What Motivates Us?

Motivation is an extraordinary thing. At times, it can be hard to understand, and motivation can feel hard to get a grasp of at the best of times. Motivation is such a powerful tool, however, that it can really feel like climbing a mountain when we don’t feel motivated. How can we figure out what motivates us, and use that knowledge to keep ourselves on-track and productive in the future?

What Is Motivation?

Essentially, motivation is the force that drives us to do things. Motivation can get a bit confusing, though, because it’s made up of many different “drives.” These drives can involve things like rewards, punishments, desires, fears, and even just things that conceptually please us. This abundance of different drives can make motivation a bit difficult to pin down, especially when we’re trying to find the source.

For example, you might be losing your motivation to excel at work or in school. While school and work both offer their own rewards – education and money – if these rewards are no longer appealing to you, your motivation might feel like it’s slipping. However, if you were suddenly assigned newer, more exciting work instead, your motivation would likely be renewed for a while.

What does this mean for us? Well, if we want to motivate ourselves, it means we need to understand why we feel motivated to do things. If we can pin down the things that motivate us best, we can use that motivation as a tool in our lives to help us excel.

Motivational Components

Motivation is more than just feeling inspired to do something. While inspiration is great, inspiration alone doesn’t help us get anything done. There’s a little more that we need on top of that desire to get things done in order to do those things. For example, even if you desire to lose weight, you’re not going to do so unless you actually go out and do it.

To that end, there are three main components that make up motivation. They are as follows:

  • Intensity: the ability to focus and put your energy into something despite opposition or disinterest
  • Activation: the drive to get up and start doing something
  • Persistence: the consistency needed to keep working towards an outcome, even if you don’t feel like it

All three of the above components are necessary to make motivation work. If any of them is missing, even if you have the best intentions at heart, the things you’re motivated to do simply won’t work out.


Intensity is an important aspect of motivation. Even if you have every intention and desire to keep working at something, without intensity, it won’t result in an admirable product.

Intensity is especially interesting because it’s much less dependent on willpower alone than the other two components. Activation and persistence can be achieved just by forcing yourself to do something, no matter how much you don’t feel like doing it. Intensity, however, is difficult to fake. If you’re dreading getting into something, whether that’s working, playing, or studying, you’ll get distracted easily, and you’re less likely to produce a good product or outcome.

However, intensity can be cultivated. While the intensity that really comes from being excited about something is difficult to imitate, good discipline and working habits are effective in getting close to that level.

For example, if you make it a habit to always work when you sit down in your chair, no matter what, or if you make a habit of running faster whenever a certain song plays during your morning jog, you’ll see these good habits pay off. Disciplining yourself and creating good habits is an excellent way to trick your brain into producing the intensity you’re looking for.


We have all experienced a day when we really just don’t feel like getting out of bed, going to work, or leaving the house. When we feel like this, we’re suffering from a distinct lack of activation. The activation part of the motivation is rather easy to make up for ourselves. In the same way, though, it can be just as easy to skip out on this step when we’re not feeling it.

Even if you don’t feel like doing something, getting yourself out of bed and doing it anyway satisfies the activation part of the motivation. However, this activation phase is also the easiest part of the motivation to neglect. We tend to rationalize our way out of our duties when we don’t feel like doing them.

Things like, “I worked extra hard yesterday, I can take today off,” or, “I had a healthy breakfast, I can afford dessert for lunch,” bring us away from our goals by undermining our motivation and making us stagnate.

Activation can also refer to taking the first step towards achieving a goal. If your goal is to move out of your parents’ house, for example, but you won’t take that first step and get a job, you’re unlikely to accomplish that goal anytime soon. Sometimes, the most significant bar against achieving a goal is taking that first step, and activation means overcoming that.


Persistence means going back, day after day, and continuing to work towards a goal, no matter how long it takes. Many people start to lose motivation in something when it seems out of reach or far off in the future. When someone gives up on one of these goals, it means they couldn’t find enough persistence to make it to the end.

Persistence is necessary and useful in many different situations, such as:

  • Working hard to finish a project at work or at school, even if it’s exhausting or difficult
  • Working for the approval or regard of someone else when they dislike you at first
  • Taking years to learn to master an instrument
  • Working hard at a piece of art or sculpture, even long after the inspiration to start it has gone

Persistence is similar to intensity but different in several key ways. Persistence, for example, does not depend on quality to succeed. For persistence, as long as you come back to a project or duty every day, you’re persistent.

Motivational Theories

Psychologists have proposed many different theories of motivation that try to explain why we act, why we’re motivated to do things, and what exactly drives us forward and keeps us moving. These theories tend to be limited, and each focuses on a specific viewpoint of what motivates us. As such, it’s important to take each one as a grain of salt, and instead of focusing on one, interpret them all as one snapshot of a larger picture.


The arousal theory of motivation subscribes to the belief that every person has their own ideal level of arousal that they function best at. For some people, this is a high-stress, fast-paced environment that makes them feel alive and competitive. For others, this ideal level is a calm, no-pressure environment that encourages creative freedom and expression.

