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drawing of motivation and why

❝The amount of purpose we get in our lives has much less to do with the "what" and a lot more to do with the "why."❞ -Mark Manson

Have you ever felt unmotivated? You just can't find the motivation to exercise, clean your place, study, mow the grass, or play with your kids.

When you get these feelings, it might be helpful to learn that you aren't unmotivated; you just have more motivation to do something else.

Motivation has several components, can be positive or negative, and can originate outside or inside us. Breaking down the components of motivation can give you some insights into what motivates you and how you can make that change you've been trying to make.


Motivation, at its core, is why you do something. It is the reason behind your behavior. Nobody is unmotivated. If it ever feels like you're not motivated, it simply means that you are more motivated to do one thing than another thing. For example, I might not feel motivated to work out, but that's not because I don't have motivation. I just have more motivation to sit on my couch.

We can be motivated by different factors. One way to think about motivation is with the acronym "DARN."

drawing of darn motivation, desire, ability, reasons, need

"D" is for desire. This is what you want or don't want. I might want to be in shape. I might also not want to lift weights.

"A" is for ability. This is how well you can or can't do something or how confident you are in your ability. I might want to compete in an Ironman Triathlon, but don't have the ability to do so. Or, I might have the ability to cut out pasta from my diet, but lack the confidence that I can do it.

"R" is for reasons. There may be reasons for you to do or not do something. If my doctor told me to stop eating high-cholesterol foods, I would have at least one reason motivating me to cut out those kinds of foods.

"N" is for need. This is how important it is for you to do or not do something. If I need to get a new car to get to work, it's important for me to go car shopping - motivating me to start looking.

Looking at your behaviors through these lenses can help you identify areas where you may be getting stuck. Maybe you know you need to do something (N), likely because you have several reasons (R) to do so. You might even have confidence that you could (A) if you decided to do it. But if you don't really want to (D), you might not be able to. Addressing which of these factors either moves you toward or away from what you want to accomplish can be insightful.

drawing of darn, desire, ability, reasons, need


In addition to these "DARN" factors, there are other ways to think about motivation. There are motivators that are things you don't want; things you want to avoid. These are what psychologist William Miller calls "no motivators." It's a potential future or outcome you don't want to have happen.

  • I don't want to be destitute in my older years; therefore, I'm motivated to save for the future.

  • I don't want my boss to yell at me; therefore, I'm motivated to show up on time and do a good job.

  • I don't want to want to waste my life; therefore, I'm motivated to live in line with my values.

No motivators, also called avoid motivators, are about running AWAY from something.

drawing of no motivator

It's easier for humans to articulate what we don't want. It's far more difficult to articulate what we actually do want. And yet, those who do know what we want have found another type of motivation, "go motivators." This is about a potential future or outcome that I want to see happen.

  • I want to feel financially responsible; therefore, I'm motivated to save.

  • I want to be promoted; therefore, I'm motivated to show up on time and do a good job.

  • I want to make the most of this life that I've been given; therefore, I'm motivated to live in line with my values.

Go motivators, also called approach motivators, are about running TOWARD something.

drawing of go motivator

The Three Dimension Meaning in Life Scale assesses three dimensions of meaning in life: coherence, purpose, and significance. Coherence is the feeling that your life makes sense. Purpose is having direction in life. Significance is the belief that your life has value.


Regardless of what we want or don't want, how much confidence we do or don't have, what reasons there are, or how important we perceive a change to be, and regardless of whether we are running toward or away from something, there is another level of motivation. Whether the motivator is extrinsic or intrinsic.

Extrinsic motivation is something that originates outside of us. This is something that motivates us only because someone or something out in the world exists. If that "thing" out there in the world didn't exist, I wouldn't have that motivation.

For example, I might want (desire) to get a bonus (go) or want (desire) to avoid getting fired (no), I might be motivated to increase my sales calls. Yet if I wouldn't make these calls if there was no bonus or if my job wasn't on the line, then I'm extrinsically motivated to make these calls.

Extrinsic motivation can work; it's just that if we're motivated extrinsically, anything will stop us.

drawing of extrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation originates inside of us. It's a fire that burns in us. This is motivation because it's who we are. If we are motivated intrinsically, then we would do it even if we couldn't tell anyone about it.

When we're motivated intrinsically, nothing will stop us.

drawing of intrinsic motivation


The tricky thing about motivation is that it's not just a single thing. You aren't just motivated for one thing at a time. We are motivated for multiple things across multiple areas of our lives. These parallel motivations mean we have a web of motivation inside us.

Sometimes, two (or more) of these motivations point to opposite sides of the same thing. I might be motivated to go to the gym and, at the same time, be motivated to watch another show on Netflix.

This uncomfortable feeling of being motivated in different directions is called ambivalence, and even though it's uncomfortable, it's a normal part of life.

drawing of ambivalence

If you know there's a change you want to make but haven't been able to get yourself to do it, it could be worth looking for the competing motivation.

Once you know what motivates you, you can use some tools to draw out the motivation that points toward the change you want to make.

One such tool is called a change ruler (or a scaling question). Think about the change you want to make. Now, on a scale from one to ten, ask yourself how likely it is that you'll do it (instead of likely, you can use "how important it is," "how ready you are," "how confident you are that you'll do it," and so on).

drawing of scaling question

It doesn't matter what the number is. If it's high, great. If it's not as high as you hoped, that's okay, too. The absolute value doesn't much matter at this point. You're not trying to force a particular number. Nor are you trying to induce shame or guilt for not being higher. You're not lying to yourself, either. This works best if you use the first answer that comes to mind without filtering or censoring yourself.

drawing of scaling question

Now, ask yourself why the number you picked is so high. If you picked a 6, ask why you didn't leave it at 5, or 2. If you picked a 10, ask why you picked the top number instead of leaving it at 9. If you picked a 3, ask why you didn't pick 1.

By asking why you picked a higher number, you're drawing out your motivation for making this change. Write down your answers. Think about those answers. See if it changes anything.

drawing of scaling question

Motivation is a simple concept, but it has more facets to it than it seems. Thinking about your motivation through these lenses can shed some insights into what your true motivations are and how you might be able to tap into your existing motivation to make the change you've been thinking about.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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