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EPY 101 - Educational, Career, and Personal Development: Motivation


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.

Other elements of personal drive include being organised, particularly being good at time management, and avoiding distractions.

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.

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.

3. Initiative

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.

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.

You Can Do It: Tips for Developing Self-Motivated Students

Possessing a strong sense of self-motivation doesn’t just make your students better equipped for excelling in the classroom. Being self-motivated is a critical skill for life. It’s an integral part of achieving goals, feeling fulfilled, moving up the career ladder and experiencing greater personal satisfaction. 

There are lots of ways to help motivate students. But finding ways to help them develop their own intrinsic sense of motivation will stretch far beyond your time with them—impacting the rest of their lives. To resurrect the old proverb, it’s the difference between giving them a fish and teaching them to fish so they can feed themselves for life. Here are five ways to help your students think about their own self-motivation:

1. Take the time to think about what motivates you. This is one of those things that’s more easily said than done. By truly taking the time to think about what intrinsically and extrinsically motivates us on an individual level, we can more easily set ourselves up to maximize our motivation—and therefore increase our likelihood of success. A few good questions to ask yourself to find out if a specific task is a motivator are: Do you look forward to doing it? Does doing it make you feel energized? After doing it, when you talk about it, do you light up? This could apply to being analytical, leading a group, solving a problem, using your creativity, etc. Whatever it applies to, find ways to work those things into the task at hand to increase your willingness to dive in and get it accomplished.

2. You positively must stay positive. Negativity has a far greater negative impact on an outcome than most people think. The easiest way to avoid it is to keep it in check and not allow it to creep in and take over. Focusing on the positive and trying to see the silver lining in a situation can help. To do this, try recalling and reliving past achievements, recognizing and stopping negative self-talk, ditching all-or-nothing thinking and severely limiting (if not altogether avoiding) the most negative people and sources of information in your life. Pretending your giving advice to a friend in your situation—then actually taking your own good advice—is another great way to practice positivity and self-love. Calling to mind three things you’re thankful for on a regular basis is another simple way to increase positive thinking patterns, along with proper self-care, including eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. Remember: negativity is the single biggest cause of procrastination.

3. Compare yourself to yourself. For some, it’s best to compete with themselves. By setting a goal and charting individual progress toward that goal, it becomes easier to see how far a person has come compared to where they started. It’s a great way to draw attention to progress, focus on momentum gained and keep it going. That’s because sometimes when we compare ourselves to others, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. This can have the reverse effect of making us feel more easily defeated—especially when we compare ourselves to someone we see as having already “made it.” Think about weight loss as an example. If you’re 50-pounds overweight, losing 10 pounds is a great start—you’re already 20% closer to your goal. But if you’re comparing yourself to a swimsuit model, you’ll likely still feel like the task is insurmountable and that you’re a failure. Setting smaller, bite-sized mini-goals (as opposed to focusing on the end goal) makes it easier to achieve. Plus, that gives you more mini-victories to celebrate and reward yourself for along the way.

4. Verbalize and visualize your intentions. By giving words to what we want and what we plan to do to attain it, we’re one step closer to making it a reality. Talking about our intentions to those we trust and are close to is a powerful way of starting the process of giving it a shape and form. Telling someone our plans helps ensure those intentions become a priority. It holds us accountable for taking the necessary steps to make it happen (because we said we would). Without sharing our intentions and goals with others, it becomes easier for them to fall by the wayside and never come to fruition. Picturing exactly what it will look like when you achieve your goal or accomplish your intention also increases its potential for becoming reality. If your goal is to get into a specific college, spend time visualizing every last detail and feeling—from the moment you get your acceptance letter to the way your dorm room is decorated and how you’ll feel walking across campus to class. 

5. Your surroundings matter. While most people can attest to having a sunnier outlook in a bright, organized space with lots of windows than they do in a dark, dreary basement filled with boxes, the same goes for the people we surround ourselves with. It’s important not to underestimate the power of spending time with (and energy on) people who bring out the best in us. We are what we surround ourselves with—which can be inspiring or downright scary. To make sure it’s the former and not the later, befriend people who already possess the characteristics you want to embody. No matter how strong you are, you’re not immune to negativity and bad influences. Peer pressure is real—so make sure it’s the positive kind that will help you live up to your potential.

Understand that motivation is different for everyone. What motivates one person might fall flat with the next, and what specifically motivates an individual changes and evolves over time. Sometimes day to day, and other as a result of the size and scope of the task at hand. That being said, the better students understand the benefits that result from harnessing a strong sense of self-motivation, the more likely they’ll be to make the necessary changes to incorporate those skills into their daily behavior.