What Is Motivation?

What Is Motivation?

Oct 28, 2020, 9:04:36 AM Life and Styles

Anyone who has ever tried to achieve a goal such as losing weight, saving money, or earning a degree knows that it's not enough to want to achieve something. You'll need persistence and endurance so you can keep going even when faced with obstacles and setbacks.

Motivation refers to the process that initiates, directs, and sustains any goal-oriented behaviors. It's basically what causes you to act, whether you're getting a glass of water because you're thirsty or getting into a PhD program because you want to further your career.

One paradigm used to explain motivation is the hierarchy of needs posited by psychologist Abraham Maslow which states that people are inherently driven to better themselves and reach their full potential. They do this by progressively satisfying different levels of needs from the most basic such as food and safety to higher-order needs like love, belonging, and esteem. Although this theory's universality has been called into question, many believe that it encapsulated the fundamental truths of human motivation.

Motivation can have many different sources, and you'll find that most people have multiple reasons why they engage in certain behaviors. Motivation can be extrinsic or intrinsic. As the name suggests, extrinsic motivation comes from outside the individual and usually involves rewards like money, trophies, praise, and social recognition. Intrinsic motivation comes from inside the individual, like learning a new skill because you enjoy the challenge, and you're genuinely interested in it. Intrinsic motivation tends to be more powerful, and the accomplishments are also generally perceived as more fulfilling.

Motivation has three main components:

  • Activation – the decision to initiate a behavior such as joining a gym

  • Persistence – the continued effort put into achieving a goal such as losing 20 pounds despite obstacles

  • Intensity – the degree of effort put into achieving a goal. For example, going to the gym 3 or 4 times per week and doing high-intensity workouts versus going only 2 times per week and doing only cardio.

Each of these three components will influence your chances of achieving your goals. For instance, you might have strong activation, so you are more likely to start pursuing a goal, but persistence and intensity will determine how likely you are to follow through.

Understanding what motivation is and how it works can help you:

  • Take action

  • Work towards achieving your goals more efficiently

  • Avoid unhealthy habits

  • Engage in healthy habits

  • Feel more in control of your life

  • Improve well-being and happiness

Why Do I Lack Motivation?

Everyone feels demotivated from time to time. Sometimes, even the fact that you've finally achieved an important goal can, paradoxically, make you suddenly feel uninspired because the motivational void results in a lack of direction until you can find another goal to focus on.

One of the most common reasons why people feel unmotivated is that their goals are too vague or overwhelming, which means that they need to break them down in easier to manage steps.

Another common cause is that they want to avoid the discomfort associated with a task. This discomfort could be boredom when the task is mundane or frustration when the task is perceived as too difficult.

In some cases, you might feel unmotivated because you're not committed to the goal. For example, you may have agreed to do something because you felt obligated or pressured, but you didn't really want to.

Your lack of motivation can also stem from a lack of confidence. If you doubt your ability to achieve a goal, you may have trouble getting started, so you'll procrastinate.

Lastly, a chronic lack of motivation may be a symptom of depression or anxiety. Depression affects the brain's reward system and results in low mood, anhedonia, and lack of motivation. If you've been experiencing these symptoms for longer than two weeks, you should talk to a doctor or a psychotherapist.

What Can I Do When I Feel Unmotivated?

Practice Self-Compassion

Your first impulse might be self-criticism. You'll be hard on yourself because you feel disappointed that you're not following through on a goal. This is not an effective strategy. In fact, research shows that self-compassion is much more motivating.

A 2011 study from the University of California showed that self-compassion is particularly effective for increasing motivation when dealing with adversity. Students that spoke to themselves kindly after failing a test spent more time studying because they felt a stronger incentive to work on their weaknesses.

Moreover, self-compassion decreases psychological stress and improves symptoms of anxiety and depression which, in turn, increases motivation.


Another impulse you might have is to think of a long list of reasons why you shouldn't take the necessary actions to achieve a goal. You'll tell yourself that it's too difficult and you'll never get it done. These kinds of thoughts will zap your motivation and keep you stuck.

If this happens, try finding counterarguments. If you think that your goal is too difficult and you'll fail, think of reasons why you will succeed. It also helps to remind yourself of past instances when you thought you wouldn't be able to complete a task, but you proved yourself wrong. This helps you counterbalance an overly pessimistic outlook and makes you feel more motivated to try.

The 10-Minute Rule

Whenever you find yourself dreading a task, you can use the 10-minute rule to prove to yourself that it isn't as bad as you think or that you can tolerate it better than you'd expect.

Start the task and give yourself permission to quit after 10 minutes. When you reach 10 minutes, stop and ask yourself if you can keep going for another 10 minutes. Most often, the answer will be yes, and after a few 10-minute increments, you'll be able to build enough motivation to keep going.

Pair a Tedious Task with Something More Enjoyable

This strategy worked well with tasks that aren't difficult, but you tend to put them off because they're boring. If you pair these tasks with something you enjoy, you'll find that you don't procrastinate as much, and you might even look forward to them.

For example, if you don't like cleaning the house, you could listen to an audiobook or a podcast while you're doing it. Similarly, you can turn on your favorite show while you're folding laundry or ironing.

Published by Cynthia Madison

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