The Psychology of Motivation

What is the psychology behind motivation? This post examines the research on motivation and reviews the implications. The conclusion reached is contrary to what you may believe.

What is motivation? According to Merriam-Webster, to motivate is “to provide with a motive.” A motive is defined as “something (such as a need or desire) that causes a person to act.”

Motivation is highly sought after in today’s society; it’s the golden ticket to success. You would think achievement (as an end result) is motive enough, but this proves to be false. We desire success, but are often unable to maintain our drive. It fades away before goals are reached. For example, a dieter is initially motivated by weight loss, improved sleep, and increased energy; these are all powerful motivators. But it’s not enough. Why?

This article is about what it is that motivates us (and why that driving force is often short-lived). (Hint: There are no secrets, tricks, or hacks.)



1. Motivation can be intrinsic (arise from within) or extrinsic (influenced by outside forces)

Intrinsic motivation is rewarded internally. An example of an intrinsic drive is pursuing the study of archeology because it holds a strong appeal or attraction. The behavior of engaging is the reward. Research establishes a strong link between interest and intrinsic motivation. Alternatively, extrinsic motivation refers to externally rewarded motives, such as writing a paper for a grade or performing well at work for a raise.

Practical application: If you’re looking to achieve a goal, but lack the drive, create an incentive. Be creative. Choose rewards that are meaningful.

2. The Role of Dopamine

Studies have found that dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays a considerable role in drive. More recently, researchers have speculated there are specific areas in the brain responsible for motivation.

To consider: A lack of inspiration or drive could indicate chemical imbalance, especially if paired with feelings of sadness or hopelessness, fatigue, or thoughts of suicide. If debilitating, you may be depressed. Seek professional help.

3. Self-efficacy and perceived competencE

Research indicates that if you believe you can accomplish something, you’re more likely to achieve it than if you doubt yourself. This is a reoccurring theme in motivation literature. Self-efficacy is key.

Practical application: Evaluate your confidence. Do you view yourself as capable? On a scale from 1-10, how confidant are you that you can achieve [insert your goal here]? You won’t maintain the motivation to lose weight if you believe you’ll always be heavy. Self-doubt is a trap. To cultivate self-efficacy, focus on your past accomplishments and successes. Reframe negative thoughts. (Instead of This is impossible, try This is difficult, but manageable.) Increase your self-efficacy by setting – and achieving – one or two easy goals.

4. Having a sense of control leads to greater motivation

If you believe that life “happens” to you or that you are powerless to circumstances, you have an external locus of control. (This is sometimes known as learned helplessness.) It’s difficult to sustain motivation with this view. We can’t control all the variables in life, but we can control our choices and reactions. We control who and what we allow to negatively impact us. This knowledge is empowering. It allows for motivation and can foster an increased sense of efficacy.

Practical application: List or think about some undesirable aspects of your life (rent, a car accident, a difficult colleague, etc.) Select one item from your list and then write ways you can exercise control. (For example, you can’t control a difficult co-worker, but you control what you say to them, how you respond to them, and so on.) Recognize that your decisions directly impact the quality of your life.

5. Outcome value is related to motivation 

The greater the perceived value of an outcome, the stronger the motivation. If you value living in a tidy home, you will be motivated to clean. For someone who doesn’t mind a mess, a clean house holds little value.

Practical application: You want to save money, but struggle to see the immediate benefits. Create a list of all the ways saving can improve your life, both now and in the future. Consider what’s currently important to you. If it’s spending time with family, link that to saving money. (Extra savings mean you can afford to dine out or take vacations with your family.) By increasing outcome value, you may increase your level of motivation. Apply this principle to all aspects of your life.

6. Goals and deadlines are motivating

Define your outcome with a measurable goal and place a time limit on it. By defining exactly what you want (I want to lose 10 lbs.) and then giving yourself a deadline (in 3 months), you’re creating a blueprint. Having a goal map makes it easier to stay motivated by providing direction.

Practical application: When you need motivation, first consider the steps required to accomplish your goal. Be as specific as possible. And then create a deadline. (Note: Deadlines can be flexible. If you don’t meet your deadline, it’s easy to give up, leaving you the opposite of confident and effective. Instead, if a deadline isn’t met, push it back a week. Be reasonable. Revise your goal if needed. Remember to be solution-focused.)

