Motivation is the desire to act in service of a goal. It's the crucial element in setting and attaining our objectives.
Motivation is one of the driving forces behind human behavior. It fuels competition and sparks social connection. Its absence can lead to mental illnesses such as depression. Motivation encompasses the desire to continue striving toward meaning, purpose, and a life worth living.
People often have multiple motives for engaging in any one behavior. Motivation might be extrinsic, whereby a person is inspired by outside forces—other people or rewards. Motivation can also be intrinsic, whereby the inspiration comes from within—the desire to improve at a certain activity. Intrinsic motivation tends to push people more forcefully, and the accomplishments are more fulfilling.
One framework used for understanding motivation is the hierarchy of needs proposed by American psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. According to Maslow, humans are inherently motivated to better themselves and move toward expressing their full potential—self-actualization—by progressively encountering and satisfying several levels of need from the most fundamental, such as for food and safety, to higher-order needs for love, belonging, and self-esteem.
Eventually, Maslow extended the theory to include a need for self-transcendence: People reach the pinnacle of growth and find the highest meaning in life by attending to things beyond the self. Although the universality of Maslow's theory has been challenged, many believe it captures fundamental truths about human motivation.
Motivation can stem from a variety of sources. People may be motivated by external incentives, such as the motivation to work for compensation, or internal enjoyment, such as the motivation to create artwork in one’s spare time. Other sources of motivation include curiosity, autonomy, validation of one’s identity and beliefs, creating a positive self-image, and the desire to avoid potential losses.
Intrinsic motivation is a drive that comes purely from within; it’s not due to any anticipated reward, deadline, or outside pressure. For example, people who are intrinsically motivated to run do so because they love the feeling of running itself, and it's an important part of their identity. Extrinsic motivation can increase motivation in the short term, but over time it can wear down or even backfire. By contrast, intrinsic motivation is powerful because it is integrated into identity and serves as a continuous source of motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is any reason someone does work other than the joy of doing the work itself. Anything promised for completing the task or received as a result of completing the task are extrinsic motivators. An extrinsic motivator needs three elements to be successful, according to research by psychologist Victor Vroom: expectancy (believing that increased effort will lead to increased performance), instrumentality (believing that a better performance will be noticed and rewarded), and valence (wanting the reward that is promised).
Achieving a goal is a process. And all of the components of that process deserve attention to ensure success, from setting the objective, to overcoming obstacles, to sustaining momentum until the project is complete.
Failing to accomplish a goal is sometimes due to the way it was set. But a few psychological tricks can help set and reach those goals. One is to ensure that the goal is attached to a value, such as the value of supporting your local community or fighting climate change. Another is to frame your goal as an asset to be gained rather than a threat to be avoided. For example, instead of thinking, “I shouldn’t bother my boss, so we can avoid a rocky relationship,” try thinking, “I want to learn new communication skills to reset our relationship.” Yet another idea is to try setting a learning goal instead of a performance goal; instead of deciding to lose 20 pounds, decide to learn more about nutrition and cook two healthy recipes each week.
Motivation targets the “why” of change, but momentum targets the “how.” Generating momentum is pivotal for taking the concrete steps needed to shift out of entrenched patterns and make change. Focusing on momentum can also be used in a therapeutic context. For example, a therapist might address a pattern of avoidance in a patient with depression by identifying small steps they have already taken (getting out of bed that morning, coming to therapy) and then listing the next steps they can take next. Recognizing the motivation for change and focusing on the dynamics that support change can also help build momentum.
It’s natural to feel stuck at certain points, especially when working through difficult tasks. But research suggests that several strategies can help. One is to focus on the positive consequences of the activity, such as passing a final exam. Another is to try and regulate your emotions during the task, such as by thinking about an upcoming vacation while running on the treadmill. Yet another is to monitor and track your progress, which can continue to propel you toward the next milestone. Lastly, try to enrich the task and make it more enjoyable (called “temptation bundling”), like listening to a podcast as you do the laundry.
