Last Updated on February 16, 2021

What Is Intrinsic Motivation And How Does It Work?

What Is Intrinsic Motivation And How Does It Work?

“Excuse me. Do you have an answer to my question?” my cocky young interviewer asked me poignantly towards the beginning of an on-campus interview for an investment firm. “Yes,” I answered. “Of course.” I continued. “I’m just gathering my thoughts.” His question, “What motivates you?” and the answers he was suggesting when I didn’t respond immediately—money, recognition, and material items—had clearly caught me off guard.

It wasn’t the situation that made me uncomfortable as I was very confident, and this was not my first on-campus interview. I wasn’t nervous either as my interviewer, Keith, was pretty laid back and was not much older than I was. Translation: he didn’t intimidate me at all, although I knew he was trying to assert his authority.

The setting wasn’t throwing me off, despite the slew of coeds passing through my peripheral vision as Keith had suggested we hold our interview outside to keep it more casual.

So, what was it? What was keeping me from instantly answering his question? I searched my 20-year-old brain as I took a drink of water to buy a few more seconds when it hit me. Not only did I have an answer for him, but I also knew what was causing my struggle.

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

The answer to both questions was deep in my memory banks from a Psych 101 lecture on motivation my first year at the university. It was in this lecture that we defined the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

The American Psychological Association definitions are similar to those provided by my Psych professor.

  • Extrinsic motivation – an external incentive to engage in a specific activity, especially motivation arising from the expectation of punishment or reward.[1] It sounds like, “I really want that promotion to make more money.”
  • Intrinsic motivation – an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained.
  • [2] It sounds like, “I’m going to work really hard to get that promotion so I can be more fulfilled at work.”

As I sat across from Keith, I remembered the differences between the two and pinpointed the source of my mental struggle with his question. His suggested answers clearly showed that he was extrinsically motivated, whereas I was not and had never been throughout my life. This led me to quickly realize that I was intrinsically motivated in many areas, school, sports, work, and life in general.


This begs some questions:

  • Where did my inherent, intrinsic motivation come from?
  • What exactly is an intrinsic motivation for most people?
  • How does it work?

Let’s take a more in-depth look to help you understand where this fits in your life and how to gain control over it.

In the Beginning

From the time when we were just children, we learn in every situation and environment and from our parents, friends, teachers, and society. This typically occurs by mimicking behavior as all social species do.

One of the first lessons we learn is that there are consequences that arise from our behavior. This takes many forms, such as being given a gold star on our homework to having our favorite toy taken away for misbehaving. With each situation, we quickly determine what motivates us to a specific behavior.

This is why psychologists say that Intrinsic motivation is centrally involved in spontaneous exploration and curiosity. It is a crucial concept in developmental psychology and has been argued to be a crucial mechanism for open-ended cognitive development in humans.[3]

During these formative years, these motivating factors influence us across multiple areas of our lives, whether we realize it or not.


In the case of intrinsic motivation, we do things such as tasks because of the pleasure derived from the task itself. We are driven internally by our enjoyment, satisfaction, and internal growth. It doesn’t matter what others believe or what they do; we will still act in line with this inner drive.


Using our earlier example, this is the individual that wants the fulfillment of the promotion. The psychological rewards may come from the enjoyment of the actual work, the satisfaction of the increased effort, or even the mental improvements that learning provides. In all cases, the rewards are all internally driven.

This can be an internal struggle for many people as they are torn between what they have to do and what they want to do. This struggle may appear in many areas of one’s life and may range from minor to major. Minor examples could be as simple as choosing what to eat or studying or playing video games. Major examples involve more long-term consequences, such as what elective to take in college or what area to live in.

Sometimes, this struggle can actually lead to the inability to decide, which can have other detrimental effects on the individual.

The most identifiable example of choosing a “have to” over a “want” involves two of the most significant areas of people’s lives: money and career. Many individuals choose a career that will provide the most substantial financial reward over another that they will enjoy more or even love.

When you consider this, It’s not as surprising that a global Gallup poll showed that 85% of people are unhappy in their current job.[4] This is a depressing statistic indeed. These individuals are clearly not being motivated intrinsically and are being led by extrinsic motivators.

But is this a bad thing?

The answer depends on you. If you live a life of second-guessing and regret, then probably so. If you are happy, fulfilled in other ways, and content, then maybe not.


