What science teaches us about motivation

Jenni Gritters
6 min readJan 26, 2024

Nolan felt draggy. He’d lost his mojo. He was dreading the projects on his plate, even though they were projects he would have loved once-upon-a-time. He’d been at this freelance game for over a decade and he felt like things were stale and uninspired.

He was in one of those “not terrible but not great” situations. He was hitting his income goals and doing work for arguably impressive clients. But he was finding it harder and harder to work at a fast clip. His work had started to creep into the evenings, and then the weekends. He came to me because he was working a little bit, all the time. And he was completely uninspired by all of it.

I’ve been there. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. This is the reason why big tech companies move people through jobs every year or so. Novelty can add motivation and freshness to your workload. But when you work for yourself, you often need to create that novelty all on your own.

Motivation propels us through our days. Motivation is defined as a reason for behaving a certain way. It’s a general desire — a willingness — to take action. In my coaching practice and my life, I’ve learned that action and motivation have a bit of a chicken-and-egg relationship. Action can help you find motivation. But motivation is necessary to sustain action. You need both, and they feed off of each other over time. When you’re stuck, you’ll often need to take action before you feel motivated. Little action steps can help you reconnect with your why on a stalled project.

Here’s the science: There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

I’ll start with extrinsic motivation, which involves doing something because of external rewards. (Sometimes, you’ll do the thing to avoid external punishment, too.) Think back on your school days: Grades are a great example of extrinsic motivators. Getting praise from your teachers can make you feel really good. This happens in our businesses, too: Extrinsic motivators include getting paid well, receiving positive feedback from clients, feeling like you have the admiration of others (yes, Twitter likes are an extrinsic motivator), winning awards, or working for a prestigious client.

All of these motivators involve something outside of you that drives you forward…

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Jenni Gritters

I’m a writer and business coach for freelance creatives based in Central Oregon. I write about the psychology of small business ownership.