Motivation: A Comprehensive and Practical Guide
Whether you’re trying to change the world, study for an exam, write a novel, get in shape, or simply do
Whether you’re trying to change the world, study for an exam, write a novel, get in shape, or simply do your dishes, motivation is an essential force behind reaching your goal, and understanding motivation is just as key.
Motivation is what people say they want more of when they’re feeling “blah,” or are struggling to accomplish something. It’s the salt and pepper that helps you tackle bland, difficult, or unpleasant tasks that you’d otherwise avoid. It’s what separates those that simply start something (or just think about doing it) from those that finish.
But while the idea of motivation is pervasive, motivation itself is not. As we all know from our knowledge of human behavior, wanting to be motivated is not the same as actually feeling it.
So, how exactly does one get (and stay) motivated?
Motivation: An elusive force
Honestly, it’s not always easy to stay intrinsically motivated—but it is possible. Still, motivation can be an elusive, mercurial force. Sometimes, it’s there, sometimes it’s not.
For some things, say trying to lose weight or keeping your house clean, motivation may be easily accessible to one person, but feel impossible to another. Likewise, the tidy exerciser may struggle to find motivation for other tasks, like eating healthy or getting their work done.
It may feel random, unclear, or unfair why some people seem to have more motivation than others. Clearly, there are those that seem to naturally harness its power and have all the answers, while others feel they don’t have any at all. For those that find motivation a challenge, going after goals can feel like a frustrating, no-win, uphill battle.
But all is not lost. There are many motivating factors that can enhance your own drive for success. Essentially, you can define motivation as a sort of river, one anyone can tap into. You just need to understand what it is, where to find it, and how to access it to your advantage.
In this guide, we’ll explore all that as well as practical, accessible motivational strategies you can use in your daily life, and try to unearth some of the basic psychological needs of a person that’s successful in their goal-directed behavior.
What is motivation?
Motivation is what gives you the willpower to do what you need or want to do. It’s the reason, or “the why” behind your efforts. Often, it’s the difference between whether or not you see something to fruition.
Motivation is what spurs you on to get the results you’re after. Most importantly, it’s the fire that gets you going when you don’t feel like it, and the gumption that gets you to go beyond the norm or the expected.
An Inner Force
This inner force goes by other names, too, such as drive, will power, verve, pluck, tenacity, follow through, and sticking with it. You know it’s there when you feel added energy or urgency about dedicating yourself to the task at hand, or more broadly, to reach your larger goals. It’s what keeps you going even when the chips are down, when you’re tired, having setbacks, or are tempted to do other stuff.
Some things you’ll be naturally motivated to do, even without the benefit of external rewards. In fact, you may not even think of your will to do them as motivation. These include the habits and tasks that you find enjoyment in, that work for you, or have already been incorporated successfully into your daily life.
For example, if you’re a social person, you won’t need the extra push a shy person may need to network or reach out to friends because you already have all the motivation you need. Essentially, some activities, goals, or to-do list items may need very little intentional motivation to get done. Other examples of this include playing your favorite sport, reading a story you love, eating your favorite healthy foods, or finishing a work project that you’re excited about.
In other words, the more naturally enthusiastic you are about something, the less additional motivation you need. That’s because you already have heaps of it.
More than enthusiasm
The motivation we’re talking about in this guide is different. Here, we are exploring how to get motivated for the goals where that essential drive is lacking.
It’s about building up the necessary fire to keep you focused when it feels like your motivation has run dry. This motivation can serve as an antidote to procrastination, distraction, self-doubt, and other self-defeating feelings and behaviors, helping you to strive for and reach your goals.
Types of motivation
There are many factors that make up the individual drive of human beings. Behavioral science tells us that these will vary quite a bit from person-to-person depending on their personality, life experiences, decision making abilities, even their physical and mental health, home environment, and genetics, among other closely related things.
Much of this you can’t change. However, you can up your motivation by understanding more about how motivation works. Primarily, it’s key to know about the main two types. These are called external and internal motivation.
External / extrinsic motivation
External or extrinsic motivation comes from a force outside of yourself. It’s when you are doing something to avoid or gain a specific result.
