Mastering Motivation

Mastering Motivation

Want to get in shape, find a new job, or start work on that best-selling novel? If your answer is "Yes, but I am having such a hard time getting motivated," then you need to read on.

This article on motivation is due in 22 hours, but I am struggling, mostly because I would rather be: 1) lying on a chaise lounge in the garden watching butterflies, 2) sipping a glass of frosty lemonade, and 3) munching chocolate chip cookies in an air-conditioned movie theater. Even as my mind wanders, my eyes focus on the inspirational quote taped to the top of my computer reminding me that "There are only two sure cures for writers' block: Hunger and Fear." Because my mortgage is due and the cupboards are bare, I am suddenly motivated to start writing, and miraculously, the words begin to flow.

So what differentiates a highly motivated person from those of us who need to push, prod, and force ourselves to accomplish what needs to be done? Here is what a few prominent minds in psychology and psychiatry think.

In or Out?

A report by the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that there are two kinds of achievement motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation —the desire to do something simply because you want to
  • Extrinsic motivation —working on a task to obtain rewards or avoid punishment from sources outside yourself

Studies show that high intrinsic motivation is linked to higher school achievement and psychological adjustment in children, adolescents, and college students. In adults, intrinsic motivation contributes to active, productive engagement in work, play, and creative pursuits.

On a deeper level, human beings are also propelled to action by a variety of powerful physiological, social, and psychological needs.

Motivation Based on Needs

When examining the forces that drive and organize behavior, including motivation, social scientists often look to psychologist Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which include:

  • Physiologic needs
  • Safety needs
  • Social needs (belonging, companionship)
  • Esteem needs (a sense of purpose, recognition from others, self-identity)
  • Self-actualization

According to Maslow, deprivation motivation arises from pain and discomfort when one is deprived of the basic elements, water, food, air, that are crucial for survival. Growth motivation , which does not repair deficits but expands horizons, becomes a significant motivator only when the lower-level needs are met. Translation? You tend to worry less about your overbearing boss or putting on a few extra pounds when you are in the midst of an asthma attack and struggling to breathe.

Driven to Fulfill Needs

Psychologist Clayton Alderfer has another theory, which evolved from Maslow's paradigm. Alderfer believes that there are three groups of core needs:

  • Existence —basic survival needs
  • Relatedness —the drive for social and interpersonal relationships
  • Growth —the desire for personal development (eg, to learn new skills, be creative or master particular tasks)

Unlike Maslow, Alderfer maintains that a person may be motivated by two or three needs groups at once. People may be motivated to satisfy a higher-order need, such as the wish for recognition and approval, even if that means that a lower-order need, such as an adequate salary to comfortably support the family, is unfulfilled.

Motivation on the Job

What about motivation in the workplace? How can managers encourage their employees to work hard, increase their productivity, and strive to improve their performance? Frederick Herzberg's 1966 Motivation-Hygiene Theory identified two classes of factors that are important to behavior on the job:

  • Hygiene factors —policies and administration, supervision, interpersonal relations, work conditions, salary
  • Motivators —achievement, recognition, work itself, responsibility, growth

Behavioral researcher and psychologist David McClelland, whose Three-Needs Theory focuses on important needs related to work behavior, has stated that certain needs are learned and socially acquired as the individual interacts with his environment. According to McClelland, three basic needs, the need for power, achievement, and affiliation (a sense of belonging) act as powerful motivators in the work arena. The drive for power can be a positive or a negative motivator, depending on how it is used. For example, mentoring younger colleagues is a positive force, while back-stabbing or sabotaging a colleague's work is a negative force.

Negative Motivation

Negative emotions can be as strong a motivating force as positive ones. have you not just once vowed to show up at an event on the arm of a spectacularly attractive date who clearly adores you, just at the moment that your last significant other, who dumped you, arrives? And no doubt you have dreamed of winning a Pulitzer Prize or an Oscar, if not solely to wave it triumphantly in the face of the seventh grade teacher who was so sure you would never amount to anything!

Motivating Yourself

Psychologist Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd believes there are several critical aspects of self-directed motivation:

  • Deciding what you want to achieve and how much you are willing to invest to be successful
  • Making a commitment to change
  • Giving up the old way of behaving and deciding how step-by-step to accomplish the goals you value, a process which requires self-discipline, self-control, scheduling, practice, and positive reinforcement or reward

So go ahead, muster up your energy, stop rationalizing and making excuses. You will be so glad you did.


National Institute of Mental Health
National Institute on Aging


Canadian Psychological Association

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This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

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