The former environment would put the latter person under an undue amount of stress, and they would most likely have trouble working productively. In the same way, the former person would probably feel bored and unmotivated in the latter environment. While each environment is ideal for one person, it’s not always possible to apply one environment to another person successfully.

This is why exploring different types of working environments is so important. People who prefer a calm, unhurried environment, for example, would most likely enjoy working from the comfort of their home. However, someone who craves the energy of a fast-paced environment would probably prefer an office setting where they’re in the thick of the action.


The incentive theory of motivation states that people do things mostly in order to receive an outside reward. Jobs are an excellent example of this. Even though most of us tolerate or even dislike our jobs, we continue doing them anyway because we receive one essential thing in exchange: money.

Money is something that we need to live comfortably and procure food, water, shelter, and other essential things we want or need. As such, the incentive theory of motivation primarily says that we do things for an outside reward the vast majority of the time.

However, the incentive theory tends to fall short here because we do not always do something for external rewards. Sometimes we do something just because we know it will help someone else or make them happy, or we’ll do it for an internal reward, such as personal satisfaction or happiness. Other examples of these things include:

  • Spending time with a friend even when you don’t have time because they’re feeling lonely
  • Buying a gift for a friend on their birthday even though you’re strapped for cash
  • Volunteering to do social work for the betterment of your community
  • Donating your old possessions even though tossing them in the trash would be less effort

Needs and Drives

Another important theory of motivation involves needs and drives. This theory states that we are mostly motivated by our biology. For example, when we are hungry, we feel uncomfortable until we eat, and so we are motivated to find food and eat. With this theory, everything circles back to our biological selves.

However, this theory falls short for the same reasons as the incentive theory does. Not everything we do is driven by the biological need for something. The drive to educate oneself, for example, is not a biological need. Neither is the desire to rescue dogs or other animals.

For reasons like the above, it’s important to take each motivational theory as one part of a larger puzzle. Each theory explains part of the reason why we’re motivated to do what we do, but none of them explain to us the entire picture.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation make up two very distinct categories of motivational triggers and rewards. Intrinsic motivation refers to rewards that come from inside of you or satisfy something within you. Extrinsic motivation refers to something that comes from outside of yourself that you might be motivated to work for. In some cases, we might even be motivated to pursue intrinsic and extrinsic rewards together.

Some examples of intrinsic motivators include:

  • Personal satisfaction
  • Happiness
  • Love
  • Belonging
  • Knowledge
  • Stimulation
  • Accomplishment

On the other hand, extrinsic motivators tend to be things like:

  • Money
  • Material possessions
  • A promotion or pay raise
  • Praise from a superior or elder
  • Recognition for an accomplishment or feat

Intrinsic motivators are defined as rewards that come from within yourself. For example, if you enjoy challenging your mind, you probably enjoy crossword puzzles and the like for no reason other than the satisfaction of doing it. However, if you want to win a game show someday, you might fill out crossword puzzles to learn trivia and increase your chances of winning a monetary reward. This would be an extrinsic motivator.

We tend to be most motivated by things when intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are both present together. Consider, for example, a photographer who’s traveling the world for their work. Their primary reason for doing so might be work, and as such, money, but they might also be motivated to work because of the satisfaction of seeing beautiful landmarks around the world.

Common Motivators

People across the world tend to share things in common that motivate them to do different things. Money, for example, is a near-universal motivator, as is the biological drive to reproduce. However, besides a baseline of motivators that we all share, we tend to work with certain combinations of motivators that are unique and specific to us. These people tend to fall into specific categories, which we explore below.

Individual Motivators

Individual motivators are things that appeal to the personal desires of a person. These are things that directly further the goals of the individual or provide them with some sort of service. Individual motivators work towards furthering an agenda, a goal, or a dream of just one person.

Individual motivators might seem selfish, but as long as you don’t go overboard with the individual motivators, they are fine – even good. Individual motivators play an important part in defining who we are, what we want, and where we’re going in life. Many different things fall into the individual motivator category. Some examples include recognition, lifestyle, and security.


When someone is motivated by recognition, it means that they want the admiration or attention of others. This type of motivator tends to rear its head during various parts of our lives, and most commonly when we’re in the presence of many other people. In school, for example, growing children and teenagers are often motivated by the desire to be popular and well-liked.

All of us are a bit motivated by recognition. This desire is a natural manifestation of humans’ desire to bond with the people around them, and it’s especially true if we like someone or hold them in high regard. We want them to like us or return our feelings. As such, we’re motivated to get them to admit to those feelings or to praise us on a job well done.

The desire for recognition can manifest itself in many different ways. Some examples of the desire for recognition include:

  • The desire for fame
  • The desire to be known for something good (or bad, in some cases)
  • The desire to impress others
  • The desire to “belong” in a friend group or clique
  • The desire to be praised or congratulated for something


People the world over are motivated by the desire to create or maintain a certain lifestyle. This circles back to money, the universal motivator, because money is the primary means for creating that lifestyle that people desire. People who are motivated by a certain lifestyle want to shape their life around a certain philosophy, mode of living, or passion.