External drivers can be either positive or negative, as in the proverbial carrot or the stick. For example, you might drive the speed limit to avoid having an accident or getting a traffic ticket. Or you might turn in your homework to avoid the negative reinforcement of getting Fs.
Remember the reward charts kids are given in kindergarten or the promise of a trip to the candy store to reward good behavior? Those are both examples of external incentives, or extrinsic motivators.
The same principle applies for any “reward” or “punishment” you stand to gain from doing something. So, the reward for being on a diet may be losing weight. Or you might set up a punishment for yourself, like no Netflix on the weekends, until you complete your spring cleaning.
Note that most external motivations can be flipped to either the negative or positive depending on your point of view. So, one person is motivated to complete their job task efficiently in order to not get fired, while someone else does the same thing for the goal of getting paid, getting a raise, or getting a promotion. Not all external motivators are tangible items. They may also be feelings-related, such as praise, acceptance, pride, or belonging.
Internal / intrinsic motivation
Internal motivation is the will to do something that comes from inside, rather than requiring outside influences. This is also called intrinsic motivation. Internally motivated actions aren’t done for the rewards or punishments that drive external motivation. Instead, they are just there urging you to do (and keep doing) whatever needs to be done.
Examples of intrinsic motivation are when you just naturally want to do something for the sake of doing it. It’s kind of like altruism for yourself and your goals. In these situations, the promise of a cookie, kudos, or some other reward (or the threat of something bad happening) aren’t needed to get you to put in the work toward your goal.
Human motivation in psychology
There are dozens of theories on motivation in psychology. Two prominent ones are Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and McCelland’s acquired needs theory.
In Abraham Maslow’s theory, all needs are organized in hierarchical categories. These start with basic survival (like food and water) and safety and then move on up to more complex needs like social interactions and personal success.
The idea is that your motivation begins by first addressing the most pressing needs before it can go after the loftier ones. As in, if you can’t pay your rent or sleep well then that is where your focus will be. But once your essential needs are all taken care of, then you can shift your sights on pursuing higher level goals.
American psychologist David McCelland also divided human needs into a variety of categories to explain human motivation. His theory focused on the common needs for affiliation, power, and achievement.
The idea is that knowing how a person responds to an underlying need can be key in finding their motivation. So, if you have a strong need for affiliation, using social motivators will likely work well for you. Those who crave power, may be motivated by the possibility of leadership roles.
Recognition and learning new skills may make those that crave achievement more productive.
How to get (and stay) motivated
So, how do you use all this information about motivation to get some for yourself?
First, having a simple awareness that you can foster your store of motivation is a good start. Some people may need to work a bit harder to find the necessary drive but that doesn’t mean it can’t be found.
Know that finding your fire is a personal process that will be unique for each person. So, what motivates your sister, co-worker, friend, or neighbor may be drastically different than what works for you. And that’s fine. The key is honoring that difference—and simply finding what works for you.
Tap into the motivation that’s already there
Think about what does motivate you. Possibilities might be feelings of belonging, approval, wellness, safety, or success. You might long for tangible items like more money, security, a promotion, or better health.
Once you know what drives you, you can work to align that need with your goals. So, if you seek greater social connection and want to run a marathon, joining a running club might boost your motivation to put in the necessary training.
Knowledge is power
If you know that you have a strong competitive streak, use that knowledge by turning your tasks into a game you can win. For those that long for the spotlight, find ways to get your efforts noticed so that you’ll be more likely to maintain them. Whatever it is that you really want (connection, praise, collaboration, etc.) can usually be harnessed into motivation.
Listen to the right internal voices
Sometimes, the motivation is there but your internal voices shut it down. So, notice your inner dialog. Are you telling yourself you can’t, you won’t succeed, or to quit? Consider those thoughts. Is there anything useful to learn? Maybe you are worried about making a mistake or letting down others. Determine if anything productive can come of any toxic self-talk, and if not, discard it.
Then, tune into internal self-validation, also known as your mind’s cheerleader. This is the part of yourself that offers encouragement and hope. “Magic is believing in yourself. If you can make that happen, you can make anything happen,” said novelist and poet Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.
Essentially, listen to the part of you that believes in yourself and use that confidence to fuel your motivation. If you need inspiration, read motivational quotes and then see if you can apply them to yourself.
