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Understanding motivation

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

How shifting your perspective can help when you struggle with motivation

A crucial skill of successful people is that they know how to motivate themselves effectively. Their success is in many ways a result of their ability to stick with a task or activity until it’s completed, to see things through to the end.

There are different ways to think about motivation. One of the most widely known concepts distinguishes between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. A lesser-known approach is to think of motivation as either moving away from a negative outcome or moving towards a positive outcome. Understanding the different types and how they work can help us come up with solutions when we struggle with motivation.

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation

Simply put, extrinsic motivation means that the source of our motivation is external and that our behavior is influenced by external forces. We are motivated to engage in an activity not primarily because we enjoy it, but because we want to earn a reward or avoid negative consequences.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is when we engage in an activity because we find it enjoyable or interesting. There are no obvious external rewards, it’s the act of doing something that’s rewarding in itself. The source of our motivation is internal.

Here are a few examples that illustrate the differences:

Which is better? Extrinsic or intrinsic motivation?

While it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that intrinsic motivation is inherently better, the fact is that both ways can be effective. It’s important to remember that each person is different, and what motivates us and our perspectives of rewards are also different.

It is generally agreed that intrinsic motivation is preferable, particularly if you are choosing an activity or task for yourself. On the other hand, extrinsic motivation can be useful when you have to complete a task that you find unpleasant.

Looking at the examples above, an important thing becomes clear. In many cases, we are motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically. Let’s take the marathon example. You know you will enjoy participating in the event anyway, but you are also aiming for a place on the podium. In this case, the external reward can reinforce your intrinsic motivation and provide you with a goal to work towards.

An external reward can reinforce your intrinsic motivation.

Adding an external reward to something we enjoy doing can be a powerful combination. The challenge is to find the right balance in order to avoid the overjustification effect in which excessive external rewards can diminish our intrinsic motivation.

Shifting your perspective

Sometimes we can't avoid doing something we don't enjoy. This can happen when you're told what to do by someone else. Let’s say your boss told you that you needed to upskill in order to improve your performance. Maybe with the implicit threat that otherwise your position might be in danger. And let’s say you’re not especially interested in the skills you’re being asked to acquire. So your motivation to upskill will be mainly extrinsic, i.e. you want to avoid negative consequences.

Of course, the prospect of losing your job is a powerful motivation and if you have decided that you want to remain in your position you will probably study hard and diligently. Nevertheless, it’s worth exploring if you can develop a certain level of intrinsic motivation to balance things out. This requires shifting your perspective.

There is a related but slightly different way of looking at motivation as falling into one of two categories: “moving away from a negative outcome” vs “moving toward a positive outcome”.

Moving towards a positive outcome

Same as with extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, both kinds can be effective and depending on the situation our motivation can be a combination of both. Someone who “moves away” is usually focused on what they don’t want; in our case, losing their job. In times of crisis or when we’re unhappy with a certain situation, it’s common for most people to think this way. Problems arise when someone is constantly locked in this perspective because it directs their attention to the negatives in their experience, filtering out the positives.

So how can you turn your motivation into a “moving toward” perspective? A subtle but effective way is changing the language. Instead of thinking “If I don’t improve, I might not be able to keep my job” (a double negative), you can reframe it to “If I successfully improve my skills, I have a good chance of staying in my job”.

In this way, you can turn your fear of losing your job into something positive to strive for. A forward-looking perspective can inspire a further change of mindset. It may allow you to see how these new skills will benefit yourself (and not just your company). How they will help you grow and potentially lead to increased job security - not just with regard to your current position that you’re trying to save but also for the future; the new skills set might look good on your resume and could open the door to a future opportunity that is more in line with your values and your interests.


When you struggle with motivation, it’s helpful to figure out whether you are motivated intrinsically or extrinsically. Question your motives, ask yourself why you are doing it and what it is that you are getting out of it. If you find your source of motivation is mostly an external one, see if you can “add” some intrinsic motivation to the mix. A good way to foster intrinsic motivation is to ensure the activity you engage in or the goal you set is in line with your core values.

If you realize that your main focus is on avoiding negative consequences, try and reframe your thinking to create a positive outcome that will motivate you to move towards it. As Elle Wilks wrote:

"Avoiding a negative outcome is not as fulfilling as achieving a goal, in part because it is never really accomplished.”
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