Take a moment and think about what gets you out of bed and working hard every morning. If it’s a strict boss, your successful friends, or the desire for praise, it might be time to focus on the most important, long-lasting source of motivation: yourself.
In psychology, motivation is broken into two main categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is behavior motivated by external factors, while intrinsic motivation is driven by internal desires.
While both methods are effective in the short term, self-motivation is the most sustainable and can help you turn long-term goals into reality. Though tapping into that inner drive might not be easy, there are concrete steps you can take to master the technique.
“Self-motivation comes from feeling motivated by factors that are important to you rather than factors that are important to others,” says career coach and consultant Jess Wass.
Self-motivation is our internal drive, whether it’s focused on climbing the ranks in your career or training for a marathon.
Behavioral science professor Ayelet Fishbach says research shows that people experience some form of desire about half the time they’re awake. However, half of that desire conflicts with their goals (e.g., staying awake for work when you desire a nap).
“You basically need self-motivation all the time,” Fishbach says. “Obvious examples include pushing through some difficult tasks at work, navigating interpersonal conflicts, controlling what you eat, exercising, managing your finances, and more.”
Examples of self-motivation:
- You’re working on a six-month project at your job. After assigning it to you, your boss has not checked in and has let you work autonomously. Even though you are not being measured on your progress, you set weekly goals over the six-month period to keep yourself on track and accountable.
- You take a walk outside every day. You go alone, and don’t post it on social media, but continue to do so each day because you know it’s healthy mentally and physically.
- You started a newsletter in your free time, and have to work nights and weekends to get it done. It’s an independent project, so there are no consequences if you skip an issue, but you haven’t because you’re passionate about the newsletter and its subject matter.
Why is self-motivation important?
“Self-motivation is important because other people are not always around to hold us accountable,” says professor Scott Geller, who teaches a course in the psychology of self-motivation.
Relying on others to motivate you isn’t sustainable: teachers, parents, or bosses cannot continuously follow you around. The only long-term, dependable source of motivation is yourself.
And while mastering self-motivation can benefit your career, productivity, health, and more, the biggest benefit to implementing the habit may be your outlook on life.
“When we’re doing something because we want to do it, rather than because somebody is telling us to do it — that’s happiness, right?” says Geller.
Luckily, self-motivation is a skill that can be honed, and there are concrete techniques you can implement in order to achieve it.
- Find your why: If you’re feeling listless or downright unhappy at your job, it can be helpful to remember why you do what you do, whether it’s a paycheck, a career move, or simply stability. Evaluate what you’re getting out of a certain situation and refocus your attention on the positives to increase your self-motivation.
- Take learning opportunities: Even in the worst situations, there’s often a lesson or skill to be learned, whether it’s a soft skill such as time management or a hard skill such as coding. Focusing on bettering yourself can boost drive and provide you with an intrinsic motivator.
- Record your wins: Wass asks her clients to list three wins at the end of each week. This habit helps you tap into positivity and build a sense of pride. Feeling accomplished feeds self-motivation and gets you out of a rut.
- Set goals: Find goals that fulfill you personally — the more you care about something, the easier it will be to reach your target. (For example, if you don’t want to run a marathon, training for it will likely be unsuccessful).
Also try to add fun whenever possible in the goal-setting process: Enjoying the journey will naturally bring about self-motivation. This could mean bringing friends along for the ride or giving yourself a designated award at completion.
- Exchange advice: Use social support to give and get advice. Giving advice helps you step into the role of a mentor, which can motivate you to continue advancing toward your desired goals. Getting advice can teach you something new and inspire you to keep up with the hard work.
- Set long-term goals: Setting goals in increments of weeks or months rather than days can help you stick to the bigger picture and prioritize tasks more easily.
How to increase self-motivation
Once you’ve identified the techniques that can be used to boost self-motivation, it’s time to get to work.
“The first step to adopting a new habit or behavior is to understand why you want that new behavior and how it aligns with your needs and values,” says entrepreneur coach Kristyna Zapletal. Zapletal cautions that many fall into a trap of making decisions that benefit their career path, but don’t align with their deeper values or needs.
Once you set sights on what you really want, Zapletal advises clients to make specific plans for how they are going to accomplish a task, regardless of how simple it is.
If your goal is to run each morning, dig into what that means and plan around it. How many times per week will you run? Which days of the week? How many miles? She also recommends coming up with a plan B: If you can’t hit your mileage goal one morning, set a second, easier goal to hit.
“The more specific the plan, the higher the chance that you will succeed,” says Zapletal.
Goal-setting and self-motivation go hand in hand, and the more purposeful you are with your goals, the more likely you are to meet them.
Geller says in order to boost your self-motivation, you need to make sure your goals are not only specific but also measurable, achievable, relevant, trackable, and shareable (his play on the SMART goal-setting method).
Breaking down large, daunting goals into smaller steps increases your self-motivation and helps you stick with the task at hand. If your dream is to start a daily newsletter, don’t pressure yourself to write a smart, lengthy newsletter from day one. Instead, outline tasks for each week: one week can be spent reading other newsletters you find inspiring, the next can be used to outline information for the first issues, the next you can find an interview subject, etc.
Self-motivation at work
Self-motivation plays a crucial role in the workplace as it can dictate how driven employees are (or aren’t) to meet company goals.
“Motivation is an important topic to understand, especially as you move into management and need to understand what motivates different people,” says Wass. “We can start to apply these principles to create better relationships between leaders and employees.”
Wass points out that many times when employers attempt to motivate workers, they do so using external motivation tools like promotions and pay raises. While these extrinsic motivators can be effective, they are not long-term solutions for keeping employees happy and satisfied.
“Even if you pay people, there are other factors that make them feel disconnected from their work: like if they don’t feel there’s impact or purpose,” says Wass.
Employers can motivate workers by tapping into their intrinsic motivations. Ideas include starting philanthropic initiatives that allow employees to engage with causes they care about, allowing workers the freedom to pursue their passions (e.g., hosting ideas contests or social activities), and giving opportunities for mentorship and personal development.
All these avenues can lead to long-term, sustainable motivation and overall career satisfaction.
But if and when companies fail to provide fulfilling motivation for their employees, it falls on individuals to use self-motivation techniques to avoid unhappiness at work.
“More and more people are realizing that they want to want to go to work, and they’re asking themselves what they need to do to get there,” says Wass.