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What is Motivation? Principles, Theories & How it Works

what is motivation
Table of Contents

Motivation comes from the root “motive” and defines the driving reasons behind our actions and behaviors. It’s a physiological desire fueled by specific internal or external rewards or incentives. There are many variations of motivation best for different situations, but all motivational-types are comprised of three similar components you can use to increase overall motivation.

By understanding the science and theories behind motivation, its types and their component parts, you can increase your motivation as well as motivate others in the pursuit of higher-level goals. Read this article for the ins-and-outs of motivation and how to harness it to achieve your dreams.

How Motivation Works

Motivation identifies the specific why behind someone’s thoughts and actions and is typically explained by either internal or external rewards or incentives. Motivation driven by internal factors is known as intrinsic motivation while externally-driven motivation is known as extrinsic motivation. Within these two motivational-types are many variations that point to a specific motivating reward or incentive.

For example, those motivated by internal factors may be driven to get a promotion because of the learning and personal growth while those motivated by external factors may be driven to get a promotion because of the raise. Neither is bad, but both types are explained by a separate and unique motivating incentive or reward.

This means that if you can identify your underlying motivating factor you can use it to increase your motivation. To help, there are many motivational theories that use a blend of biology and sociology to point out and explain why people are motivated by specific rewards or incentives. None are perfect, but most provide insight into the inner-workings of the human mind and how we can motivate ourselves.

The same also goes for motivating others. Some people around you will be more motivated by an internal driver while others are motivated by an external factor. The key is to identify the motivating factor of the individual (or group of individuals) and focus on cultivating that that in an effort to increase desire, action, and performance.

Ultimately, whether you’re trying to motivate yourself or others, remember the following:

  • Motivation is based on a specific internal or external reward or incentive
  • All motivational-types are typically comprised of three interdependent parts
  • Most people are motivated by biological needs, emotional wants, or social desires
  • Identifying the underlying “motive behind the need, want, or desire can increase motivation

3 Main Components of Motivation

Motivation may appear to be an abstract concept, but it actually consists of three interdependent parts. The three key components of motivation are activation, intensity, and persistence. These three components work together and compel people to act in a certain way. Understanding these components will help you better cultivate motivation as well as better understand the types and theories that come next.

1. Activation

Activation represents the decision to commence a behavior in order to achieve a reward or incentive. Also known as direction, activation involves committing to action in pursuit of a greater goal, such as taking a coding class in order to make a career-change or saving money in order to retire early.

Think of this first component as action. Regardless of the motivational-type and the specific incentive or reward, at the end of the day, all motivation starts with action. For this reason, the level of activation will be largely dependent on the importance of the reward or incentive you’re trying to achieve.

2. Intensity

Intensity is the dedication and effort committed to pursuing a reward and is driven by your expertise and level of desire. For example, those who demonstrate high intensity strongly desire something and will effectively prioritize their time, energy, or resources to get it. However, not all individuals operate with the same intensity. For some, it may take less effort while others need higher levels of intensity to achieve the same thing.

For example, a student who easily grasps material and doesn’t need to devote much time to studying demonstrates low intensity. Conversely, A student who needs to study hard in order to get the same grades demonstrates greater intensity. This means that high or low intensity isn’t necessarily bad or good, but that intensity is the degree to which you must take action in order to achieve your desired reward.

3. Persistence

Persistence represents the ability to stay on course through challenges or setbacks and maintain your required action and intensity over time in order to achieve your reward. As I’m sure you know, often it’s not just action and intensity that will cultivate the motivation necessary to achieve your dreams. You’ll also need a healthy level of persistence because anything worth achieving will take time and will need consistent effort.

Types of Motivation

All motivation includes the components above, regardless of the type or theory behind the motivating driver. That said, there are typically two broad types of motivation: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation represents all internal rewards or incentives while extrinsic motivation represents all external rewards or incentives. Together, they represent all internal or external “motives”.

These motivational types shouldn’t be confused with motivational theories. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation define the broad incentives or rewards that drive our desires while motivational theories suggest specific ways to increase motivation based on specific drivers. Let’s look at intrinsic and extrinsic motivation first and then move onto the theories which use them.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to someone’s internal drivers. Behaviors driven by intrinsic motivation are implicitly rewarding or satisfying to an individual and are typically not dependent on anyone else to achieve. An example of this is someone who learns an instrument for enjoyment, challenges themselves with games or puzzles, or takes a class to indulge their curiosity.

There is no external reward like money or praise driving these behaviors. Instead, it’s an internal reward like the joy of learning driving these actions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that intrinsic motivation is better or worse than extrinsic motivation. Still, it’s often a good idea to identify a motivating factor within your control rather than basing it on something given to you, like an award or praise.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation represents behavior driven by external rewards. Extrinsic motivation is typically used in situations when the action or reward for performing such action may not be personally satisfying. These rewards can be tangible, such as money or a prize, or intangible, such as praise or public recognition, but are typically not within your direct control.

