How Motivation works and how to activate it

Motivation is a much-discussed subject in almost every area of life. It’s gone so far that most of us believe that without motivation we can’t and won’t do anything. Let’s clear up this myth and define motivation for what it is.

Motivation is based on a positive vision of the future and the excitement of making that vision come true. We differentiate two types of motivation:

  • intrinsic motivation
  • extrinsic motivation

Motivation is not some out-of-earth experience, given to us by the gods or whatever you might believe in, but is something created by us. Motivation comes from within us and we all have it, we just need to activate it. Look at it like a switch you need to flip-over so the energy can flow. To better understand the concept, let me explain the different types of motivation, look at the reason why some motivations might work for you and others don’t, and then I will get into the “Motivation Triangle”.

What are the types of motivation?

We know about 2 types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is all about being motivated by internal factors to perform certain actions and behavior. It means doing something because you want to. There is no pressure or reward for your actions, but you still do them because you want to or you believe it’s the right thing to do.

The reason we might be intrinsically motivated are based on:

  • Autonomy: the need to have complete control over one’s own life.
  • Relatedness: the need to maintain companionship or connection with others.
  • Competence: the need to do be the best and to succeed.

Let’s have a look at some examples:

  • A student at university taking guitar lessons does this because he wants to, not because he has to. He might be inspired by some rock star or he just enjoys to play with some friends in a band. This type of motivation is called intrinsic motivation.
  • Sherlock Holmes, the famous fictional detective, never solved cases for money or fame. It was the curiosity that made him want to solve them. It was his need for satisfaction to know.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is about being motivated by external factors like reward or punishment. It is about avoiding negative consequences or achieving positive outcomes.

The reason we might be extrinsically motivated are based on:

  • Money
  • Praise
  • Competition
  • The threat of a punishment

Some examples:

  • If the student in the previous example would attend guitar classes because he plans to get paid for playing on stage, he would be extrinsically motivated.
  • Many are working a 9to5 job and have very little personal interest in the job itself. They work because they get paid. This is a classic example of extrinsic motivation.

Why it can be hard to motivate yourself?

Now that we know about the different types of motivation, we need to figure out what works for us.

This depends very much on where you are in your life right now. If you struggle every month to make ends meet, it will be hard to be motivated to learn the guitar just for fun. It will probably be much easier to be motivated to learn the guitar to make some money. In this case, it will most likely be much easier to motivate you extrinsically, based on rewards that solve your current problem of not having enough money.

Have a look at Maslow’s pyramid to better understand this point (source):

It starts at the bottom. If you struggle to fulfill your physiological needs, it will be hard to motivate you to start a hobby. This might explain why you struggle to get motivated for some things, while it is easier for other things.

In general, the lower part of the pyramid is often based on extrinsic motivation and the upper part on intrinsic motivation. It is hard to be motivated by prestige as long as your basic needs are not met.

Where are you in this picture?

The easiest way to figure this out is by making a list of the problems you’re facing and put them in the right level of the pyramid.

If you’re not sure where to get your next meal from, write it into the bottom under physiological needs. If you feel emotionally insecure, write it under safety needs.

Here is a list of the foundation needs (the bottom part of the pyramid) and what they relate to:

Physiological needs include:

  • Health
  • Food, Water
  • Sleep
  • Clothes
  • Shelter

Safety and Security needs include:

  • Personal security
  • Emotional security
  • Financial security
  • Well-being
  • Safety needs against accidents/illness

Social Belonging needs include:

  • Friendships
  • Intimacy
  • Family

If you struggle with any of those, you will find it difficult to motivate yourself intrinsically until those points are met. It will be far easier to accept the extrinsic challenge and to start ticking off the boxes. It will not only be easier, but you will also feel so much better with the results.

The Motivation Triangle?

So far, we’ve discussed the different types of motivation and you have identified the core points you want to work on. Now let’s have a look at how to do this in practice.

The process I am describing here is the same for whatever level you feel you are and works for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

It is based on what I call the “Motivation Triangle”.

The Motivation Triangle connects the main parts together

As you can see, the Motivation Triangle consists of three parts. All parts are connected and influence each other. The whole process is 100% under your control; you just have to make them work together. Let’s have a look at each part in detail and in the end, I will show you how they interact.