Motivation can only go so far, particularly if you have other demands pulling you away from your desired or needed task. So, set yourself up to succeed by limiting distractions.
This might include silencing your phone, activating screen time limits on your devices, putting away the TV remote, or going into a dedicated work space away from others. Note what distracts you and find ways to work around them.
For example, if you lose steam by cooking elaborate meals when hungry, try ordering in or making something simple. If you get sidetracked by cleaning your house, set up specific times when you’ll clean it—or go into another room.
Trust yourself and go for it
Trusting yourself is a key way to get motivated. So, give yourself the same courtesy you would give a friend: Trust that you can do what you want to do. Encourage positivity—and just begin. As Mark Twain famously said, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”
Know that you may face hurdles but that your will to keep at it will help you persevere. Don’t let missteps convince you to give up. Instead, use them for inspiration. Revise, rethink, and take your chances when they come. “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship,” advises Sheryl Sandberg, “don’t ask what seat! Just get on.”
Get comfortable with discomfort
Being motivated doesn’t mean it’s easy. Motivation just helps you initiate and keep going toward your goals. So, aim to be okay with feeling a little overwhelmed, uncertain, or frustrated.
Don’t let these feelings of discomfort derail you or fool you into thinking your drive is dead. Instead, get comfortable with feeling some discomfort as you move forward.
Give yourself rewards or consequences
Build yourself a support system of external motivators. Think of these motivational supports as scaffolding to build up your resolve. As we discussed earlier, these rewards or punishments can be anything that works for you.
If a piece of chocolate at the end of the day helps keep you on track, use chocolate. Maybe the promise of a bubble bath, hike, movie night, pizza, or long conversation with your best friend will put a fire under you.
Alternatively, you might be more motivated by a negative consequence, such as knowing you will have to work at home that night if you don’t get your project done at the office.
Stick to a structure
Routines are your friend. Setting up a structure or plan for whatever you want to accomplish can provide its own motivation. Research shows that humans are creatures of habit. So, when expectations are established we are more likely to fulfill them.
This is why people who want to exercise regularly that set up specific times for their workouts will have better luck than those who try to do so sporadically. Likewise, if you want to become a painter, designate certain hours to the endeavor. Or if you struggle to keep your house organized, make a schedule for what to do when.
Write it down
Use the power of the pen to boost your motivation. Write down your goals. Break them down into doable steps. Cross them off as you complete them. Putting it on paper (or the digital equivalent) keeps you accountable, helps you stay on task, shows you what you actually need to do, and lets you see your progress.
Simply seeing what you want or need to do written down can provide the fire you need to start a project—and see it through.
Use technology in your favor
Yes, technology can be a huge distractor, but it can also serve as an excellent external motivator, particularly if you struggle with organization, focus, or other executive function challenges.
According to the National Institutes of Health, tracking your progress boosts motivation, too. So, use the timer, calendar, reminders, notes, or other relevant digital tools and apps on your devices to give you those gentle nudges to keep you on track.
Take baby steps
Chunk your projects into smaller pieces, an evidence-based practice called chunking, to turn seemingly insurmountable goals into doable tasks. This method is motivating because it can give you a greater sense of control, enhance your focus, strengthen your connection to each step, and keep you tied to your vision.
Celebrating each component you finish can also be highly motivating, helping you build on the success of completing each stage.
Harness the power of praise
Talk yourself up. Tell others about your goals and successes. Let their praise and enthusiasm buoy your own. Be proud of all the progress you’ve made.
Make it fun
Find ways to add fun and enjoyment into your task. This might be as simple as playing your favorite music while you work, combining efforts with a friend, or taking your task outside on a sunny day.
Alternatively, consider if you can delegate the parts of a job you don’t like. Or try alternating doing what you like with what you like less so that you get breaks from what you find more challenging. Rewarding yourself with time to celebrate your accomplishments adds to the fun, too!
Key takeaways for motivation
Motivation isn’t an exclusive club. Even if you feel that yours is lacking, you can always build more. Really, it’s yours for the taking and it starts with believing that to be true.
Seeking it out and stoking its power can make a huge difference in your life. Afterall, motivation is what keeps you going when it’s hard. It drives you to work hard, persevere, and dream big. So, experiment with different strategies to boost your motivation until you find the ones that work well for you.