The Science of Motivation

What is Motivation?

Motivation is the process that initiates and maintains the action of goal-orientated behaviour.

This process is an intimate part of the human condition. It’s what drives us to find food when we’re hungry, seek the comforts of other people when we’re lonely, or complete assignments that are due for work or school.

The best theory we have for what drives human motivation comes down to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Abraham Maslow laid out a pyramid structure of requirements humans need to be happy, healthy, and achieve a higher state of being — something he referred to as “self-actualization”.

Each category competes for our attention — starting from the bottom of the pyramid.

When there are voids in the pyramid, most of our motivational energy is directed to filling in these gaps.

For example, hunger is on the bottom-most tier of the pyramid. Therefore, when we’re hungry, most of our attention will be directed to finding food instead of performing other actions. This ultimately takes away from our ability to remain motivated for other, “less essential” activities.

The trick to staying highly motivated with work, study, or creative endeavours, is to ensure that all our other needs on the lower tiers of the pyramid remain satisfied.

  • Stage 5 — self-actualization (truth, spirit, & creation)
  • Stage 4 — esteem needs (respect, confidence, self-esteem)
  • Stage 3 — belonging & love (friends, lovers, & community)
  • Stage 2 — safety needs (protection from biological attack)
  • Stage 1 — basic needs (food, water, rest, air, & warmth)

Types of Motivation

Motivation can be broken down into intrinsic motivation and external motivation. 

The difference between these two types has more to do with the reward of doing the activity than anything else. Learning how to identify the types of motivation that underpin the activities we’re doing can be invaluable for helping us materialize the inspiration to do things.

1. Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s driven by personal interest or gratification from doing an action. A few examples include learning a skill we find exciting or solving a problem for the sake of personal gratification. The reward from doing activities we’re intrinsically motivated to perform comes from within. 

This type of motivation is highly effective for motivating us to initiate an action, persevere, and act with more intensity and vigour.

2. Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is driven by external sources. They often involve rewards, such as money, good grades, or respect from others. They can also arise out of fear of punishment or failure. 

This is the type of motivation we experience while competing with others, acquiring money and other material possessions, or avoiding punishment. 

This type of motivation is useful for initiating the motivation to do something but tends to fall short on the side of perseverance. 

Without intrinsic rewards to keep you pushing towards a goal, we often fall off the routine and find it challenging to stay motivated long-term. This is especially common for macro goals like getting through a university degree, sticking to a diet plan to lose weight, or learning a new skill because other people (such as our parents) pressure us to do so.


Facts & Myths About Motivation

Human motivation is extremely complex. Researchers are still seeking to understand where it comes from and how it works. It’s no surprise there so many myths surrounding this topic. 

Some of these myths can hold you back from finding deeper, more reliable sources of motivation to do the things you either need to do or want to do but can’t seem to find the drive for. 

Let’s take a look at the biggest myths around the topic of motivation.

1. Fear Is A Great Motivator

Fear of being punished is a great initiator — but it’s not sufficient for perseverance. 

Fear can get us to do things because it affects our basic or psychological needs on the hierarchy of needs pyramid. When one or more of these become threatened or deficient, we feel motivated to correct them. 

Living in constant fear of punishment, rejection, or loss of your job or salary may keep people motivated to do their job, but it doesn’t provide the benefits of persevering through challenging actions long-term, or intensity of the activities performed. 

People motivated by fear tend to do the bare minimum to avoid whatever the punishment may be — rather than going above and beyond.

2. Smart People Don’t Need Motivation

There’s this idea going on that people who are smart enough don’t need to rely on motivation to achieve the things they want in life. That they can simply show up, perform the task at a basic level, and somehow manage to succeed through intellectual brute force alone. 

But this isn’t the case at all. A study done in the 1930s followed a group of gifted children throughout life. The study found that despite having a higher level of intelligence, most of the children went on to live relatively average lives without any significant achievements. This study demonstrates that intelligence alone isn’t enough.

3. Money Is The Best Source Of Motivation

There’s no doubt that money is a good source of motivation — but it’s not the best, not even close. 

Money is an extrinsic source of motivation, which we’ve already discussed as being suitable for the short-term, but not always a good long-term motivator. 

When you need money to pay for things like food, shelter, or basic life necessities, this satisfies our basic needs on the hierarchy of needs pyramid. The need for money can motivate us to find a job and work hard to earn more money. 

However, if the work isn’t accompanied by an intrinsic source of motivation — such as personal interest or enjoyment in the work your performing — you’ll eventually start to lose the drive to keep going. 

4. You Have To Wait For Motivation To Strike

It’s great when inspiration appears out of thin air. This is the ideal way to feel motivated because it requires virtually no effort. 

But thinking that you won’t find the motivation to do something without this spontaneous air of inspiration is simply not true. Most of the time, you have to work at creating an environment that empowers motivation to strike. This could include many different things — from hanging out with people who have been sources of inspiration for you in the past or ensuring your basic and psychological needs are satisfied.


Tips For Finding Motivation

Motivation doesn’t always come easy — sometimes you have to work for it. 

Here are a few tips you can employ today to feel more inspired and motivated in your daily activities.

1. Adjust Your Goals To Align With Things That Really Matter To You

If you’re finding it difficult to stay motivated, it may be because the tasks you’re performing are motivated by extrinsic factors — which is harder to stick to long term. 

By readjusting your goals to align with the things that matter most, you can shift the source of your motivation to be more intrinsically driven. This could make it easier to persevere through the task and perform at a higher intensity. 

The idea is to look for ways to do more meaningful work. This could involve finding a new job, outsourcing tasks that drain you of your motivational energy, or merely learning to find interest in the work you’re doing.

2. Keep People Who Inspire You Close By

People are an excellent source of external motivation. They help keep you accountable for your goals and provide an added layer of extrinsic motivation. This is useful even for things you find enjoyable that are otherwise driven by more intrinsic factors. 

It can help to find an accountability buddy to help you with sticking to your goals. This can be as simple as asking you about how your new skill or action is going — such as losing weight, hitting the gym, writing on a regular basis, or developing a new skill or habit.

3. Take Regular Breaks & Vacations

While the goal of culturing more motivation is to get more work done, it can actually increase your motivation and productivity by taking a break every now and then. 

When we feel drained from too much work or study, it can affect our basic needs (such as sleep or nourishment), or our psychological needs (such as relationships or socializing). This can impair your ability to remain focused and motivated for tasks higher up the pyramid. 

Students get these periods on set schedules between semesters, but entrepreneurs or business owners don’t get these defined break periods. 

If you feel like your lack of motivation could be due to overwork, it’s worth scheduling some time off to travel, or simply do things that aren’t work-related for a few days or weeks. You’ll be surprised at how motivated you feel when you get back to work.


Applying This Information: Staying Motivated

Motivation is one of the key elements of being successful at our endeavours through life. Being unmotivated makes us lazy and unproductive — which ultimately reduces our chances of attaining success with family life, finances, health, and more. 

If there’s just one thing you take away from this article, it should be this: 

The only way for us to remain motivated to do actions included in the higher tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (such as working, studying, or creating), is to ensure that all our other basic needs are met first. This prevents the lower-tier needs from interfering with our motivation for the higher-tier stuff that really pushes the needle in terms of accomplishments. 

This involves all the simple stuff we already know are important — such as getting a full 8 hours of sleep each night, eating a well-balanced diet, drinking plenty of water during the day, spending time away from work with friends and family, exercising regularly, and doing things in life that make you happy.