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3 types of motivation that can inspire you to do anything

Perform this mental shift when you need some extra encouragement.
Carrots Dangling From A Stick
A carrot bunch dangling from a stick against a white background.DNY59 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

We all have motivation that ebbs and flows.

Some mornings you wake up energized to get to work and power through that to-do list. Others you smack the alarm clock, curse the morning and give yourself an extra five minutes to dream about putting in your notice and getting the first flight out to a tropical locale.

Not to mention the peaks and valleys that we experience within just one day: First thing in the morning (with a workout and an espresso under our belt) we're feeling like a walking advertisement for motivation. By the time the afternoon munchies kick in we're counting down the hours until we can throw in the towel.

But identifying the "why" behind the actions you perform can make finding the motivation to do them easier on those days when you’re feeling less-than-inspired. Whether you’re dragging yourself to the gym or fighting the mental battle against procrastination at work, making a mental shift to reconnect to your source of motivation can give you the boost to get it done.

The 3 Types of Motivation

Motivations are primarily separated into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic. Good news if neither of these get the job done. Researchers have identified a third type of motivation that's impressively effective.

1. Extrinsic

Doing an activity to attain or avoid a separate outcome

Chances are, many of the things you do each day are extrinsically motivated.

According to research published in Contemporary Educational Psychology, “Extrinsic motivation is a construct that pertains whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome.”

Like exercising to lose weight, learning to speak Italian to impress your friends, or getting to work on time to avoid being yelled at by your boss.

“Extrinsic motivation is doing something for the external rewards you get from it. In your career, this can include financial gain, benefits, perks and even avoiding getting fired,” says says Shawna Clark, owner of Clark Executive Coaching, a leadership development company.

When you find your inspiration waning, re-focusing on external rewards is a quick way to recommit to a goal or activity, whether that be performing well at work or sticking to an exercise routine. If you find yourself grumbling through your commute each day (to perform a job you’re not crazy about) try focusing on the external rewards — be it the paycheck that pays your rent, the health insurance or even the free fruit in the cafeteria — to get motivated.

2. Intrinsic

An internal drive for success or sense of purpose

The journal of Contemporary Educational Psychology defines intrinsic motivation as doing “an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards.”

Hopefully you have a handful of actions you perform each day that fall under this bucket. Your job may not provide obvious sources of intrinsic motivation, but perhaps you head out for a run because you enjoy the experience of unplugging and pounding the pavement or help your neighbor carry their groceries up the stairs because you genuinely feel good doing it.

“Intrinsic motivation is doing something because it feels good to you. You feel internally rewarded for doing it,” says Clark. “In a job, this can be doing work that feels purposeful, enjoying time with your teammates or achieving goals you’ve set for yourself.”

Say, for example, you’re a financial adviser and feel genuine satisfaction from being able to help people manage their money in a way that betters their lives. Or you’re a marketing executive who enjoys brainstorming new campaigns with your colleagues.

Many people find it harder to identify sources of motivation in this bucket. (Who actually enjoys running or spending 40 hours a week behind a desk?)

There is some convincing evidence to encourage us all to identify our sources of intrinsic motivation, though. In a study of 14 years of data, researchers looked at the motivations and outcomes for more than 10,000 incoming cadets at West Point Military Academy. What they found was that cadets with primarily internal motives were about 20 percent more likely to make it through training than the average. (Plus, those with external motivations had a 10 percent lower chance of sticking with a military career and a 20 percent lower chance of being promoted early.)

Just because you don’t immediately see the connection with your own job doesn’t mean it doesn't exist. Step back and take a look at the role you perform each day and look for sources of success or purpose. For example: You may not care much about the product your company sells or find satisfaction in fielding phone calls, but as a customer service rep, you can focus on feeling good about the people you were able to help throughout the day and use that as a source of motivation to keep working hard.

Image: A family plays a board game.
The drive to support a family is enough for most people to find meaning in their work. Getty Images

3. Family

Motivated by the desire to provide for your loved ones

Finding intrinsic motivation isn’t always easy, especially for those of us who aren't passionate about our work. Luckily, there is a way to compensate: Think about your family. This has emerged as a third source of motivation proven to be a strong source of inspiration — even for those who do not feel intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to do something.

A new study published in the Academy of Management Journal looked at a group of factory workers whose jobs entailed performing the same mundane task day after day, without any rewards for good performance. You’d think in the absence of both an intrinsic and extrinsic motivator, the workers would have little incentive to work hard in their roles. But what the researchers found was that some people who lack both kinds of motivation are still spurred on by a third factor called “family motivation.”

Those who identified with the statement “I care about supporting my family” felt more energized and performed better each day, even when they didn’t find the work enjoyable and had no financial incentive to perform it.

“Family motivation can relate to both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. If family is a top value of yours, then your family can serve as an intrinsic motivator. If you feel family pressure or obligations, then that's more of an extrinsic motivator,” says Clark.

As organizational psychologist Nick Tasler says, “Every job — whether you’re washing dishes or performing kidney surgery — provides us with the opportunity to affirm our identities as capable, respectable individuals, upon whom the most important people in our lives can rely.”

We’ll keep that in mind next time we spend the afternoon wrangling our email inboxes.