7. Money is a motivator

Researchers discovered that cash is a driving force. Money is a classic example of an extrinsic motivator – and it’s effective. So how can you use this information?

Practical application: There are apps and programs that pay you to stay on track. An example is the Achievement app; you earn points for exercising, drinking water, sleeping, and doing other health-related activities. Once you earn 10,000, you receive $10. Additionally, the weight loss program HealthyWage pays you to lose weight. (Be careful – there’s also a chance you’ll lose money!) If you dread going to work, think about your paycheck. Lastly, to motivate employees, offer small bonuses or other cash incentives linked to performance.

8. Working together on a task enhances motivation

Working toward a common goal with a partner or a group seems to enhance motivation.

Practical application: This practice can be applied in the workplace or at school. Don’t work on projects alone; find someone who shares your enthusiasm. If you want to start an exercise routine, ask a friend (who also wants to get in shape) to hit the gym with you. It seems we’re able to inspire and motivate each other; when one person’s motivation wanes, the other’s kicks in.

9. The source of motivation changes as we pursue our goals

There’s something called “promotion” motivation. We’re good at setting goals and feeling motivated. Initially. Then, somewhere along the way, our motivation switches. It becomes “prevention” motivation. For example, the promotion motivation for losing weight may be fitting into a certain pair of jeans. When the jeans fit, the motivation becomes prevention motivation. Prevention motivation is harder to sustain.

To consider: Have a variety of motivational strategies. Recognize that motivation will change as you pursue your goals.

10. Once something becomes a habit, it persists long after motivation is gone

This may be the most valuable finding of all. With motivation, there are variables: Self-efficacy, deadlines, money, etc. A habit supersedes the variables. There will be times we lack motivation, no matter how effective we feel or how much we value the outcome. If we act out of habit, we don’t have to rely on motivation. Of course, the tricky part is creating a new habit. Habits, which are formed by repetition, reorganize information in your brain so that an action becomes automatic and is no longer tied to a motivational cue.

To consider: Researchers assert it can take anywhere from 15 to 254 days to form a habit. In addition to repetition, you must remove cues that trigger habits you’re trying to quit while adding cues that trigger desired behaviors.

In conclusion, there are many factors related to motivation including self-efficacy, outcome value, and financial incentive. Our motivation changes as we pursue goals, indicating the need for a variety of motivational strategies. We know that dopamine plays an important role and that there are structural regions in the brain responsible for motivation.


A friend of mine recently asked how I motivate myself to go to the gym when I get off work. “It has nothing to do with motivation,” I responded. “I just do it; it’s not an option not to.”

I’m fully aware I lack motivation. However, I recognize that motivation, while advantageous, is not a prerequisite for success. It’s too fickle; it lacks the staying power of habit and the might of determination.


Don’t rely on motivation to achieve your goals. Instead, invest in the determination it takes to form a habit.


Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC


  • References 
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  • Bullard, O., & Manchanda, R. (2017). How goal progress influences regulatory focus in goal pursuit. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27, 302–317.
  • Carr, P., & Walton, M. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169-184.
  • Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: The psychology of “habit-formation” and general practice. The British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664–666.
  • Hsu, Y., Wang, S. D., Wang, S., Morton, G., Zariwala, H., de la Iglesia, H., & Turner, E. (2014). Role of the dorsal medial habenula in the regulation of voluntary activity, motor function, hedonic state, and primary reinforcement. The Journal of Neuroscience, 34(34), 11366 –11384.
  • Judge, T., & Ilies, R. (2002). Relationship of personality to performance motivation: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87(4), 797–807.
  • Lai, E. (2011). Motivation: A literature review. https://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/Motivation_Review_final.pdf
  • Landry, A., Gagné, M., Forest, J., Guerrero, S., Séguin , M., & Papachristopoulos, K. (2017). The relation between financial incentives, motivation, and performance: An integrative SDT-based investigation. Journal of Personnel Psychology, 16, 61-76.
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Guest Post: You Don’t Have to Exercise

Exercise is a choice. Trevor Jewell, a certified personal trainer, explains that while you don’t have to exercise, you should definitely consider it.

You will definitely get more gratification from grabbing a pint of ice cream and putting your feet up for a Netflix binge. Obviously, we don’t exercise because we have to. No one is holding a gun to your head while you sweat and gasp for air in a crowded gym as the seconds of your life tick away on a treadmill timer. We exercise because we want to! We want to feel good, look good, and live long and happy lives free of pain and injury, so exercise becomes worth it.