Tracking progress is key to sustaining motivation and achieving your goals. It’s helpful to make progress visual and concrete, such as by writing it down or using an app. Tracking can also help you spot patterns that might derail your success. For example, health and wellness goals are generally long-term. Tracking your progress and behavior can help you spot when you tend to slip up, and then address the underlying causes. Additionally, it can be motivating to reflect back on the progress you’ve made, or look forward to the work to come if it’s a core part of your identity.
Some people may find themselves completely stymied by a project; others may simply want to pack a little more productivity into their timeline. No matter where motivation begins, there are always ways to increase it—whether that be your own motivation or someone else’s.
Sometimes you might feel completely unmotivated—and that’s ok. In that situation, allow yourself to feel the discomfort, hear the negative self-talk, and then take action anyway, For example, let’s say you come home after a long day at work and just want to unwind and watch TV. Instead of turning the TV on, acknowledge that you’re tired and then challenge yourself to read five pages of the book on your nightstand first. This approach gives space for negative thoughts and feelings, while helping you change ingrained patterns.
Procrastination is often driven by underlying feelings of distress or anxiety elicited by a given task. But there are ways to navigate the discomfort and beat procrastination. You can break the project into small, more manageable pieces; accomplishing one step will fuel your motivation for the next. You can set limits for the time spent preparing to begin, or aim to complete tasks as quickly as possible. You can also set a reward that you’ll get after completing the task or a part of it.
Companies have the opportunity to motivate employees with incentives, but they also need to be mindful that incentives can backfire—as in the case of the Wells Fargo scandal. Employees are motivated by external rewards when they believe that working harder will lead to a better performance, that they’ll be rewarded for a better performance, and they appreciate the reward, such as a bonus or time off. It can be difficult to meet those criteria—“Will my hard work really be noticed?” “Does my contribution really matter since I’m on a large team?—so companies should tailor incentives to each unique team and role.
Successful interventions often motivate through a combination of psychology and economic policy, which vary by context but often leverage social norms. For example, more people enrolled in a sustainable energy program when the sign up sheet was in their building lobby, because they could showcase their values to their neighbors—or perhaps feel pressured to sign up to maintain a good reputation.
Some of the most common goals people make—and the most common goals they struggle to meet—are to eat healthier, work out more, and save more money. Many traps can prevent people from achieving those goals, but anticipating those challenges can help achieve real change.
Many people struggle to stick to a diet. Research suggests that extrinsic motivators—to avoid hurtful comments or fit into an outfit—can jumpstart the process but that intrinsic motivation—interest, enjoyment, and challenge in the journey—is key to sustained, lasting weight loss. Intrinsic motivation encompasses competence, autonomy, and relatedness, so it’s helpful to 1) choose a diet that will be sustainable and effective 2) believe that the diet, start date, and end goals have been chosen autonomously and not “assigned” by others 3) find a community of supporters.
There are a few creative ideas to consider if motivation is a barrier to exercise. One is to widen the options you have: If you don’t have time to go to the gym, exercise by going for a walk, doing a bodyweight circuit, or watching a yoga video. Another is to make exercise more enjoyable, such as by listening to a book on tape. Yet another is to establish a social contract with a friend or family member. For example, if you allow phone time to supersede exercise, you must donate to a cause of the other person’s choosing.
Four steps can help cultivate the habit of saving money. The first is to set a specific saving goal for an emergency fund. This focused goal will build habits that become sustainable saving. The second is to save something every day, even if it’s just a few dollars, because repetition helps to form habits. Third, making savings visible, whether by checking a savings account online or keeping cash in a glass jar. Fourth, consistently spend less than you make—in addition to cultivating a saving mindset, it’s important to change a spending mindset.
Most people, unfortunately, fail to follow through on their New Year’s resolutions. This might be because people tend to set overwhelming goals, engage in all-or-nothing thinking, don’t anticipate obstacles, and beat themselves up when they get off track. By addressing those traps—such as by breaking large goals into smaller pieces or thinking of results as a range of positive outcomes rather than “success or failure”—people are more likely to truly achieve their goals.