“Ugh, I have no motivation today.” How many times have you thought, heard, or said this? Sometimes, it might seem like motivation is a mysterious force outside your control that helps you when you’re fortunate enough to have it on your side, and hinders you when you don’t. But the truth is that motivation is a mental state that you can understand and generate.
Psychologist Beata Saunders describes motivation as the mental state in which people engage in “energized and persistent goal-directed behavior.” In other words, the kind of behavior by which people get things done. When you feel motivated, it’s easier to power through a project and enjoy the process. When you don’t, the work feels burdensome, and you aren’t as productive.
Psychologists distinguish between two types of motivation: internal and external. The sources of internal motivation are, well, internal. For instance, we eat because we feel hungry and seek shelter because we feel hot or cold. Our psychological needs are another source of internal motivation, though interpreting them and properly acting on them is not as cut and dry as responding to hunger or thirst. According to Saunders, psychological needs include self-esteem, autonomy, and achievement. Another that some psychologists mention is self-concept internal motivation, the process by which someone chooses what type of person he wants to be (for example, honest, respectful, studious, and so on) and acts accordingly.
On the other hand, external motivation derives from encouragement from and connectivity with others, environmental factors, and inspiring examples; for instance, seeing a beautiful painting and feeling inspired to begin painting yourself.
An important distinction I haven’t seen psychologists make is that between first-handed and second-handed motivation, and this is particularly relevant when discussing external motivation. A person is motivated second-handedly if he’s spurred to action primarily by thoughts about how others will think of him or his choices instead of by his own convictions about what is good or desirable. The latter is indicative of first-handed motivation. Although those you respect and admire can serve as inspiring examples, and their advice might be valuable, you should determine your own goals based on your rationally chosen values, and judge your actions by your rational standards.
As Saunders notes, there’s another layer of complexity to understanding motivation: The reason you’re motivated to do something is either related to the action itself (you find the action enjoyable), or to an immediate or future result you expect to achieve (or a combination of these). For example, you may want to go for a run because you enjoy running (the action itself), because you enjoy the endorphin rush you experience right after running (the immediate effect), because you want to be healthy and fit (a long-term benefit), or some combination.
Motivation, then, has specific sources and works in specific ways. To maximize internal motivation, consider the benefits of the action in question. Does it fulfill a psychological need? Will you feel more accomplished when it’s done? Do you want to be a writer, an athlete, someone who’s honest? It’s vital to understand why you intend to do something. Many people choose goals based on a sense of duty; they have a sense that they should do something without ever understanding why. Asking and answering the key question, “What for?” can help avoid this problem.
To maximize external motivation, create the right environment for the behavior or action in question (James Clear gives some great advice on this in his book Atomic Habits). Surround yourself with things that inspire you, such as thought-provoking books and art you enjoy. Put things that distract you from your goals (such as a video game console or even your TV) in places that are inconvenient or out of sight, and put items conducive to achieving your goals somewhere conspicuous. Get an accountability buddy to satisfy your desires for connectivity and encouragement, and cheer each other on when you do well.
How might you combine and implement these techniques? Suppose you want to write a book. Each day, you might start by reading something by one of your favorite authors (an external trigger that inspires you to reach your goal). Then, you could think about the reasons you’re writing the book: Perhaps it’s on a nonfiction topic about which you’re passionate, or maybe you’ve always wanted to create fantasy worlds like the ones you grew up reading about. You might think about the psychological needs this book fulfills for you: the sense of accomplishment, the desire to be a writer, and so on.
Then, you go to the distraction-free environment you’ve created for yourself and the words begin to flow. When you’re done writing for the day, you call your accountability buddy, who gives you a “Wi-Five.” Later in the day, you reflect on how nice it felt when you got into the groove. The next day, you leap out of bed, eager to do it again. Why? Because you’ve harnessed the principles of motivation to your advantage, including proving to yourself that you can do what you need to do to reach your goals.
Motivation is not a mystic force over which you have no control. It’s a mental state you can foster in yourself by understanding it, reflecting on how it works, and creating an environment that’s conducive to achieving your goals.