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What's motivation again?

The simple answer would be the why behind your actions, but what is motivation, I mean really? Is it a feeling that makes you get out of the bed each day? Is it a person that influences your actions? Is it a belief that dictates your thoughts and mannerisms? WHAT IS MOTIVATION? The muddy nature of motivation makes it so hard to pin down, yet we all know how important it is. Why is something so crucial so invisible?

I’d argue we just aren’t looking in the right places. To answer what motivation is, we first need to understand where it may come from. Good for us, there are many ideas out there that give us a hint from where motivation arises.

A Bunch of Ideas

First, let’s understand that motivation is generally differentiated into two categories: Extrinsic Motivation and Intrinsic Motivation. Extrinsic motivation is an external incentive to do something which is usually expressed either through prizes or punishments. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is an internal value given to an action, which is usually felt as a reason or accomplishment (Cherry, 2020). This should make some sense. I can attest that I do my homework not because I want to but because I know the consequences of not doing so. On the other hand, spending time with friends feels rewarding and is valuable in and of itself. I’m not held at gunpoint to make a joke with my friends (for the most part).

Second, it's important to acknowledge that motivation usually arises from a need or imbalance, be it physiological or psychological. To better understand what I mean here, let’s look at (what some people call) the Humanistic Theory on motivation. Its main proponents are Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, who you may recognize from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (European Medical, 2022). This classic pyramid shows how we are first motivated by lower-level needs then higher-level needs (Management Study Guide, n.d.). These needs start from basic human rights like water and shelter and end with complex and personal goals like social acceptance and self-actualization. Looking at motivation as layers of needs, it can seem like a checklist that we go through. That would mean if you’re struggling to reach higher-level needs, maybe you still lack some of the more basic tiers (or maybe you just need sleep). In addition to this, Carl Rogers would later on propose that we seek to be aligned with an ideal-self, therefore concluding that self-actualization could only come as a result of this congruence (McLeod, 2014). The highest tier on this pyramid can only be achieved through a unification of expectation and reality or at least an overlap.

Third, experience and environment play a big role in motivating our actions. One great example of this is the Overjustification Effect. This effect occurs when an action we would normally find intrinsically motivating becomes unenjoyable when it is offered with the promise of an extrinsic reward. This counterintuitive phenomenon may happen for many reasons. One explanation states that we end up believing our only motivation for a said task was its reward and not its intrinsic value because of the human inability to properly recognize motivation sources (The Decision Lab, n.d.). Because of this, we may end up thinking we were coerced into acting, completely ignoring our original interest in the action. Reasoning like this is backed up by a study conducted on December 7, 2010 by Kou Murayama, Madoka Matsumoto, Keise Izuma, and Kenji Matsumoto. They found that “participants in the reward group showed less voluntary engagement in the task than those in the control group, indicating that their intrinsic motivation for the task was undermined by the introduction of extrinsic rewards.” (Murayama, 2018)

Another example of how the environment around us shapes our motivations comes from Motivation Contagion. It’s basically the feeling when the mood of a room changes and your own mood changes because of it. When we observe and interpret the motivations of those around us, it can cause our own motivations to shift accordingly (Boss & Kleinert, 2020). A study done by Wild, Enzle, and Hawkins on April 2, 1992 showed that students who were told their piano teachers were volunteers “enjoyed the lesson more, reported a more positive mood, and were more interested in further learning” in comparison to those who were told their piano teachers were paid (Wild et al., 1992). It's interesting to note how the children were not affected directly by whether or not the teacher was paid, but the mere knowledge of the “motivations” of the teacher caused them to change their own behavior and motivation for learning.

Now all this talk of theory and science got me thinking about whether or not any of this actually applied to real people? I needed insight and input from real people that shared similar experiences to me. I had the privilege to ask some students what they had to say: John (Jam) Uy (Grade 11), Haeri (Hailey) An (Grade 11), Joseph (Jef) Fernandez (Grade 12), Janelle Villanueva (Grade 12).

Here's What They Said

When asked whether or not Jam Uy was motivated to study, he replied similarly to how many others feel. “I’m more motivated to not fail than to feel motivated to do requirements.” As is made clear, his extrinsic value is visibly influencing his actions. The presence of failure and consequence is an external force pushing him towards action. Jam also mentions that he’s usually more interested in studying a topic he deems valuable. Jef Fernandez answered similarly, “Generally it depends on the subject. If it’s related to business, I’m more interested to finish those requirements… since it's sort of like my passion.” Once again, we see how his internal values and personality influence his intrinsic motivations. Hailey on the other hand takes a different approach, mentioning how she naturally prefers a clearer schedule. She usually starts her assignments the moment she gets a notification. She said “I am a type [of person] that I should finish it early so I can have free time.” School work is approached differently by different people. From these responses, it seems natural to conclude that external rewards, be it physiological or psychological, really help in motivating people to study and finish requirements. However, it is useful to remember that topics that are seen as valuable or interesting usually coincide with more motivation.

