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What Is Motivation?

Motivation is the desire to act in service of a goal. It's the crucial element in setting and attaining one's objectives—and research shows that people can influence their own levels of motivation and self-control.

Motivation can have many sources, and often people have multiple motives for engaging in any one behavior. Motivation might be extrinsic, whereby a person is inspired by outside forces—other people or events that transpire. Motivation can also be intrinsic, whereby the inspiration comes from within a person—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-transcendance: 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.

How Do You Start Working on a Goal?


The first step to set specific, achievable objectives.

First, think about why you’re setting the goal and what you want to change. What's the next job you'd like to obtain? How do you hope your relationship improves? Identifying the importance of the goal can focus attention and strengthen the motivation to accomplish it.

Divide the overarching goal into a series of small, specific, measurable tasks. Small goals are easier to accomplish, and checking each one off the list may invigorate you to keep going—as will the hit of dopamine delivered after completing a task. Making items measurable also allows you to recognize and celebrate when each one is finished—and then move on to the next step.

Goals should be calibrated at a precise level of difficulty. If the goal is too hard, you might be too intimidated to begin. If the goal is too easy, you might be too bored to finish. The optimal goal is slightly out of reach—it presents a challenge that’s attainable. This concept is called the Goldilocks effect: People engage most with material at the precipice of complexity.

Create a plan to accomplish each small goal. Balance a realistic understanding of the challenges ahead with confidence that you can overcome them.

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What If I Lack Motivation?


Everyone feels demotivated or devoid of willpower at times. Even accomplishing a big goal can, paradoxically, lead to a listless lack of direction, as there's a sudden motivational void that needs to be filled, but no bullseye objective yet in sight.

If you're chronically unmotivated, or unable to begin a task that is of clear importance, several possibilities are in play. Your goals may need to be re-calibrated, usually because the task is too big or too amorphous and needs to be broken into smaller components, as discussed above. You may be experiencing burnout.

You may lack confidence, rather than motivation, and are therefore afraid to proceed. Close in kin to a lack of confidence are perfectionism and procrastination. If you inherently doubt your ability to accomplish the task at hand, you may feel anxiously motivated but incapable of taking action. It is in the gap between motivation and execution that many forms of self-sabotage and self-doubt lie, and it is important to identify what thought processes intercept the pipeline to goal achievement.

Finally, depression or dysthymia can lead to a sense of apathy. In these cases, lack of motivation is a symptom of low mood. The anhedonia associated with depression reflects an inability to sustain interest over a period of time, because the neurocircuitry that regulates reward and motivation—pathways between the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens— are not working in tandem. If a lack of motivation is tied to anhedonia, other symptoms of depression may be present.

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