The Vision

Definition: the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination.

The vision is often seen as the actual motivation

A vision is like a daydream. There is something in your that makes you smile. You play with the pictures and you create this imaginary story in your head.

If you’re not sure how to get to that stage, you can turn it around and look at it from a different angle. Take anything you think you should do and start looking for a positive picture in this. Let’s take an example.

You’re working every day, but you’re still struggling with paying your bills every month. You know all it would take is to get the flu and be out for a few weeks and your whole house of cards will just collapse.

The first step must be to get an idea of how solving this problem would look like. How would your life be if you had enough money to cover your costs and build a reserve? How would you feel? Play with that thought and see yourself smiling. Create that vision. It is the first step to your solution and creates your motivation to make that change. Whatever that will be.

Now you have a moving picture in your head that makes living your daily life more exciting and engaging.

This is what is called a vision. A vision is your personal look into a possible future. Of course, nobody knows what is really going to happen – but we have the ability to imagine, to dream, to fantasize. The only thing you should do is to make sure it is a positive outlook. The vision is the ‘Motivation Generator’.

The Decision

Definition: a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration

If you want to do anything in life, you need to make a decision to do it. Let’s take the example in the vision. You’ve got the picture of you living a far less stressful life because you don’t have to worry every month how to get by.

The next step must be to decide to make this vision come true. It is important to note, that it is not important at this stage to know exactly how to do it. It is just important to decide to do whatever it takes to make that vision a reality.

Don’t get bogged down, because you can’t figure out how to do it yet. There are many unknowns you will need to discover.

It’s like going to school or university. You don’t know yet what to expect, but you need to decide at the beginning before you know it all. It’s the same here. Once you made a decision, you will feel better. You might be scared, but at the same time excited to make that vision come true.

Just tell yourself: “I can do this!” Sometimes decisions can be a bit scary, depending on your vision and how far it takes you out of your comfort zone

The important part here is that you make a conscious decision to do something. You’ve thought about it and you are deciding to do it. Again, the decision you take should be a positive one. The decision releases the ‘Motivation Energy’.

The Action

Definition: the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim.

For motivation to have an impact, it requires some action. There are still many factors you don’t know yet and you will have to fill in the gaps as you’re go along. Taking action includes a plan and a time-frame.

You will need a plan, at least the start of a plan. As I said, you very likely miss a lot of information, but it reveals itself as you keep going. Every time you fill in a new gap your vision will become clearer and you start to believe that you can do it.

Keep your vision up-to-date and reaffirm it as often as you can. I found that taking a few minutes every day to close my eyes and look at my vision, keeps me on track.

The action is the ‘Motivation Manifestation’. It forms the pathways for you to produce more positive energy and motivation.

Let’s put this together

Imagine that you started looking for a better job and practised your interview. In your mind you see yourself getting through the interview and ending up with a new job that pays so much better.

You decide to apply for a new better paying job. You commit to this change 100% and you are ready to learn and do whatever it takes to make it happen.

You go out there and find out what you need to do. You ask the questions, you Google it and get some professional advice. If it means to take a course and you can afford it, you will do it. You take everything you learn and find out and add it to your list. Every week you adjust your actions based on what you found out and have done.

You will spend every day reaffirming your vision and add the things you’ve learned.

Now you are on your way and as long as you keep going, you will get there. Stick to the plan and make your vision come true.

What’s next?

The next time around it will be much easier. The decision will be stronger and the action even more joyful then the last time. As you repeat this process, your vision becomes clearer and more detailed.

Sometimes it can be difficult to imagine something positive depending on your situation in life. Just choose something that will not have a negative impact on you or others. Go as far as you can, decide to give it a good try and start doing it. On the next round it will become easier and your experience will become better.

I only urge you to make sure it is a positive vision, decision and action. Start with something simple and as your ability to become motivated grows you can tackle bigger visions, make bigger decisions and take bigger actions.

Like with everything in life, practice makes the master. Be consistent, congruent and yourself – and your ability to generate motivation for your benefit and for others will be endless.

John di Stefano

This site Skills for Entrepreneurs is run by me, John di Stefano, teaching and supporting entrepreneurs to learn the skills every entrepreneur needs to create a better life for themselves and the people around them.

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