For example, if you’re motivated to do a good job because of the incentive of a raise, you’re externally motivated. Using another example, writing a screenplay in the hopes of earning an Academy Award is an extrinsically motivating factor. Neither is bad, but the best solution is perhaps to find something that is intrinsically rewarding but also has an external incentive if achieved.

Tip: Within each of these broad types are more granular variations that point out specific external or internal motivating factors. For more information on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and their sub-types, check out my article on the top types of motivation and which one is best for you.

Top Motivational Theories

There are many theories on what motivation is, the rationale for why it exists, the specific internal or external drivers behind it, and the process for cultivating it within yourself and others. To help, I’ve put together a short list of the best theories below. However, if you want to learn more about each, be sure to check out my in-depth article on the top motivational theories.

Here’s the truncated list of the best motivational theories to know and use:

  • Expectancy Theory of Motivation: States that people are motivated by the expected result of their actions, and the more sure someone is of the result, the more motivated they are to take action.
  • Equity Theory of Motivation: Posits that people are motivated by their perceived level of fairness rather than a reward or expectation. The more fair things are, the more motivated people are.
  • Arousal Theory of Motivation: This theory explains that a person’s level of motivation is equal to their mental alertness or “arousal”. However, if arousal becomes too high or low, it causes demotivation.
  • Goal-Setting Theory of Motivation: Self-explanatory theory stating that challenging goals can be motivating. If you want to learn more, check out my article on SMART goal-setting.
  • Acquired Needs Theory of Motivation: States that people are motivated by their desire to acquire achievement, power, and social affiliation. More of these desires results in more motivation.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory: Well-known theory stating that people are motivated by five specific needs, and can only move onto the next need after the previous one is fulfilled.
  • Three-Dimensional Theory of Attribution – Attempts to explain how people interpret events and how those interpretations affect their motivation. If we view an event positively we will be more motivated to have that event recur.


While these are all important theories of motivation, it only scratches the surface on the breadth and depth of this motivational topic. If you want to see the full list of top motivational theories, be sure to follow the link above and read my full article on motivational theories.

How to Motivate Yourself & Others

While there are many motivational tips and strategies that can help motivate yourself and others, I’ve found that you can break down the process into a few tried-and-true steps. These are based on my own experiences trying to motivate myself as well as those around me, both in workplaces as well as in other social settings.

How to Motivate Yourself

Motivating yourself is the first step towards achieving much of anything. Self-motivation is unique to the individual, but when I need to motivate myself I typically do the following:

  1. Make sure I have a positive outlook and growth mindset
  2. Ensure I understand my ultimate end-goal
  3. Identify the “why” behind my desire to achieve said goal
  4. Create a series of smaller stretch goals that help me get closer to my ultimate end goal
  5. Find an accountability partner you can use to keep yourself accountable
  6. Celebrate each of these small wins as you approach your larger goals
  7. Always focus on the process and the learning experiences along the way
  8. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture as you focus on the smaller goals


For more information on the repeatable steps you can use to self-motivate, check out my article on how to motivate yourself in eight key steps

How to Motivate Other People

Even though it may seem similar, motivating other people is different from motivating yourself. Often times, this happens in the workplace and you want to motivate a team member or employee. If you need to do this, try the following, which has worked for me as a leader of a larger team:

  1. Understand the person’s personality type
  2. Help them learn the skills necessary to be successful
  3. Come up with a set of shared goals and expectations
  4. Give the person a sense of autonomy over their day-to-day work
  5. Make sure you give them consistent feedback and coaching
  6. Praise them when there is work well-done and coach them when they need to improve


For more information, read the full article on how to motivate other people to succeed.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What is Motivation in Business?

Business-related motivation can be either self-motivation or the motivation of individuals or teams. Typically, it represents motivation driven by external rewards like a raise or praise. However, internally-driven motivation in a business-setting can often be just as powerful and rewarding, if not more so.

What is Motivation in Management?

Like business motivation, motivation in management is a tool used in a company setting where managers use motivation to inspire their team. For this reason, it is usually focused on team-level motivation but also includes individual motivation for a manager’s direct reports.

What is Motivation in Psychology?

Motivation in psychology is usually related to the academic theories of motivation rather than applied science. Still, psychological discussions about motivation can still be valuable because it can help dissect the biological and sociological reasons behind someone’s motivation.

What is Motivation in Education?

Similar to motivation in psychology, motivation in education is related to the academic theories and research meant to explain motivation rather than the applied science. For this reason, many students or people in school-settings seek academic research rather than actionable tactics on motivation.

Conclusion

Motivation is often something that seems intangible and ephemeral, but you can motivate yourself and others consistently if you follow a few directions. Remember that all motivation is based on some sort of internal or external incentive, and if you’re able to identify that and create an environment that supports the pursuit of that incentive, you will become more motivated over time.

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