On the other spectrum of school work are hobbies. Hobbies are unique, in terms of motivation, since it usually still requires effort and work but are seen as interesting or exciting. Especially with the health week, seeing each student’s motivation or lack thereof can help us better grasp these concepts. While talking about her hobby of writing stories, Haeri mentions “when I'm sleepy or having too much stress I would kinda feel unmotivated to do my hobbies.” Seeing how physiological needs take priority and influence motivation intrigued me since it seemed to validate some of the theories I researched. Janelle Villanueva had a similar response, “I do more hobbies during the break [however] I believe that during the health break, it’s more of gaining energy for the next week.” Jef has a slightly different angle to the question. He responds “When I jog, it gives me time to think about what I should do. So yes, there’s more motivation after I do these hobbies.” Instead of thinking of hobbies as a source to drain resources, he saw them as replenishing sources of motivation. “My focus is not with the stress that I have anymore” said Jef while discussing his hobbies. Of these responses, I think it's useful to see how mindsets can either make hobbies providers or consumers of motivation. While neither mindset is necessarily more advantageous, the personalities and activities involved may have something to do with how they see their hobbies.

Now, like anyone, you aren’t always motivated to work. However, it’s useful to have strategies or systems to boost your motivation when you need to get stuff done. Jam was eager to share his new schedule that would help him do more. His new schedule would chop his day into blocks to focus on specific activities. He said “I’ll dedicate this time to doing my hobbies and I’ll dedicate this time to doing only requirements.” Jam explains, “it also helps for me to be motivated to study when I have calm thoughts and I’m not thinking of anything else that is distracting.” This schedule would help him segregate tasks and avoid that distracted and unfocused feeling. Janelle takes a different approach by using the pomodoro technique, or a modified version that works better for her. She says “I use (the) pomodoro technique, so it would push me to do things since there's a timer.” In addition to this, she usually prefers to work during the night because of the better internet speeds, quiet environment, and her relaxed feelings. For her, this environment, in addition to her techniques, help her in staying motivated to work. Hailey motivates herself a bit differently. “I usually listen to any music that makes me excited, usually the times when I feel unmotivated are when I’m sleepy or too lazy so I’ll do things that are something opposite.” In general, all these actions will differ depending on who you are, so it's important to experiment and find what motivates you, be it music or a nice quiet room.

Lastly, I couldn’t help but ask the overarching question. What motivates you? While this question is a bit broad and maybe even impossible to answer directly, their responses provided so much insight into how each person tackles motivation differently. Jam looks to the future when mentioning motivation. “I guess just looking at the positive impact and seeing the positive side”. Jam mentions how he will really enjoy the fulfillment and rest afterwards. Sometimes, it's easy to think of motivation as a day to day resource that gets spent and refilled. However, sometimes looking far into the future can provide us with the motivation to act in the present. Hailey on the other hand sees her friends and family as her main source of motivation. “I ask people, especially friends… my family [to motivate you?] yeah.” She notes that seeing progress feels really good and having that affirmation of a job well done is motivating. Somewhat similarly, Janelle finds this achievement motivating for school, “I guess it's the end result, I really look forward to the recognition day like receiving awards and then going up with my family, and I can see them very proud.” For her, there is great pride in knowing all your hard work paid off. For Jef, he is motivated by the people in his life. When asked about what motivates him, he begins with his crush. “They sort of become my muse when I work, when I think about them I strive to achieve that level of diligence and excellence in what I’m doing.” He goes on to mention his family and himself. He recognizes that as he grows older, his responsibilities grow and he must help his family in their “endeavors”. Lastly, he stakes God at the top of his motivation list. Jef is motivated and inspired by God whenever he has his quiet time. “I feel an odd sense of peace that nothing else could give.”

Back To The Premise

To answer the question, motivation can be just about anything that encourages or discourages an action. It can manifest itself as an external reward, like vocal recognition, money, or a physiological need. It can manifest itself as an internal reward, like achievement, fulfillment, or value. Motivation can arise from an environment where you can focus, a calm state of mind, a ready mindset, or even from doing a fun activity prior. Motivation can be sparked by the people we care about, the things we think about, and the way we see the world.

Motivation is complex and confusing. As you can see, even after a bunch of research and interviewing, there is not a concrete answer. Despite this, we shouldn’t be dismayed. It’s possible to find what motivates us and strengthen that. Take your time to experiment and try different methods. Try scheduling your time or using time management techniques like what Jam and Janelle did. Try listening to music that will hype you up before you study like what Hailey did. Try thinking about the people that inspire you like what Jef did. Once you’ve found something that works for you, keep trying to improve that. The beauty about motivation’s expansive answer is that motivation can come from anywhere, we just need to see it.



Boss, M., & Kleinert, J. (2020). Motivational contagion during exercise and the role of interpersonal relationships: An experimental study. PsyCh Journal, 10(1), 128-140.

Cherry, K. (2020, April 27). What is motivation? verywellmind.

The Decision Lab. (n.d.). Why do we lose interest in an activity after we are rewarded for it?

European Medical. (2022, January 25). The humanistic approach to motivation.

Management Study Guide. (n.d.). Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory.

McLeod, S. (2014). Carl Rogers theory. Simply Pyschology.

Murayama, K. (2018, June). The science of motivation. American Psychological Association.

Wild, T. C., Enzle, M. E., & Hawkins, W. L. (1992). Effects of perceived extrinsic versus intrinsic teacher motivation on student reactions to skill acquisition. Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

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