For example, someone who’s impassioned by the poor and starving in Africa might desire a lifestyle of ministry. While this might not necessarily seem like an overly money-dependent lifestyle, it still falls under the lifestyle category. More commonly, people desire a luxurious lifestyle, and so they are motivated to work hard and climb the corporate ladder in pursuit of a better paycheck.


Most people desire some manner of security in their lives. Whether they mean this literally, as in having a house that’s safe from intruders, or they desire security in other areas, such as job security, financial security, or the security of their country, most people have at least one desire that falls into this category.

Without a measure of security in our lives, we live under undue stress and fear. Security provides us with a reprieve from that, but more often than not, we need to work for this security. The most secure jobs tend to be very desirable, for example, and competition for them may be high. In the same way, homes in low-crime neighborhoods tend to be priced much higher than their counterparts.

Some people enjoy the feeling of a lack of security in their lives. Either they are accustomed to certain conditions that would normally be high-stress, or they desire the adrenaline rush that can come with a lack of security. Consider skydiving, for example.

Nonstandard Motivators

Each person is unique and different. As such, many people find themselves motivated by unique and different things. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it can be more difficult for these people to find and utilize these unique motivators. Nonstandard motivators tend to be seen as off-the-wall, weird, or strange.


Some people are motivated by competition with other people. For these people, completing an act in and of itself isn’t enough. They feel a need to do things better than those around them. Whether this spawns from the desire to be superior to others or the desire to be admired by others is unclear, but when used responsibly, it can be a powerful motivator in the workplace and everyday life.

People who are motivated by competition tend to excel in things like:

  • Videogames
  • Contests
  • Races
  • Business
  • Board games
  • Strategy games or puzzles
  • Sports
  • Breaking records


Some people see their best work when they’re expected to surmount seemingly impossible odds. Strangely enough, there are people out there that excel in this sort of environment, and they may, in fact, feel bored by anything less. These people enjoy proving others wrong when they believe that something is impossible. These sorts of people excel in business, especially in fast-paced, deadline-driven positions.


Many people on this earth are intoxicated by the idea of wielding power. All of us enjoy power to a certain extent, but the problem is that not everyone is capable of using great power responsibly. Being motivated by power is fine, but unless you can use this power responsibly, you may want to focus on other motivators.


People that are motivated by advancement want to always keep moving forward. They might be motivated by climbing the corporate ladder, completing goals, or otherwise completing the tasks they set for themselves. People that are motivated by advancement might also like to see progress when working as a team, too.

People who are advancement driven tend to be most motivated by progress and deadlines. They may not be able to work effectively unless a deadline is forcing them to do so. If you believe you’re deadline-driven, manipulating these deadlines is the best way to motivate yourself to excel. Try setting closer or more plentiful deadlines to help convince yourself to work hard!

However, while being motivated by advancement can be helpful and is easy to work with, it can also work against you very easily. When there’s not a close deadline to force them to work or when they haven’t seen forward progress for a long time, these people can become unmotivated, unsatisfied, and antsy. The key is setting small, achievable goals for yourself to use as milestones towards completing the larger goals that might take more time.


People who are driven by a purpose are motivated by something other than themselves. These people are the opposite of individual motivators; instead of working towards greatness in themselves, they’d rather see greatness in the world around them.

While working towards the betterment of the world and the environment is admirable and great, purpose motivators tend to share the same weakness as individual motivators: they need to balance their purpose-driven motivators with their inner selves, as they can neglect one in favor of the other. Purpose motivation and individual motivation work best when they’re together.

Helping Others

Most purpose-driven motivators are driven to do things that help others. Rather than using the success and wealth that they’ve worked so hard for themselves, they tend to pay that back to other people. They are most motivated to spend their time on things like:

  • Volunteering
  • Helping at homeless shelters and food banks
  • Giving back to the community in any way possible
  • Building organizations that give back
  • Running or contributing to fundraisers


Many of these purpose-driven motivators are inspired by the change they see in the world. When they see other visionaries making the lives of the less fortunate better, they’re inspired to do the same. When they see people protesting or working to make a change in our environment or climate, they’re motivated to back them up. These people aren’t happy unless they’re doing something that contributes to change in the world.

The problem with these motivators is that they tend to get antsy and distracted if they feel like what they’re doing isn’t making a difference. If they’re stuck working a desk job from nine to five every day, they might feel miserable. These people get their happiness by working in needy communities across the world, so even if they only have time on weekends to devote to this passion, they should do that.


People who are motivated by making an impact share traits with many other groups. These people want to make a change in those around them, but they also need to see that change in order to be satisfied. They aren’t happy with simply being told that they’re making a difference. Rather than their actions being a drop in the ocean of change, they want to be a cannonball.


Some people aren’t sure what their purpose in life is. Perhaps they have searched the world for it without luck, or perhaps they have no desire to go searching for it. Instead, these people would rather search for enlightenment from within. They might look to a divine source through religion, or they might search for their own answers.


People who are motivated by legacy want to leave legends behind when they pass. They don’t want to leave this world as a nameless nobody. They want to leave a legacy behind when they go, and this legacy can be good, bad, or both. As long as the people who come after them remember their name, legacy-driven motivators are happy.

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