Three Questions to Ask Yourself before taking on a New Project

Tapping into Intrinsic Motivation

Daniel Stillman
6 min readNov 1, 2022


Originally posted on my blog here.

A few weeks ago I stumbled on the lovely diagram below on twitter. It’s a simple flowchart to help answer that extremely essential and very common question:

“Should I take on this new project?”

The basic answer is: NO. You just don’t have enough time. You already have enough on your plate!!!

Delighted with the profound and straightforward wisdom of the original post, I shared the image on LinkedIn…where the conversation got a bit more complex and nuanced. (feel free to add more nuance!)

Many people offered comments to the effect of:




And we’ve all been there.

Something glittering comes across your path, all shiny and alluring and we start to think.

There is always an inner conversation that rolls in our heads ( in fact, in writing my book about designing conversations, Good Talk, I explored the power of inner dialogue much more than I expected) and it’s those inner conversations that rule our lives!

Maybe you’ve told yourself the same things when a new project presented itself:

“I should do this, the financial payoff could be enormous!”

“I should do this…opportunities like this don’t come along all the time.”

“I should do this…if I pull it off it will make me look amazing!”

One commenter on LinkedIn pointed out that a more interesting question is,

“Should you make time to do this?”

They went on to offer that this question shifts our attention towards reprioritizing your time. Are we spending our time where we have the most heart and provide the most value?

This perspective is also in the spirit of my friend and mentor Allan Chochinov who once told me

“Everything new you take on makes it harder to do everything else you’ve already taken on”.

So, taking on a new project should always give us pause.

With my head spinning from the comments, I took a hard look at the original diagram and reworked it with some new perspectives.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation

There are two types of motivations for doing a thing — intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal factors.

Extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors.

Extrinsic motivations can include economic pressure, emotional pressure and just good old plain inertia…we keep doing something just because that’s the way it’s always been done.

Extrinsic motivation is weaker than intrinsic in at least one sense — when the external pressure is off, the motivation disappears. So, if we’re trying to get someone else to do something, it can be a high-energy endeavor to keep the pressure on.Leading a team or an organization through extrinsic motivation is a poor choice, because we never get the best, juiciest parts of a person to show up through these approaches (more n that in a second).

Yet we try to leverage extrinsic motivation on ourselves!

Extrinsic motivation expressed as inner speech could look like the first three questions above. Also:

“I should do this, I really need the money!” (economic pressure)

“I should do this…otherwise I’ll let everyone down if I don’t!” (emotional pressure)

Intrinsic motivation points the way to three more interesting questions we could ask ourselves as we consider taking on a project.

Invitation is how we bring others (and ourselves) into the conversation.

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is described as having the qualities of autonomy, mastery and purpose in Daniel Pink’s book Drive. But I prefer the description co-authors Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi offer in their book Primed to Perform. They point to play as the most deeply intrinsic motivator.

After all, inside of every adult is a kid, who just loves what they love.

Turning work into play is the best way to get the best out of others…and it’s also the way to get the best out of ourselves.

McGregor and Doshi offer two other levers of intrinsic motivation: Purpose and Potential. Purpose is motivating, but not as deeply motivating as pure fun. Play is still the peak motivator, even if it’s hard for us adults to tap into.

Potential is a powerful motivator, but less so than Purpose, because potential is in the future. We’re still animals underneath the clothes we wear, and the future exerts a weaker pull than the present.

The Three Intrinsic Motivation Questions: Focusing on Play, Purpose and Potential

When someone comes to me for coaching, if they are at a big fork in the road, I’d suggest three questions. Each can help us to reflect on the three levers of intrinsic motivation. The diagram is a bit more convoluted than the original…but it reflects the complexity of life and the journey towards creating a life we love.

should you take on that new project? Yes…if it connects with your deepest sense of intrinsic motivation.

Play: Will this project create pure joy for me, right now?

Purpose: Does this project connect to my unique zone of genius or my biggest, hairiest, audacious goals?

Potential: Will this project help create a life I love?

An Inner-Work Checklist for reflection on that shiny project

Being able to answer the play, purpose and potential questions above requires us to do a few things:

  1. Know how our whole body responds when we consider the project. Getting out of our heads and into our present-tense embodied experience call tell us a lot… if we pay attention.
  2. Do we know where our zone of genius lies? Coined by Gay Hendricks in his book The Big Leap, he suggests that there are many things we can do with our time and our talent. Our zone of genius is the best use of our time AND our talent. We may be competent and even excellent at many things. Hendricks suggests that we should commit to spending as much time as possible engaged with our deepest talents, aligning ourselves with our best use — our purpose, what we were made to do.
  3. Do we know our BHAG? The notion of a BHAG (or a Big Hairy Audacious Goal) was coined in “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies” by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. Knowing your BHAG can help you say yes or no to a project. If it connects to your BHAG, find time for it.
  4. The last question “Will this create the life I love?” comes from my coaching coach, Robert Ellis’ work in Coaching from Essence. He teaches that we all have a core essence, that when expressed, is valuable and worthwhile. In short: You are enough. When we let our essence express itself fully, we feel it. Creating a life you love means finding forms that will help you express your essence. That is our highest potential, fully expressed
  5. Finally, the diagram as I’ve recreated it, asks us to be intentional about STOPPING doing other things. If we find something that aligns with our sense of play, purpose and potential, it’s time to take a look at the other things on our calendar. Make space and time to look at how you are spending your time!