Motivation: Definition, Theory, & Quotes
What is motivation? Learn more about motivation, the theory behind it, and how to motivate yourself. Plus, discover some motivating quotes and tips.
What Is Motivation? (A Definition)
The word motivation comes from the latin verb movere, which means “to move”. So, motivation is the word we use to describe what “makes us move”. Why do we do the things we do? We are motivated to do certain things and not do certain others things? Those are questions about motivation (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2013).
When we think about motivation in the modern world, we often think of it as our ability to push ourselves to do things. We might wish we were more motivated to do things, especially things that need to be done or that we don’t want to do. If you’ve arrived at this article, there is a good chance that you’re trying to understand why you have a hard time getting things done and how to motivate yourself to be… well… motivated.
In this article, we’ll talk first about the theory of motivation, then we’ll get into the meat of how to get over these normal, but annoying, luls in motivation.
In an ironic twist, I was feeling extremely unmotivated to write this article. I even procrastinate for three days before getting started. So I’ll also use myself as an example and talk a bit about how I got motivated to write this article.
What Is Motivation Theory?
No theory has yet to explain all of our motives. But overall, motivation is thought to involve:
So motivation is thought to be responsible for why we do something, how long we do something, and how hard we try to do something. But it’s important to keep in mind that motivation is not a constant thing. It ebbs and flows over time as we work towards different goals (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2013). So you can strive to become a motivated person, overall, but even the most motivated people will have times when they are not feeling as motivated as they want to.
So what leads to motivation? Theories see motivation as both a cause of action and an effect of action. For example, we might not be motivated to study for a test >> so we don’t do well on the test >> this leads us to be even less motivated in the future. In this way, low motivation may actually result in even lower motivation.
On the flip side, maybe we feel motivated to play the guitar. Then we feel good about our guitar playing skills and we become even more motivated to play the guitar. As you can see, motivation seems to be something that grows on itself (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2013).
Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Some motivation researchers have suggested that there are two types of motivation: Extrinsic and intrinsic. These two types of motivation help explain why we do things. Let’s talk about each of these types of motivation in a bit more detail.
For intrinsic motivation, there is no apparent reward for taking an action (Lindenberg, 2001). In fact, rewards (like money or good grades) often decrease intrinsic motivation while praise and positive feedback increase it. This has led some to question what intrinsic motivation actually is. They suggest that perhaps intrinsic motivation is simply enjoyment—we are more motivated to do something because we like it. And we don’t need to be rewarded for doing it because it’s fun. Others suggest that intrinsic motivation can happen without enjoyment, but that seems to be less common (Lindenberg, 2001).
Extrinsic motivation is generated by giving someone a contingent reward. For example, I might be motivated to work because I get paid (and I will only get paid if I work). In the situation of work, research shows that extrinsic rewards can be motivating in the short term, but can also be alienating or dehumanizing. So, providing performance contingent rewards (a bonus for good work) can actually backfire (Benabou & Tirole, 2003).
The video below talks a bit more about this.
Speech on Motivation: The Puzzle of Motivation (Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic)
How to Boost Motivation
Now that we have a better understanding of what motivation is, let’s explore some ways to boost motivation. Motivation involves a variety of processes such as planning, goal setting, intention formation, task generation, taking action, and outcome evaluation (Dörnyei & Ushioda, 2013). We can target each of these processes to increase our motivation.
Boost motivation with good planning
One of the times when it can be hard to get motivated is when the task is difficult. If you’re not sure what to do, what steps come first, and how the actions you’re taking will lead to the goal you seek, it can be hard to get going. Luckily, we can overcome much of this mental challenge by creating a solid plan for whatever it is that we’re hoping to achieve. For example, I have an easier time motivating myself to write articles like this one when I have my topics planned out and have outlines prepared for what I’ll write about.
Check out this article on creating a 10-year plan if you need some help planning your longer-term goals.
Boost motivation by setting smart goals
Another motivation boost involves using good goal-setting techniques. You want to make sure that your goals actually matter to you (they’re not just something your parents want for you or that would impress your friends). Then, it’s helpful to get specific about exactly what you want and track your progress towards reaching those goals. Check out this article on goal-setting to learn more.
Speech on Motivation: How to Achieve Your Most Ambitious Goals
Boost motivation by setting implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are strategies you set up ahead of time to help ensure you reach your goal (Gollwitzer, 1999). Basically, you just set an intention that IF X happens, THEN you’ll do Y.
This helps you stay motivated (or at least productive) regardless of the situation. For example, you might decide ahead of time that if you’re feeling really unmotivated to do one task, you’ll do another task--Well, I just can't muster up the strength to answer emails today, but I’ll go through my Inbox and organize them for tomorrow.
Or, you can set implementation intentions for when life gets in the way of completing a task--Shoot. The Internet went out. Even though I can’t work on my task for today, I can still make some phone calls that I need to make.
In my own lack of motivation today, I skipped over 3 or 4 topics I planned to write about ahead of this topic. I did so because I have an implementation intention that IF I can’t make myself write about one topic, THEN I’ll try to find a topic that I feel more motivated to write. I chose the topic of “Motivation” because, I rationalized, at least then I could learn something that would hopefully help me be productive (even when I really don’t feel like being productive).
As you can see, setting up intentions ahead of time can help you manage disruptions in your schedule and lose less time to distractions or lulls in motivation.
Boost motivation by making clear tasks
The clearer you can get on the tasks you need to accomplish, the easier it will be to accomplish them. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been having seriously low motivation to write for the last few days. I don’t really want to be writing right now. I just want to take a nap!
Luckily, in addition to my clear goals and plan, I have a list of tasks that I’ve broken down into small chunks. So today, when I plopped down at my desk, I looked at my list of tasks—for me, that’s a list of article topics. I chose the topic of motivation. Then I opened up the task (I use Asana.com to track and complete my tasks). The task outlined about 10 different aspects of motivation to write about. What I needed to do was crystal clear. Now it was just a matter of starting with one paragraph, then writing the next, and so on.
With all the steps outlined above, I pulled up a template for this article and started filling in the blanks. Because I have clear goals (that I really care about), a plan to reach those goals, and clear tasks to accomplish, the only thing left is getting over the inertia of starting. And once you get started, it can often be easier to keep going.
So if all else fails, try to take some tiny action and hope that the next action is easier, and the next one is even easier. Before you know it, the task might be complete.
Here are some more tips on taking action.
Speech on Motivation: The Psychology of Self-Motivation
More Things That Motivate Us
Some people have suggested that autonomy, mastery, & purpose are key motivators, especially in the workplace.
All this science on motivation is good to know, but oftentimes we just need a little pick me up to stay motivated, especially on Mondays. So here are some quotes to boost your motivation (for Mondays or any day).
Motivation Monday quotes
Words of Motivation
Although we use the word motivation to describe the drive we have to do things, we might use other words to describe this topic. Here are some other words that may describe aspects of motivation:
Speech on Motivation: How to Motivate Yourself to Change Your Behavior
More Articles Related to Motivation
Want to keep reading about motivation? Check out the articles below:
Books on Motivation
Want to keep learning about the science behind motivation? Here are some books to explore:
Final Thoughts on Motivation
Boosting motivation is something we all struggle with at times during our lives. Hopefully, you now have a better sense of what motivation is and how to increase it when you need to.