Still, there are ways to foster your intrinsic motivation in any circumstance. A big component of this is where your mindset and focus lie in any task or situation.

Unlocking Your Intrinsic Motivation

Let’s say you need to dig a ditch. For many, this may seem like a chore that they would neither choose nor enjoy without being paid or forced to. Both of which are extrinsic motivators if you’ve been following along. But what if you were digging the ditch to create a swimming pool that will provide years of enjoyment for you and your family? This would certainly change things for you and most others.

You may then think to yourself, “Today is such a beautiful day!” Or “Man, this is great exercise!” If you choose to think this way, then isn’t it possible to get some satisfaction out of the digging experience? By focusing on the pleasure of being outside and the workout that digging is providing your body, you shift to a mindset ripe for growth.

While these might appear to be extrinsic thoughts, they are actually a form of what psychologist Abraham Maslow referred to as “growth motivation”—motivation that leads to growth from over and above basic needs.[5] At the heart of this growth are things such as talents, capacities, and creative tendencies.

According to Maslow, all of us have a hierarchy of needs. He proposed that motivation is the result of a person’s attempt at fulfilling five basic needs: physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization. He further theorized that these needs could create internal pressures that influence a person’s behavior. Growth motivation is a part of our self-actualization and our desire for self-fulfillment.

So, how does all this “psychobabble” fit in with your intrinsic motivation?

The psychobabble is the key to unlocking your intrinsic motivation. Once you understand where your internal growth comes from, you can shift your focus to this area rather than any external reward. In doing so, you will notice that work becomes pleasure and pain becomes progress with all of it leading to growth within yourself.


It is truly a magical place within that will lead to years of success and happiness for you as it has for me. But how, you may be asking?

5 Tips to Help You Kickstart Your Intrinsic Motivation

  1. Start by taking a look at all components of each situation or task you are faced with.
  2. Break it down to individual components—think: Why? How? What?
  3. Focus on the aspect that will bring you internal satisfaction or enjoyment.
  4. Make this the cornerstone of the activity.
  5. Reflect and practice gratitude for at least this component—if not everything.

Need a little more help? Get this free Worksheet For Instant Motivation Boost. With this worksheet, you can figure what motivates you in a step-by-step way and kickstart your intrinsic motivation easily. Get your free worksheet here.

Final Thoughts

With practice, you will become more and more in tune with your desire for self-fulfillment and intrinsic motivation. This will lead to more gratitude and more enjoyment, and you’ll be off to the races or maybe a job interview like me.

My success didn’t come from being an investor with Keith’s firm. In fact, it didn’t come from the financial industry at all. It did come from learning to grow from the benefits of Intrinsic motivation in all situations.

In case you’re wondering, I finally answered Keith’s question with one of my own. “Keith, did you ever take Psych 101?”

More Tips on Staying Motivated

Featured photo credit: Simon Migaj via


[1] APA Dictionary of Psychology: extrinsic motivation
[2] APA Dictionary of Psychology: intrinsic motivation
[3] Frontiers in Neurorobotics: What is intrinsic motivation? A typology of computational approaches
[4] Gallup: Dismal Employee Engagement Is a Sign of Global Mismanagement
[5] Simply Psychology: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

More by this author

Rick Ornelas

Rick is a "Positive Change Expert and the author of "12 Hours of Heaven". He teaches others how to create an incredible future when they unlock their amazing potential and begin to spark change.

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Last Updated on March 4, 2021

8 Things to Remember When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

8 Things to Remember When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

Feeling overwhelmed is a natural part of life. Everyone occasionally feels overwhelmed by expectations, responsibilities, and a lack of time. However, dwelling on feelings of overwhelm and letting them knock you off course can be detrimental to both your mental health and your productivity.

If you find yourself saying “I’m overwhelmed” or feeling stuck with more than you can handle, here are 8 things to keep in mind to help you get through it.

1. These Emotions Are Natural

In the scope of the Earth’s history, human emotions are a fairly recent development. It’s no wonder we haven’t learned to peacefully coexist with them and end up fighting them on a daily basis.

It can often feel like these feelings should be easy to overcome, but feeling overwhelmed is a natural response to having too many things going on at once. It’s your mind’s way of telling you that you need to slow down if you want to live a healthier life.

