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

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Rick Ornelas

Rick is a Positive Change Expert and the author of "12 Hours of Heaven; Lessons for a Better World". He teaches men and women how to unlock their amazing potential to create an incredible future for themselves and others.

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Last Updated on April 14, 2021

No Motivation? 7 Great Ways to Overcome Loss of Motivation

No Motivation? 7 Great Ways to Overcome Loss of Motivation

No matter who you are, you will have moments where you feel like you have no motivation to do anything at all. Even highly effective and successful people will have times when they feel a lack of motivation. However, it is the way they deal with this “down” time that keeps them moving forward and helps them to accomplish great things.

Motivation is one of the keys that will push you into taking action and keep you moving each day. If you find yourself saying “I have no motivation,” you will tend to procrastinate on the things that are supposed to get done. Eventually, you will put things off and give up on your project or task.

This is what’s happening to many people out there. They say they want to become rich by investing or running their own business on the Internet. However, whenever they need to study the company report or build their website or write an action plan, they can’t get motivated to work. This is where most people give up.

Fortunately, there are solutions to this. Here are the 7 great tips to try when you have no motivation.

1. Remember Why You Want to Do It

If you feel a lack of motivation when you want to type an article, try to think about why you want to do it in the first place. The reasons you do something are the driving force behind everything you do. It is only when your reason is strong and emotional enough that you will do whatever it takes to accomplish the task.

When you feel no motivation at all, it is because the reason behind what you’re doing is not strong enough. Think about it: why do people stop smoking? Most of the time, people stop smoking because they have a strong reason; if they continue to smoke, they may suffer serious health problems or lose their loved ones.

So why do you do what you do? Do you know why you want to achieve your goals and your targets? Make sure your reasons are strong and emotional. When you have no motivation, think about the purpose why you want to do it.


2. Envision the Success If You Do It, and Feel the Regret If You Don’t

Visualization is a very powerful tool that is available to us, and it is free of charge. You can think and imagine whatever you want, wherever and whenever you wish to.

If you think that visualization does not work, try to imagine vividly that you walk to your kitchen, open your fridge door, see a big yellow lemon, and take it out. After that you take a knife and cut the big yellow lemon in half.

Imagine this vividly and with as much detail as possible. After you cut the lemon, take the half up and squeeze the lemon so that the juice drops into your mouth. Feel your hand’s pressure, hear the sound it makes while being squeezed, and imagine the sour lemon juice going into your mouth. Now, do you feel more saliva in your mouth or nothing?

Chances are, if you follow through and visualize it vividly, you will have more saliva in your mouth. This is because your mind cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined.

This is what makes visualization such a powerful tool. Think about it, if your dream is to drive a Mercedes Benz, imagine the vivid picture of you driving. Imagine the model you want, the color, the smell of the seats, feel the steering, and hear sound of the engine roaring. Do you think your mind will eventually make it real one day?

The point is that when you imagine and visualize things in your mind, you will feel more motivated to do it. When you dream about the car you want, you will create the motivation from within. Try to do this when you feel like procrastinating and have no motivation.

You can learn more about using visualization in this video:


3. Create a Supportive Environment

Do you know that your surroundings and your environment can affect your mood?

You will become the people you are around. If you are always surrounded by successful people who talk about their growth and learning, you will learn and join the conversation as well. This is how you can overcome a lack of motivation and use your environment to boost your energy levels.

On the other hand, if you are surrounded by negative people who always gossip and talk about other people, you will feel negative and have no motivation to work as well.

Ensure your work space is a good and supporting environment, so that you will want to wake up each morning and go to work.

Remember, your environment is important and can affect you. Change your environment instead of letting it manage you.

4. Change Your Physiology and Stay in Action

Motion creates emotion. Whenever you feel down and have no motivation to do your work, change your physiology. Try out this exercise:

Try to feel sad by thinking about all the sad things that have happened to you, and notice your physiology. Notice your breath, your shoulders, and your facial expression. Where are your hands, and do you look up or do you look down?


When you are in a sad state, your physiology will change to reflect it in the short term, affecting your motivation level. Conversely, if you are feeling good and energetic, your physiology will reflect that. For most people, when they feel great and motivated, their breathing will be faster, their hands gesture will be active, they talk faster, and their eyes look forward[1].

This is why it’s often easy to tell whether someone is upset or happy just by looking at their body language. When you change your physiology, you change your emotional state, as well.

5. Let Others Motivate You

Reading a book, listening to music, or watching something inspiring can help when you have no motivation. What you can do is spend a minimum of 30 minutes each day reading an inspiring book before you start your day. This way, you will make sure you start in the right state of mind and are able to go through the day, even if you face challenges

Videos and audio can be very helpful in helping you find motivation, too. For example, when you are down and feeling no motivation, spend time watching something inspiring on YouTube or listen to a motivational speech. You will be pumped up in no time and ready to go.

6. Dream Big, Start Small, and Act Now

This is a very powerful principle if you are struggling with motivation and feel overwhelmed. When you dream, you have to dream big so that your dream can inspire you. However, when you start, you have to start small because you want to make it into a habit so that you will automatically take action consistently every day.

When your motivation is gone, start small. You want to build up the momentum from there. Once you start to take action, the motivation will come, and you will be able to continue to do more.

Take baby steps, and gradually increase from there on. For example, if you want to exercise and work out five days a week, try to schedule it and start small. Even if it is just five minutes a day, commit to it.


The key is to build the momentum and make it easy for you to start. Once you get the engine started, gradually increase your motivation.

For more tips on taking action, check out Lifehack’s Free Guide: The Dreamers’ Guide for Taking Action and Making Goals Happen.

7. Take Breaks When Needed

Sometimes you just want to take a break when you have no motivation. Remember, success is not a destination; it is a journey that you need to go through for a long period of time. Many people mistake success as doing one great thing and think that success will come over overnight.

However, almost all the successful people who have accomplished amazing results are able to do so because they persist long enough. They take action consistently and never give up. Real success takes years to build.

Make sure you get enough rest and take a break when you need to. Understand your own capabilities and how much you can do. If you have done your work, you can reward yourself and take a break. You will notice that after resting, you will feel more energetic, motivated, and ready to take on the world again.

The Bottom Line

If you find yourself asking, “Why do I have no motivation?” it may be time to take a good look at how you’ve aligned your priorities and where you can make changes each day. Overcoming a lack of motivation means finding what matters on a daily basis and taking small steps toward it when the energy you’re given.

More to Boost Your Motivation

Featured photo credit: Agnieszka Boeske via


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