Many of my clients have told me during their consultations that they don’t like exercise. Cardio is boring, weights are intimidating, ab work hurts too much, the list goes on and on. But all of them, every single one, enjoys the feeling of having completed a tough and energizing workout. The important difference is, after discussing their goals, they have input on their workout plan in the form of choice.

Hate cardio? No problem! I’ll offer you routines with moderate intensity interval training that mimics the aerobic effect of jogging. Weightlifting too intimidating? We’ll try out different bodyweight routines that incorporate resistance training without ever touching anything but the floor. Ab work hurts? How about a few functional fitness games that utilize your core without shredding it like an 8 minute ab routine from Women’s Health magazine. For my advanced clients, I plan days where they get to use what they’ve learned and choose their own workouts while I simply help align their choices with their goals and provide coaching as needed.

Image by Sabine Mondestin from Pixabay

The point is, almost everyone performs better in an environment where they don’t feel trapped and locked into a routine. This is why hiring a personal trainer can be a truly liberating experience as people realize they never have to touch an elliptical again if they don’t want to, but can still lose weight! If you are dragging your feet on the way to the gym to half-heartedly complete yet another round of the same old routine, it’s time to incorporate more choice into your workout.

It should come as no surprise that freedom of choice can lead to better results outside of the gym as well. In a recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, scientists discovered a direct link between having choice in a workout and making healthier diet selections. Two test groups were given instructions to exercise and then allowed to eat at the same buffet. One group was forced to complete an exact routine, while the other was allowed to choose their type of exercise, starting time, and even background music. Upon reviewing their trips to the buffet, the authors discovered that those with more choice in their workouts consistently ate less calories (587 versus 399 kcal) and chose healthier foods than their counterparts!

Image by 272447 from Pixabay

If you’ve ever piled three extra slices of pizza on your plate as a reward for going to the gym that morning, you know exactly how the “forced” participants were feeling. Treating an exercise routine as something you have to “get out of the way” or “get over with” will cause you to feel trapped, and to disassociate your workouts with your life. Our goal as personal trainers is not to force people to get healthy, but to get them to associate an energizing workout in the gym with the overall goal of a healthy lifestyle. We don’t have to exercise, we choose a higher quality of life, and have fun doing it!


Guest Author: Trevor Jewell, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer

Trevor Jewell is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with EnDevor Health: Connecting doctors, exercise physiologists, and personal trainers to truly implement Exercise is Medicine in patients’ lives, located in Columbus, OH

30 Thirty-Day Challenges!!

A unique list of wellness-based thirty-day challenges.

There are plenty of 30-day challenges out there, but this post is unique in that all of the challenges listed are wellness-based. This is a list of 30 exciting ideas for thirty-day challenges.

30 Thirty-Day Challenges

Difficulty Level – Easy

1. Give one compliment per day

2. 30 days of flossing

3. Five minutes of mindful breathing every day

4. 30 days of gratitude journaling

5. Set sleep schedule for 30 days

6. 30 days of Matcha or green tea

7. Learn a new vocabulary word every day for 30 days

8. Daily act of kindness

9. Read a random Wikipedia article every day for 30 days

10. 30-day dog walk challenge

11. Write a daily poem or short story

12. No cursing for 30 days

13. Pray (or spend time in quiet reflection) every morning

14. Watch a TED Talks (or similar) every day

Difficulty Level – Medium

15. 30-day vegan challenge

16. 30 days of following a strict budget (no “wants,” only “needs”)

17. 30-day gym challenge

18. 30-day documentary challenge

19. 30-days of cleaning and organization; the decluttered home challenge

20. No fast food, no carryout, and no dining out for 30 days

21. Write a book chapter daily

Difficulty Level – Hard

22. 30-day art challenge (one drawing or painting per day)

23. 30-day Pinterest challenge (one Pinterest project a day)

24. No social media

25. 30 days of no caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or other substances

26. No driving for a month

Difficulty Level – Nearly Impossible

27. No cell phone or Internet (except for work-related use); the 30-day unplugged challenge

28. One hour of daily exercise

29. 50 sits ups or crunches daily

30. Sugar-free challenge


Post your ideas for a 30-day challenge in a comment!

Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC