How to Change Your Motivation


Motivation drives nearly everything that we do, from working to taking care of our bodies. We generally think about motivation when we need to do something difficult that’s part of a goal, such as finishing a phase of a project at work or training for a race. But motivation drives even those activities that we enjoy in and of themselves (sleeping in, getting a massage, eating sugary foods) and which don’t further us toward some greater goal.

Motivation is sometimes described as “the desire” to do something, but it’s more than that because we have the ability to influence that desire. With some effort, we can increase it, right? That’s been the promise of self-help books and motivational speakers for centuries.

Is there any truth to it? Can we increase our own motivation, and if so, how? Is it merely a matter of will? Does it take some nifty life hacks or self trickery? How do we find motivation within ourselves, and what can we do to increase it?

Where Does Motivation Come From?

The current thinking on motivation theory (as described in Gagni & Deci, 2005) points to two types of motivation, and thus two sources of it. The first is intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is that innate “desire,” and it’s highly personal. The second type of motivation is extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation means external things that influence our internal desire.

Gagni & Deci explain the difference:

“Intrinsic motivation involves people doing an activity because they find it interesting and derive spontaneous satisfaction from the activity itself. Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, requires an instrumentality between the activity and some separable consequences such as tangible or verbal rewards, so satisfaction comes not from the activity itself but rather from the extrinsic consequences to which the activity leads.

Is Increasing Motivation a Matter of Willpower?

If intrinsic motivation lies deep within us and stems from desire, can we change motivation through sheer willpower?

The general belief is yes: Most people can summon the will to increase motivation, at least to some degree. However, willpower is finite. When we use willpower to increase motivation, we slowly deplete it (Milkman, Minson, & Volpp, 2013). Willpower is a type of internal resource. When we run low on it, we need to replenish it through rest, relaxation, and indulgences.

Luckily, there are other ways to influence motivation that don’t sap willpower.

What Influences Motivation?

An analysis of four studies on motivation (Fishback, Hsee, & Shen, 2014) affirms that motivation can be influenced. Specifically:

  • positive feelings can increase motivation,
  • excitement can increase motivation
  • uncertainty (during the process of pursuing a reward) can increase motivation because uncertainty increases excitement,
  • and often, external rewards, such as bonuses and prizes, can decrease motivation.

I wrote recently about happiness priming and pointed to research that showed ways in which we can affect our momentary happiness. When we prime ourselves to be happier in the moment, such as by watching funny video clips or dancing around to a song that we love, we are also priming ourselves to be more productive. Studies on happiness and productivity showed that subjects who were primed to be happier made more attempts at solving problems and generally completed more tasks than a control group.

Momentary happiness is one thing, but our long-term happiness is another. Other research shows that people who have experienced a bad life event (death in the family, major illness) in the last five years are slightly less productive than those who haven’t. It’s unclear whether someone who is suffering from long-term unhappiness is less productive due to decreased motivation or some other factor. And it’s unclear whether someone who is still feeling the effects of a bad life event can momentarily overcome the losses in productivity by increasing momentary happiness. The studies I’ve read didn’t test for it.


Fishbach, A., Hsee, C., & Shen, L. (2014) ,”Uncertainty Increases Motivation”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 42, eds., Association for Consumer Research: 681–2.

Gagne, M. & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior 26: 331–362.

Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2013) Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science, Articles in Advance, INFORMS: 1–17.

Image by Runar Eilertsen, CC.


4 thoughts on “How to Change Your Motivation

  1. Hi Jill,

    I wonder if you have an interesting topic that you are in the middle of researching that you would like to discuss on my podcast at 2Time Labs.

    This would be a bit different from the author/celebrity-interviews which are so popular.

    On this podcast series (which comes after a year long hiatus) I hope to speak to scientists who are delving deep into narrow areas. The conversation will be as if we are colleagues looking at the issue together, sitting at a bench in 2Time Labs.

    In other words, it won’t be scripted, and might not produce anything fit for airplay… making this a bit of a risk. I don’t know of any other podcast like this, but Sam Harris sometimes ends his episodes in a mode of vigorous disagreement with his guest. This podcast would be honest in that kind of way – allowing ideas to contend with each other to see what may emerge.

    Which, to reiterate, may be nothing at all. This would make it the Seinfeld of podcasts… LOL

    So, if you have a topic that’s “unfinished” or just starting, it might be an ideal candidate.

    For example, one on motivation would be interesting, if we turned it in the direction of time-based productivity.

    Let me know your thoughts. We’ll be recording a number of them in December for publication in January.

    And if you know anyone else in the productivity space who could handle such a recorded dialog, let me know – I’m hunting for the right person/topic to invite.


    Francis Wade

    2Time Labs


  2. […] People used to believe that if you wanted to increase a worker’s motivation, you had to make the work better. One of the leading theories about worker motivation in the 1960s (Herzberg, Mausner, & Snyderman, 1959 and Herzberg,1966; cited in Hackman & Oldham, 1976) said that a job would be highly motivating if it provided the employee recognition, responsibility, personal growth opportunities, and other benefits to employees. Now it’s very much the other way around. Today’s employees are expected to motivate themselves. […]


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