The Neurology of Motivation

In its simplest form, motivation is a choice between two outcomes. In your brain, you balance the short and long-term costs and rewards of various options, and make a decision. And oftentimes short-term interests win out over long-term interests – it’s why checking email for the 100th time and getting out one more social media update wins out over writing that proposal (that will actually bring money in the door). The dopamine hit from the short-term win is just so powerful!

The rationalization process then starts in our brain: I promised that proposal to the client by the end of the week. But it’s 4 o’clock now and I don’t want to get sucked in and be here all night doing it. It’s going to be take more than two hours. I know, I’ll just start it tomorrow after my 10 o’clock tomorrow and work through lunch. Yep, I really should go through and answer those tweets and get one more update done to our Facebook page.

So then we put off the proposal.

The Drive Approach to Motivation

If you’ve never read Drive by Daniel Pink, I can’t recommend it highly enough — especially if you are interested in what makes people tick. The Cliff’s Notes version is that he believes that for true intrinsic motivation (which is the only kind that works in the long run) you need three things: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. And if you can combine those three things together, then you have the winning combination — which means that the proposal will win out over the social media updates.


When you have autonomy over what you do, you are considerably more likely to do it. In this case, there is no question that our industrious businessperson has autonomy over what they are doing. But, autonomy is only one-third of the equation.


We all like to be good at stuff. But I have yet to see an instruction manual for running a business (or writing the perfect proposal) so it’s hard to know what to do – and what not to do. The 10,000 hour rule tells us that it takes 10,000 hours (or about 10 years) to develop mastery of any one activity – and while deliberate practice can help us cut that time in half, there is simply no substitute for doing the work.

But, this is where surrounding yourself with smart people – in the form of an awesome team, supportive peers, excellent coach, and a strong community – will accelerate your road to mastery.

If our proposal-writer doesn’t have a lot of proposal-writing experience, he’s almost certainly going to pick social media over proposal-writing until he no longer has a choice.


To me, this is actually the most important component – buy-in. Understanding why you are doing something gives us the motivation to power through the 10,000 hours of learning. It can even help in situations where we don’t have the autonomy that we might otherwise want. When you have something you believe in, with your entire heart, you are willing to overlook a lot of other things.

The Magic of the Trifecta

Now, imagine that you have all three. What sort of magic can you create?

Image credit: Martin Whitmore

About Jen Waak

Jen Waak is a health, wellness, and fitness coach that works with entrepreneurs and other crazy-busy professionals to help them have the bodies they want without having to give up their lives. Also the author of the Keyboard Athletes Guide to Pain Relief & Prevention, Jen lives, trains, and coaches in Seattle, WA. Sign up for her no-cost course How to Have the Body You Want (Without Giving Up Your Life) at

  • Joel D Canfield

    Pink’s AMP trifecta plays a big role in my newest book, “You Don’t Want a Job” and I love your summary of the concepts here.

    • JenWaak

      Thanks, Joel. That trifecta is a great way to explain motivation in an easy-to-understand way. And congrats on your new book!

  • Megan Elizabeth Morris

    So helpful to be reminded of stuff like this, because I know what I default to fairly frequently: “Aaaah, the more caffeine I consume, the more motivated and productive I will be!” And of course, this is fundamentally flawed…

    • SheilaSchnauzies

      You too?  When I get ready to start a big project, I have to pop a special K-cup flavor in my Keurig! Now, that’s being spoiled… but it works for me!

  • Megan Elizabeth Morris

    I was thinking about this again today. I think lately I get hitched up
    on autonomy more than anything, because I have some preconceived notions
    about whether I *should* do something, even if I believe it will result
    in success. Very interesting realization.

  • Eric Barrett

    I agree that intrinsic motivation is often a “linchpin” motivator. It’s hard to sustain anything if you don’t want to sustain it! However, we shouldn’t be too quick to simplify motivation. It’s one of the most complex behaviors people engage in - and there’s at least a dozen solid explanations / theories of motivation that all explain how people behave in certain situations.

    For instance no amount of intrinsic motivation will make me clean out my cat’s liter box. But by putting the litter box by the door and a little “reinforcement” from my wife keeps me doing it. :)

    Motivation is often more about identifying the situation and applying the right technique.

    • JenWaak

      Eric, you’re right, motivation is probably one of THE hardest things to pin down. In the case of the litter box, you do get motivated, but it’s not by the litter box, but by your wife. You could continue to ignore her “reinforcement”, but at some point it’s easier to do just what she asks than continue to not take it out.

      That’s what I mean that motivation is a choice between two outcomes. You’re choosing to keep peace in the house over doing something you really don’t want to.

      And I like putting out different theories because different ones resonate with different people and fit different situations. Ultimately, if I can provide a framework that resonates with people and gives them a model to start making the choices they know they want to make (but don’t for whatever reason) I consider it a huge win.

  • krishmadutia

    One needs to be in the flow as said by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Activity that gets one in the flow is what keeps one intrinsically motivated. The flow is a good read on this topic