See also: Setting Personal Goals

Self-motivation is, in its simplest form, the force that drives you to do things. 

Self-motivation is far from being a simple topic; there are many books, webpages and articles that attempt to explain self-motivation and some top academics have dedicated their life’s work to trying to understand, model and develop motivation theory.

Self-motivation is a key life skill and something that everybody interested in personal development should think carefully about. It is also a key part of emotional intelligence, one of the three areas of personal skills that are integral to the concept.

What is Motivation?

Motivation is what pushes us to achieve our goals, feel more fulfilled and improve overall quality of life.

Daniel Goleman, the author of several seminal books on Emotional Intelligence, identified four elements that make up motivation:

  • Personal drive to achieve, the desire to improve or to meet certain standards;
  • Commitment to personal or organisational goals;
  • Initiative, which he defined as ‘readiness to act on opportunities’; and
  • Optimism, the ability to keep going and pursue goals in the face of setbacks.

There are many advantages to self-motivation. People who are self-motivated, for example, tend to be more organised, have good time management skills and more self-esteem and confidence.

Understanding and developing your self-motivation can help you to take control of many other aspects of your life.

What is Your Motive?

Fundamental to self-motivation is understanding what motivates you to do things.

This may sound straightforward but sometimes your motivation is hidden from your consciousness – your own personal hidden agenda.  Your motivation may well change from hour-to-hour, day-to-day and through life.  As this happens your needs, wants and goals change and evolve.

There are two main types of motivation: ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ motivation.

In their simplest form you can think about these two types of motivation as:

  • Intrinsic = love, because we want to.
  • Extrinsic = money, because we have to.

A more detailed definition is:

  • Intrinsic: To perform an action or task based on the expected or perceived satisfaction of performing the action or task.  Intrinsic motivators include having fun, being interested and personal challenge.
  • Extrinsic: To perform an action or task in order to attain some sort of reward, including money, power and good marks or grades.

Different people are motivated by different things and at different times in their lives.  The same task may have more intrinsic motivators at certain times and more extrinsic motivators at others, most tasks have a combination of the two types of motivation.


John works because he has to pay his mortgage and feed himself and his family. He gets no satisfaction from his job and there is no chance of promotion. John’s motivators are purely extrinsic.
Sally works because she loves what she does, she gets enormous satisfaction and self-fulfilment from her work.  Sally has enough money put away that she does not need to work, she owns her house outright and can afford to buy what she wants when she wants it.  Sally’s motivators are purely intrinsic.

Clearly Sally and John are at different ends of the spectrum when it comes to self-motivation. Most people, however, fall somewhere in the middle.

Most people do have to work in order to earn money, but at the same time they also find their day-to-day work life rewarding or satisfying in other intrinsic ways - job satisfaction and the chance to socialise with colleagues, for example.

See our page: Work-Life Balance for more on this.

We all have a tendency to work better when we love what we are doing.

It’s easier to get out of bed in the morning, we are happier in our work, and happier in general.

Research shows that this is particularly important when we’re under stress. It’s much easier to cope with stress and long hours if we generally enjoy the work.

When thinking about what motivates you to perform a certain task, think about both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators – if you have trouble getting motivated to perform specific tasks it may be useful to write them down and list the motivators for each.

The Importance of Obligation

What about if a task has neither intrinsic nor extrinsic motivators?

The obvious conclusion is that we are unlikely to do it, because it will be pointless.

We all know it doesn’t always work like that. There is a further issue: feelings of obligation.

Obligation motivators are not necessarily strictly intrinsic or extrinsic but can still be very powerful. Obligation comes from our personal ethics and sense of duty, what is right and what is wrong.

You may feel obliged to go to a party because you were invited by somebody you know – there will be no obvious extrinsic or intrinsic benefit to you attending but you may worry if you don’t go.  You are more likely to enjoy the party you feel obliged to attend if you go with a positive and open attitude – this way you have also added an intrinsic motivator, fun and enjoyment.

Skills Involved in Self-Motivation

There are a number of skills involved in self-motivation.

These include:

Those who are motivated also find it much easier to motivate others. This can be particularly important in leadership roles.

See our page on Motivation Skills for more.

Keep Motivated

Finally, it is important to keep track of what you want to achieve and stay motivated to do so.  To keep your motivation levels up try to:

Learn and Acquire Knowledge

Read, study and talk to people – knowledge and information are key for feeding your mind and keeping you curious and motivated. See our pages What is Learning?, Lifelong Learning and our section: Study Skills for some tips on how to make your learning more effective.

Keep the Company of Enthusiastic People

Try to avoid negative people and seek out positive, well-motivated people. It is a lot easier to be motivated if the people around you are.

Keep Positive

Keep a positive attitude, see problems and set-backs as learning opportunities. For more about this, see our pages on Mindsets and Positive Thinking.

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Work on ironing out your weaknesses and building on your strengths.

Do It

Try not to procrastinate, assess the risks but keep working towards your goals. See our pages Time Management and Minimising Distractions for more.

Get Help and Help Others

Don’t be afraid to ask other for help and don’t hold back if you can help them. Seeing other people succeed will help to motivate you to do the same.