In Search of Motivation

Motivation is a huge part of personal productivity. How can we get anything done at all if we are not driven to do it?

In popular articles about motivation (and by “popular,” I mean non-research backed), the emphasis is on what you can do to increase your motivation. People want quick, actionable solutions. It makes sense. When you’re in a rut, you want to be told what to do to get out now.

But if you’re lacking in motivation, how are you supposed to carry out any recommendations? Doesn’t that take motivation in itself?

The real truth to what motivation is, how it works, and how we can get more of it is complicated. It can’t be solved with a listicle. But you can understand it, and you can take steps to increase it. It’s just going to take a little more than a few simple suggestions to get there.

Internal Motivation vs External Motivation

There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is the kind that comes from within. It’s internal. It’s the drive to get things done perhaps out of enjoyment or a sense of satisfaction or both (Ariely et al. 2007).

Extrinsic motivation, however, is external. These are sources of motivation that come from somewhere or something else. The most obvious type of extrinsic motivation is a reward. The promise of a big bonus at work for reaching a goal is a form of extrinsic motivation (as long as you actually want the money and work harder to get it). The desire to be nominated for an award is another example. The promise that you’ll buy yourself a new car if you lose 25 pounds is another.

Extrinsic motivation doesn’t have to be tangible, though. For example, goals that we create for ourselves can also be extrinsic motivators. Let’s say your goal is to produce and release a music album. Having an album is one motivator, but there are other extrinsic motivators that probably accompany the album itself. Perhaps you’re enticed by some amount of fame, the opportunity to perform that having an album will help you get, or financial payoff if the album sells.

But surely there is some intrinsic motivation to create music in the first place. The intrinsic motivation drives you to make music, while the extrinsic motivation ushers you along to do something with the music you make.

With writing, it’s often said that the writing itself isn’t enough. Writers need other people read their work. “Finished,” in the writing world, isn’t when the writing is done. It’s when the piece has been published and read. Otherwise, what is it for?

Mental Models

If you read popular articles (that is, articles without any research to support them), they’ll tell you motivation comes entirely from you. They don’t typically distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Popular article also typically provide a list of things you can do to increase your motivation, such as picturing what you want to happen in great detail.

Picturing what you want to happen is, from a more research-focused point of view, isn’t a bad idea by any stretch. In more academic language, it’s called creating a mental model. Mental models are depictions of what you will do and what will happen in a given scenario. it’s what soldiers and pilots and others do in training (Duhigg, 2016). They practice training exercises over and over until they can picture exactly what they will need to do if what they’ve trained for ever happens in real life. It’s not the same as developing muscle memory because it relies on thinking and assessing situations first before acting. Plus, the action will have to change every time depending on the real life situation. In a combat situation, for example, it’s not like the enemy will always be in the same place. So soldiers and others who use mental models are trained to think through in great detail exactly what they will do if a given situation occurs.

A friend of mine who is a former law enforcement official recently explained that imagining how she would act in a situation was a big part of her police academy training. I was asking her about her police officer days and what it taught her or what she’s brought forward into her present life. She said, “If the shit is ever about to go down, I think through exactly what I’m going to do before I do it.” Let’s say there’s a crazy person on a bus with a knife and she’s a passenger. What hand will she use to reach for the perpetrator’s arm to restrain him? Where will she strike him? What will she do after she strikes him? If he falls to the ground, what position will she take to hold him there? When it’s time to act, she will have already made the decision about how to act.

It’s not as straightforward as that. Many situations require adjusting course depending on what happens as a chain of events begins. But you know exactly how to start and you know the goal you want to achieve before you start.

Is It Working Yet?

Self-help books and gurus often teach people to imagine and picture what they want in great detail for a reason. It’s not that the universe will magically give you the things you spend time imagining. It’s that you are creating a mental model for how you will get the things you want.

Often, though, people need motivation now. The type of motivation that comes from creating mental models and picturing goals is longer lived. If you’re sitting at your desk right now trying to get work done and you just aren’t motivated to do it, what do you do?

Let me turn back to writing for a moment. I’m a believer that there is no such thing as writer’s block. When it’s time to write, you sit down, and you put words on a page. They might not be great, but you’re still writing. Not everything we create is going to be brilliant. For me, “motivation” in the moment is about pushing through and doing what needs to be done, even when the process and the outcome suck.

There is a lot of discussion in creative circles about how fear is usually what blocks motivation. People fear that what they will create won’t be any good, so they create nothing. They become paralyzed by fear. It has nothing to do with motivation. It has to do with fear of failure. Before you blame a lack of motivation, check in with yourself and make sure that a fear of failure isn’t the real cause.

There is a neurological component to internal drive and motivation as well. Some people have a great supply of it and some don’t. Some psychologists and scientists have theorized that motivation can work like a muscle in that the more you use it, the stronger it gets. A few rare people may even be missing it altogether due to damage to their striatum (Duhigg, 2016), an area of the basal ganglia in the middle part of the brain. These people have little to no motivation to do anything at all.

The way you use motivation in order to make it stronger is by making meaningful decisions about things that interest you or have to do with your goal. Doing an activity that you enjoy turns out to increase intrinsic motivation (Isen & Reeve, 2005). What’s interesting is that having agency to do what you enjoy is also a big key to reaping the benefits of time off. So having the ability to choose what we want to do, how we will do it, and so forth seems to be a fundamental component to human happiness but also to the internal drive that motivates us.


Ariely, D., Barcha, A., & Meier, S. (2007). Doing Good or Doing Well? Image Motivation and Monetary Incentives in Behaving Prosocially. Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, No. 07-9.

Duhigg, C. (2016). Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. Penguin Random House. Print.

Isen, A. M., & Reeve, J. (2005). The Influence of Positive Affect on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Facilitating Enjoyment of Play, Responsible Work Behavior, and Self-Control Motivation and Emotion, 29 (4) doi: 10.1007/s11031-006-9019-8. Retrieved Dec. 11, 2015 from


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