Last Updated on April 19, 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 Ornelas is a professional coach, speaker, and author of 12 Hours of Heaven; Lessons for a Better World. He teaches men and women to unlock their amazing potential and change the world around them.

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Published on September 3, 2021

6 Friday Motivation Tips to Help You Stay Motivated

6 Friday Motivation Tips to Help You Stay Motivated

You know the feeling—that “I still have another whole work day to get through” feeling? It sucks. The worst part is knowing that you have to get up, get to work, and be productive when you feel checked out, unmotivated, and would rather go back to bed. The trickiest part about it is that even though you may know intellectually that you’re not the only person who has ever felt that way, at the moment, it can feel very lonely.

If you feel the Friday funk and want to shake it off, try these six tips to lift your Friday motivation.

1. Eat a Solid Breakfast and Plan to Eat Lunch

The first thing you can do to lift your Friday motivation is to eat a solid breakfast. We have all heard the phrase, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” It turns out that it wasn’t just something our parents were telling us to get us to eat before school. Studies have shown that eating breakfast can help with improved memory, recall, mood, and visual-motor functions.[1]

However, researchers have found evidence that the benefits of the micronutrient boost provided by breakfast do wear off after a while. Just like a car with a full tank of gas that runs out after a long journey, the body needs to be refueled. Therefore, planning to eat breakfast and lunch on a day when you are not feeling your best could give you that extra boost you need to get through the day. Skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar, which can leave you feeling weak and tired.[2] If you are already struggling with feeling motivated, not eating is only going to make you feel more sluggish and less inspired to get anything done.

2. Prioritize What’s Urgent

I have always been a fan of the cheat sheet. No, I’m not a cheater, but I love knowing what needs to be done. No one wants to waste any precious energy trying to figure out what should be done when you are already feeling unmotivated.


No matter who you are, there is a high probability that by Friday, on any given week, you have at least one or two items that were supposed to be completed earlier in the week but just didn’t get done. Here is my quick trick for figuring out what’s urgent.

Just ask yourself these three questions:

  • Are there any projects with deadlines that have passed already but are still due?
  • Which of those projects is the most overdue?
  • Of the overdue projects, which will take the least time to make significant progress or complete?

This should help you to easily identify at least one task that you can spend time working on diligently, knowing that you are getting something important done.

3. Tackle the Low-Hanging Fruit

Another way to refresh your Friday motivation is to tackle the low-hanging fruit. There is nothing wrong with doing the easy stuff first. Maybe you are so burned out and the urgent tasks will take too much energy. There is nothing wrong with knocking out the obvious easy things. Emails, filing, data entry, document reconciliation, follow-up calls, editing or revising written work, and research are all low-hanging fruits—these are all straightforward tasks.

Getting these easier tasks done will give you a sense of accomplishment. You can leverage this sense of accomplishment to help you tackle some harder tasks or get all the easy tasks done so the following week, you can dedicate your time to the harder projects.


4. Give Yourself at Least Two Scheduled Breaks

Give yourself at least two scheduled breaks during the workday. Life is stressful. Feeling like you have to work when you don’t feel up to it is stressful. Let’s not compound it by forcing yourself to sit in front of the computer all day with no breaks. The days of believing that “lunch is for punks and working 80 hours a week is what you should be doing” are fading away—if not already a distant memory for some.

In fact, scientists discovered that, although “taking short breaks throughout the working day may not have as obvious an impact as taking a holiday, research has found significant benefits. Studies have found that breaks can reduce or prevent stress, help to maintain performance throughout the day and reduce the need for a long recovery at the end of the day.”[3]

Before you sit down in front of your desk for the workday, set three alarms—two 20-minute breaks and one lunch break. You aren’t proving anything to anyone by forcing yourself to be miserable in front of your computer. You deserve flexibility and compassion. Let these breaks be a radical act of self-care.

5. Listen to Some Upbeat Tunes

Another way to improve your Friday motivation is to listen to some upbeat tunes. Music is medicine. It is not a mystery that the vibrations of sound can affect our mood. Ancient communities knew this and embraced it through practices like chanting, the use of singing bowls, chimes, bells, and other sound instruments as tools for healing. Practices like Kirtan and Bhakti yoga use chanting to heal and shift energy. The Hindu and Buddhist religions use bells and chimes in many of their spiritual healing rituals. Throughout the modern world, we have adopted the use of signing bowls for energetic healing.

Most people could recall at least one moment in their lives when music or sound has helped shift their mood. Music has been shown to have a direct effect on the listener. Studies show that listening to music while you work can lead to an “increase in both mood and quality of work”.[4]


If you are feeling super unmotivated, the solution to your problem may be throwing on your favorite album in the background while you try to get a few things done. If you can’t work while listening to music with words and you do not like classical music or traditional jazz, explore genres like Trip hop, house, ambient, Beach House, JamBand. You may also enjoy artists like Bonobo, Thievery Corporation, and Grammatik.

6. Give Yourself Something to Look Forward To

As a yogi, I’m all about being present in the moment. But sometimes, the present is a little too intense, and being super present is not going to help to improve your mood. In those moments, tapping into the power of positive anticipation can be your secret weapon because “knowing that something good is coming your way pushes you to accomplish those tasks you may not necessarily want to do.”[5]

We all love to be rewarded, especially when we are doing something we don’t want to do. Giving yourself something to look forward to is the way to guarantee that you will be rewarded for the hard work of getting through the day.

The reward doesn’t have to be immense. It can be something small like getting ice cream, going for a walk, spending time with friends, or vegging out with your phone on do not disturb for a few hours. I used to employ this trick a lot when I was in boarding school. The time between semesters in new England would feel so long especially in the winter that my friends and I would let ourselves get excited about little things like drinking lime rickeys at Brigham’s. Believe it or not, it worked.

Try it the next time you get the hit with the Friday funk. Think about something you can look forward to no matter how small, and notice how it shifts your energy.


Final Thoughts

As the adage says, “this too shall pass.”

Friday is just a day like every other day before it will end. One thing you can count on is that time waits for no one, so despite how difficult it may feel to get through, know that the time is on your side.

No matter what, Friday will wind on. The best thing you can do to improve your Friday motivation is to make sure that your body has the micronutrients it needs to power through the day, identify what’s urgent, tackle low hanging fruit, give yourself time away from the desk, throw on your favorite tunes, and think about the fact that you have the entire weekend to look forward to.

You got this!

More Tips on How to Improve Your Friday Motivation

Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via



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