See also: Personal Empowerment

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.  

Motivation pushes us to achieve our goals, feel more fulfilled and improve overall quality of life.  People who are self-motivated tend to be more organised, with good time management skills and have 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.

Murder mystery novels, TV shows and movies are a popular genre, but the stories are often less about ‘Who Did It’ and more about ‘Why’ they did it – what was their motive?  Sleuths spend their time looking for physical clues and listening to alibis, but often the most gripping part of the story is in working out the murderer’s motives.  It may take some detective work to understand your motives too – what makes you do the things you do, and maybe more importantly what stops you from doing other things?

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.

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.

This may lead us to believe that if a task has neither intrinsic nor extrinsic motivators then we probably won’t perform it – as it would be pointless. 

This is the case until we take into account 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.

Setting Personal Goals

There is a strong correlation between self-motivation, personal goals and achievement.  In order to get properly motivated it helps to spend some time thinking about your personal goals and what you want to achieve in your life. 

We all have an inbuilt desire to achieve, what we want to achieve is personal to us and this may change through life.  At school you may want to achieve good grades, later you may want to pass your driving test or get a job.  People want to know that they have achieved, or have the ability to achieve something of value, meaning or importance.  Generally, the more people achieve, the more self-confident they become.  As self-confidence rises so does the ability to achieve more.  Conversely, when people fail to achieve and meet their goals, self-esteem and confidence can suffer, impacting on their motivation to achieve more.

Understanding the relationship between motivation, personal goal setting and achievement will help you set realistic personal goals, which in turn will allow you to achieve more in the longer term.

Personal goals can provide long-term direction and short-term motivation.  Goals help us to focus on what we want to be or where we want to go with our lives.  They can be a way of utilising knowledge, managing time and resources so that you can focus on making the most of your life potential.  

By setting clearly defined personal goals, you can measure your achievements and keep sight of your progress, if you fail to achieve at one step you can reassess your situation and try new approaches.  Keeping your life goals clearly defined and updated as your circumstances change and evolve is one of the most powerful ways to keep yourself motivated.

Life Goals

It is important to remember, when thinking about what you would like to achieve in your life, that change is inevitable.  Your circumstances and priorities will change through your life, you may realise, at the age of 40 that you are never going to be a concert pianist – as you had planned when you were 19.  However if you take the right steps from the age of 19 then there is nothing to stop you achieving this potential goal. 

When thinking about your lifetime goals, make them challenging and exciting, base them on your strengths but make them relevant to you and ultimately achievable.

It may be useful to categorise life goals:

  • Academic goals – what knowledge and/or qualifications do you want to achieve?
  • Career goals – where would you like your career to take you, what level do you want to reach?
  • Monetary goals – what do you aim to earn at given point in your life?
  • Ethical goals – do you want to volunteer some of your time to a good cause or get involved in local events, politics etc.?
  • Creative goals – how do you want to progress creatively or artistically?
  • Domestic goals – how would you like your domestic life to be in the future?
  • Physical goals – do you want to develop you skill in a certain sport or other physical activity?

Once you have thought about your life goals you can start to plan how best to achieve them.  Set yourself smaller goals for the future.  In ten years I will be…  in five years I will be… etc.  Work out plans of action with smaller and smaller sub-goals until you can arrive at an action plan that you can start working on now.

If one of your life goals is to write a book you could plan:

  • 5 years from now – publish my book
  • 4 years from now – finish the first draft of my book
  • 3 years from now – complete a university degree in creative writing
  • 1 year from now – develop an outline for my book
  • Next month – think about ideas and research potential story lines for my book
  • This week – read two books

Although this example is a very simplistic outline of a major life goal, it should give you an idea of how you can structure big goals and work out sub-goals that you need to achieve along the way.

Making Your Goals SMART:

It can be useful to make your goals and sub-goals fit the SMART criteria. 

That is goals should be:

  • S Specific – make each goal specific, so you know exactly what it is.
  • M Measurable – make each goal measurable so you know how you are progressing.
  • A Attainable – don’t set impossible goals, make sure each goal and sub-goal is attainable.
  • R Relevant – make your goals relevant.  Ensure your sub-goals are relevant to your life goals.
  • T Timed – set time-limits or deadlines for when to achieve each goal.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Keep Positive. Keep a positive attitude, see problems and set-backs as learning opportunities.
  4. Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses.  Work on ironing out your weaknesses and building on your strengths.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.