What is Motivation? Principles, Theories & How it all Works

Motivation is an important mindset for achieving your dreams. Motivation is the driving desire that encourages you or others to take action in the pursuit of a goal through any obstacle. Luckily, motivation is not something that some people have while others don’t and is a mindset that can be cultivated and nurtured over time.

By understanding the types of motivation, how each work and the theories behind them, 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 in order to achieve your dreams.

What is Motivation?

Motivation comes from the root “motive” and defines the driving motives behind individuals who direct their time, energy and effort in the pursuit of ambitious goals. There are typically two types of motivation that represent opposing internal and external motivating factors. Regardless of type, there are usually three components of motivation: activation, intensity, and persistence.

How Motivation Works

Motivation identifies the drive or why behind someone’s actions (or lack thereof). Typically, motivation stems from either an internal or external reward system or incentive structure. There is usually a specific reward or incentive behind someone’s decision to pursue a goal until completion. Identifying that motivating factor allows you to increase motivation for yourself and those around you.

This doesn’t mean that all motivation is superficial. For example, if you want a promotion because you have a burning desire to learn new things and grow your skillset, that is an internally motivating factor. Conversely, if you want a promotion because there is a nice raise attached to it, that is an externally motivating factor. Neither are wrong, the important thing is that you identify a motivating factor that resonates with you and adequately increases your desire to achieve the goal.

The same goes for motivating others. Some people in your organization or around you will be more motivated by an internal driver while others are motivated by an external factor. In fact, some may be motivated by both. 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, the key is that motivation is unique to the individual and the situation. It often reflects your biological needs, emotional wants, social desires, or internal thoughts. Identifying the “motive” behind the need, want, or desire is the foundation for motivation.

However, in addition to a defined motive, there are also specific components of motivation as well as broad types of motivation and psychological motivational theories. Combined, you can use your total understanding of motivation to create a plan and environment that increases your drive to achieve a specific goal or vision.

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 to drive individuals to pursue and achieve goals despite obstacles that may occur. Understanding these components will help you better utilize the different motivational types and theories that come next.

Let’s check out each component in detail:

1. Activation

Activation represents the decision to commence a behavior in order to fulfill a goal or objective. Also known as direction, activation involves committing to an action in pursuit of a greater goal, such as taking a coding class in order to pursue a career change or saving money in order to retire early.

Think of this first component as action. Regardless of the type or theory of motivation, at the end of the day, all motivation starts with action. Sometimes you just have to start, and the motivation will come over time like a snowball as you build momentum. For this reason, whenever you feel demotivated, take action as the first step towards generating motivation for yourself or others.

1. Intensity

Intensity is the dedication and effort committed to pursuing a goal. Those who demonstrate high intensity will effectively prioritize their time, energy, or resources to pursue that goal. Not all individuals will operate at the same intensity to achieve the same goals. For some, it may take less effort while others need to work at greater levels of intensity.

In one example, a student who easily grasps material doesn’t need to devote much time to studying demonstrates less intensity. A student who needs to study hard and make additional effort in order to get the same grades demonstrates greater intensity. The key here is that intensity is the degree to which you must take action in order to achieve a goal. Sometimes action isn’t enough, and you need to take intense action in the pursuit of your goals to achieve them.

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 complete your goal. 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 drivers or incentives while extrinsic motivation represents all external drivers or incentives. Together, they represent all internal or external “motives”.

These motivational types shouldn’t be confused with motivational theories. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation seek to define the broad incentive structures or reward systems behind our internal and external desires. Motivational theories suggest specific ways to increase your motivation and the motivation of those around you based on intrinsic or extrinsic 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 one’s internal desire for success. 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 driving this behavior, such as money, a prize or public acknowledgment. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that intrinsic motivation is better or worse than extrinsic motivation. That said, it’s often a good idea to identify a motivating factor within your control rather than basing it on something that someone may or may not give 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 in your job because you’re driven by 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 are bad, but the best solution is perhaps to find something that is intrinsically rewarding (and therefore making the motivation more sustainable), but also has an external incentive if achieved.

For more information on the specific sub-types of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, check out my article on the top 11 types of motivation and which one is best for you.

Top Motivational Theories

Motivation as a psychological concept has been studied for years. There are numerous theories on what motivation is, the rationale for why it exists, the internal or external drivers behind it, and the process for cultivating it within yourself and others. To help you better understand the top motivational theories and how they can help, I’ve put together a short list of the best theories below. However, if you want to learn more about each of these, 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 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 to 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 learn more about the theories above as well as see the full list of top motivational theories, be sure to follow the link above to 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 8 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)

Why is Motivation Important?

Motivation, a critical factor to happiness and achievement, is an important trait to cultivate. All individuals have dreams and desires that contribute to their sense of self. Realizing these dreams requires a healthy dose of motivation to establish goals, dedicate time and energy to pursue them, and persist through challenges.

Motivation helps to crystallize one’s life purpose, set priorities, overcome obstacles, build confidence, and attract and inspire others. Motivated individuals are self-reflective, asking the best of themselves and those around them.

Is Motivation & Happiness Related?

Motivation and happiness are both states of mind. Studies have shown that happy people are generally more motivated. However, those who motivate themselves typically feel happier, so it’s two sides of the same coin.

Happy people have positive mindsets that fuel the self-belief that they can achieve their goals. Motivated people will make the effort to pursue their dreams, which will enhance their happiness. Motivation and happiness, then, are interconnected, with each contributing to the other.

Is Motivation, Incentives & Inspiration the Same Thing?

Motivation, incentives, and inspiration contribute all to goal-oriented behavior but are not the same thing. Motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, is the basis for positive goal-oriented behavior. Incentives, internal and external, are the rewards for performing that behavior. Inspiration is the positive feelings that come with anticipating (and receiving) an incentive.

These three factors work together in goal-setting. Motivation help individuals direct their behavior and stay with it even in the face of obstacles. Incentives such as satisfaction, personal fulfillment, rewards, or recognition can grow motivation. The anticipation of these Incentives can inspire individuals to behave in ways that maximize their likelihood of achieving them.


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 be more motivated consistently over time.