtures autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Once you see the positive feedback of your actions, you’ll enjoy a snowball effect that affirms the impact you have on your life. Here are a few ways you can incorporate self-motivation methods into your behavior.
1. Determine your motivators
Studies show that patients who make an autonomous choice to attend therapy improve more than those who feel obligated. If you don’t feel intrinsically motivated to do something, you won’t reap the benefits as easily.
So determine what makes you feel an activity is worthwhile, whether that’s fulfilling your curiosities or improving your well-being, and remind yourself of these personal reasons to enjoy more success when pursuing your goals.
2. Practice self-awareness
Understanding yourself means knowing what you want and how to get yourself there. Only you know what will motivate you best toward your goals.
Try mindfulness techniques to connect with your thoughts and feelings to better understand your goals. This practice is a good reminder that you’re in control of your life — you must know yourself to be able to make educated decisions about how you want it to turn out.
3. Learn self-regulation
Parenting-focused studies show that children better develop self-regulation through choice rather than force. For example, if you use reason to teach a child the importance of cleaning up and reinforce the behavior with positive comments and polite requests, they’re more likely to learn to clean up independently.
The road to reaching your goals isn’t always fun. The best accomplishments often involve paths filled with challenges and setbacks. If you’re struggling to self-regulate your behavior when things get tough or tedious, remind yourself of the rewards gained when you accomplish your goal.
4. Nurture positive relationships
After outlining the SDT, Ryan developed the relationships motivation theory, which stated that building close relationships is a crucial life-satisfaction factor.
You create a circle of positivity when you surround yourself with friends, family, and colleagues who value and support you. This love and support makes you feel more worthy of going after what you want and capable of getting it.
5. Pursue your interests
Pursuing things you enjoy promotes the idea that your needs matter. And if they matter, you’ll feel more obliged to fulfill them and motivated to go after your goals.
Doing what you enjoy also feeds intrinsic motivators like connecting deeply with a family member or fulfilling a curiosity. The more you experience these rewards by pursuing your interests, the greater your self-determination becomes, creating a positive cycle toward increased control over your life.
Self-determination skills in practice
Problem-solving: The ability to analyze a challenge, identify pain points, and assess solutions creatively, logically, and resourcefully will help you overcome challenges when pursuing your goals.
Independence: If you’re always relying on others’ guidance, you might think their opinions are more important than your own and that they dictate how your life turns out.
Goal-setting: Using techniques like the SMART method for setting goals will help you shape realistic, measurable, and attainable goals to avoid feeling defeated or wasting time trying to accomplish unachievable things.
Risk-taking: Taking a chance on your goals and leaping into the unknown is scary. But the more challenging the experience, the more personal growth can be gained. Lean into your strengths, recognize weaknesses, and seek help to ensure you’re taking educated and well-supported risks.
Self-reflection: Reflect often to ensure you’re striving toward goals that fulfill intrinsic motivators and respecting your unique interests.
What brings you pleasure and what you want to achieve will likely change often throughout your life, so consider keeping a journal or starting a meditation habit to always remain in touch with yourself.
Hop into the driver’s seat
By learning how to improve your self-determination, you now know you’re responsible for how in control you feel over your circumstances. That’s empowering. It means you can go after what you want feeling capable and motivated to achieve it.
But taking responsibility for your life doesn’t mean ignoring external factors. Some things are unavoidably out of your control. If you want to go running today but the weather’s dreadful, that’s something you can’t change. You can change how you respond to the circumstances, though.
Instead of doing nothing, perhaps you’ll try an online workout video, for example. What matters is adjusting to still fulfill intrinsic motivators, like improving your physical fitness.