Self-motivation is, in its simplest form, the force that drives you to do things.
The topic of self-motivation, however, is far from simple. People can be motivated by many things, both internal and external, such as desire to do something, love of someone, or need for money. Usually, motivation is a result of several factors.
The ability to motivate yourself—self-motivation—is an important skill. Self-motivation drives people to keep going even in the face of set-backs, to take up opportunities, and to show commitment to what they want to achieve.
This page explains more about this essential area, part of emotional intelligence.
What is Motivation?
Motivation is what pushes us to achieve our goals, feel more fulfilled and improve our overall quality of life.
Understanding and developing your self-motivation can help you to take control of many other aspects of your life.
Motivation is one of the three areas of personal skills that are integral to the concept of emotional intelligence.
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. This is also known as resilience.
To improve self-motivation, it is therefore helpful to understand more about these individual elements.
The Elements of Self-Motivation
1. Personal drive to achieve
You could think of a personal drive to achieve as ambition, or perhaps personal empowerment. However, it is also worth thinking about it in terms of mindset.
There are two types of mindset, fixed and growth.
Those with a fixed mindset believe that talent is ingrained, and that we cannot change our level of ability.
Those with a growth mindset believe that they can improve their skills through hard work and effort.
Research shows that those who believe that they can improve—that is, who have a growth mindset—are far more likely to achieve in whatever sphere they choose. A growth mindset is therefore an important element in a personal drive to succeed.
For more about this, see our page on Mindsets.
2. Commitment to goals
There is considerable evidence, even if much of it is anecdotal, that goal-setting is important to our general well-being.
If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.
You should set goals beyond your reach so you always have something to live for.
The greater danger for most of us isn’t that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.
It certainly makes sense that ‘if you aim at nothing, it is easy to achieve it’, and that most of us need something in our lives to aim towards. Having an awareness of where you wish to be, and an understanding of how you plan to get there, is a vital part of staying motivated.
For more about how to set good goals, see our page on Setting Personal Goals.
Initiative is, effectively, the ability to take advantage of opportunities when they occur.
It is all too easy to hesitate, and then the opportunity may be gone. However, the old sayings ‘look before you leap’ and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread’ have a lot of truth in them. It is also important to think things through and ensure that you are making the right decision for you.
Initiative can therefore be considered as a combination of courage and good risk management:
Risk management is necessary to ensure that you identify the right opportunities to consider, and that they have the appropriate level of risk for you; and
Courage is necessary to overcome the fear of the unknown inherent in new opportunities.
4. Optimism or resilience
Optimism is the ability to look on the bright side, or think positively. Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ after a setback, or keep positive in the face of challenges. The two are closely related, although not exactly the same.
Resilient people use their ability to think as a way to manage negative emotional responses to events. In other words, they use positive or rational thinking to examine, and if necessary, overcome reactions that they understand may not be entirely logical. They are also prepared to ask for help if necessary—as well as to offer their own help generously to others in need.
See our pages on Resilience and Positive Thinking for more.
Types of Motivators: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators
In thinking about self-motivation, it is helpful to understand what motivates you to do things.
There are two main types of motivators: ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’.
In their simplest form you can think about these two types of motivation as:
Intrinsic = related to what we want to do.
Extrinsic = related to what we have to do.
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 external 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, and 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 self-motivation spectrum. 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.
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. Intrinsic motivators therefore plays a big part in self-motivation for most of us.
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 strictly either 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.
For more about this, you may want to read our page about Goodness: learning to use your ‘moral compass’.
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 that you will offend or upset your friend if you don’t go. You are more likely to enjoy the party, however, if you go with a positive and open attitude, expecting it to be fun. This adds an intrinsic motivator: fun and enjoyment.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Learn how to set yourself effective personal goals and find the motivation you need to achieve them. This is the essence of personal development, a set of skills designed to help you reach your full potential, at work, in study and in your personal life.
The second edition of or bestselling eBook is ideal for anyone who wants to improve their skills and learning potential, and it is full of easy-to-follow, practical information.
One Step at a Time…
Becoming self-motivated, or even just improving your self-motivation a little, will not happen overnight.
There are many skills involved, and you cannot expect to develop them all instantly. However, a better understanding of the elements of motivation, and particularly how they fit together, should help to increase your skills. Just remember, Rome was not built in a day: think about making progress over a long period of time and in small steps.