Recognizing that overwhelm is your body’s way of trying to help you through difficult times can help shift the relationship you have with this emotion. Once you recognize it for what it is and invite it in without fighting it, you can begin to work with it to improve your feelings in a healthy way.

2. It’s a Breakdown of Thoughts, Not of Life

Our minds are powerful things, and feeling overwhelmed can feel like the end of life as we know it. In the book, As a Man ThinkethJames Allen says:


“As he thinks, so he is; as he continues to think, so he remains.”

We have the power to manage our thoughts, and as a result, manage who we are and who we will grow to be. This involves making our mental and physical health a high priority.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, your life isn’t falling apart—your thoughts are.

Take a minute to find and clean out all your self-deprecating, negative emotions and thoughts. As you do this, you will find yourself feeling refreshed and invigorated with renewed energy to take on the world.

3. Things Can Turn Around Quickly

Maybe you’re saying “I’m feeling overwhelmed” as you face a project at work and don’t think you have the energy or time to finish it. You start letting yourself play out every negative scenario resulting from a failed project.

Sitting on the couch and dwelling on these thoughts isn’t going to make anything better. In fact, it usually makes things worse.


Things seem to fall in place as you chip away at a project and come to realize it wasn’t as bad as you thought. Here’re some tips to get you to start taking action: Less Thinking, More Doing: Develop the Action Habit Today

4. You’ve Felt This Way Before

Think about the last time you felt overwhelmed. How did you overcome it? In the end, was it really as bad as you thought?

If you don’t learn from past experiences, you’ll find yourself suffering from the same problems over and over. Successful people are the ones who understand that every experience, good or bad, is valuable.

Go to a quiet place, and take as long as you need to remember previous times in your life you felt this way and how you overcame it.

5. Your Problems May Not Be as Bad as You Think

The best way to find out how good you actually have it is to take a break from worrying about your own life and do something kind for someone in a worse spot than you.

Volunteering at a homeless shelter or orphanage can help put your problems into perspective, and that tight deadline may not seem so overwhelming. Furthermore, acts of kindness can produce oxytocin, which can help you feel better all around[1]. This is vital when you’re feeling overwhelmed.


6. It’s Easy to Keep Doing Nothing

Your situation changes quickly when you start doing something, but it’s always easier to continue doing nothing. The mind generally doesn’t react well to change and will do its best to help you keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that may mean it tries to make you do nothing.

Those who overcome their struggles quickly are the ones who never give up, even when they feel that all is lost. At times, it might feel like there is nothing you can do, but that is exactly when you need to do something.

How will you ever know for sure there was nothing you could do if you didn’t try? At the very least, you will find personal confidence in knowing that you did everything you could.

Grab the Boost Your Motivation Instantly Worksheet for free now, and find out what you can do immediately to regain your lost motivation and move forward.

7. Gratitude Can Help Immensely

In a world of people obsessed with putting their best self forward, it’s easy to feel like everyone has more than you.

Get that thought out of your head, and remember what you do have. Often, the things you have right now are things you were worried about having in the past. Don’t let an insatiable desire for more blind you from seeing and appreciating everything you have right now.


Gratitude can combat feelings of overwhelm by bringing you into the present, which will combat worries of the future. Once you’re in the now, you can focus on what you need to do to get past feeling overwhelmed and overcoming the many things coming at you at once.

If you don’t know what to do you’re overwhelmed, take some deep breaths and try to start a gratitude journal: How a Gratitude Journal and Positive Affirmations Can Change Your Life

8. People Want You to Succeed

Remember there are people in your life who want you succeed. Your life touches so many others, and there are people out there rooting for you.

These people are part of your support system, and you can turn to them each time you’re feeling overwhelmed. You can call them for a quick pep talk, invite them out for coffee if you need a break, or even ask them for help with your overwhelming list of things to do.

The Bottom Line

Feeling overwhelmed is a natural part of life that comes from trying to always take on more than we should. This feeling is difficult to avoid in today’s world, but there are things you can do to reduce those feelings once they do arise. Remember the reminders above whenever you’re not sure how to move forward, and you’ll soon find yourself on the other side.

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Featured photo credit: nikko macaspac via


[1] Cedars Sinai: The Science of Kindness

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