The Science of Motivation: How to Achieve our Goals

We all have that one friend who seems to be excelling at about a thousand things at once, while we struggle with accomplishing even one thing on our to-do list. It’s not a question of our capability or our intelligence. By understanding the science of motivation, we’ll be able to uncover what we can do to set ourselves up for success, and work towards the goals we’ve set for ourselves in 2024.

In this article, we’ll share an overview of how motivation works; as well as provide you with a couple of sources that’ll help you reflect on your own motivation style. We’ll suggest how you can apply these theories of motivation to your daily life; and what you can do to get motivated again.


What is Motivation?

Motivation is the driving force behind our actions, towards a goal we want to achieve. Typically, we can separate motivation into two types:

  • Extrinsic Motivation: in which your motivation comes from external sources, such as wanting social validation for the work you’ve done or receiving a prize for accomplishing something
  • Intrinsic Motivation: in which you’re motivated to work because of an internal, personal reason, which could be just the enjoyment of the task or wanting to learn more, for your self-growth

Both types of motivation are equal in their importance in driving your actions: without motivation, whatever the source, we may find it hard to work towards any task. However, it’s important to know what you’re motivated by, so that you can tweak your goals and expectations accordingly. There are quizzes online that can help you determine what your motivation style is, such as this one by Oprah or the 16 Personalities test.

Theories of Motivation

With the importance of motivation, it’s natural that there’s been a lot of research conducted on how motivation works to influence our behaviours. There have been e a number of theories that have been established over the years; here are the three more prominent theories that are worth highlighting.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the most famous theories in psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a way of understanding human behaviour and motivation, based off fulfilling (basic) needs that each individual has.


The hierarchy is typically shown as a pyramid with five levels. Starting from the bottom (which is the widest) level and moving upwards: 

  • Physiological: This includes things that are vital for survival, such as food and water
  • Safety: Feeling safe encompasses your physical safety; as well as whether you feel secure over your health and your finances
  • Love and Belonging: This includes your social needs, relating to the connections you feel with your loved ones and the community around you
  • Esteem: Your esteem looks at how people value and appreciate you, and the importance you hold 
  • Self-Actualisation: The highest-tier on the hierarchy, self-actualisation is a little more ambiguous and unique to each person – it refers to the potential that you’re to achieve as yourself

The theory states that individuals will take action to fulfil their lower-level needs (i.e. physiological) first, before they consider the higher-level needs. 

As such, if we apply this to your everyday life: should you feel stressed out about your finances or insecure about your job, it’s less likely that you’ll want to put in effort towards anything else. Your energy would be focused on trying to remedy your financial situation, so that you can feel safe and secure; and this could lead to lower motivation for working on your other goals.

Self-Determination Theory

The Self-Determination Theory examines the relationship between self-determination (that is: your autonomy and ability to make decisions on your own) and motivation. The basis of the theory is that: people are happier and more motivated to pursue their goals, if they are intrinsically motivated to do so.

This occurs when three psychological needs are met within the individual:

  • Competence: which is when an individual feels that they have the skills and ability to accomplish their goals; and that they have a sense of mastery over the environment they’re in
  • Relatedness: which involves feeling close to your social group and the strength of one’s sense of belonging; for example: the teammates that one is working alongside to achieve said goals
  • Autonomy: the feeling of having control over one’s behaviour and decisions, without the influence or pressure from any external sources

An individual who has these three needs met are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to work on their goals. Compared to being spurred on by external rewards, this theory emphasis that intrinsic motivation is more important. 

In relation to your life – take a moment to reflect on the various factors that are at play in your own environment. For example: what do you honestly think about your own abilities to accomplish your task? Or, do you feel like there’s anything or anyone (a boss or a colleague, for example) that’s blocking your path? Once you’ve identified these blockages, try to make modifications that’ll help to resolve them; to help improve the situation.

Motivation 3

Goal Setting Theory

The last prominent theory is the Goal Setting Theory, which looks at how setting goals (in a specific way) can affect one’s behaviour and motivation levels positively. The researchers found that goals which were more specific and challenging spurred individuals on, more effectively than goals which were vague and ambiguous.

There are five defining principles that all effective goals should have:

  • Clarity: Be clear about what your goal is and what you want to accomplish
  • Challenge: For a goal to really be motivating, it has to have an element of challenge within it. You want to stretch yourself while working towards it; but be careful of leaning too far to the other extreme as a too ambitious goal may have the opposite effect on your motivation levels too.
  • Commitment: The only want to accomplish your goal is if you commit to it. This is easier if your goal is something that resonates with your life values and your passions.
  • Feedback: Regular and actionable feedback is key to helping you achieve your goal. Rope in a mentor or a trusted friend, and ask for their help to provide clear feedback, on your journey towards accomplishing your objectives.
  • Task Complexity: An overly complex goal can stifle your motivation, especially if it’s confusing. Keep it simple and have one main goal that you’re working towards.

It’s thus incredibly important how you define your goals. For an easy way to think about how to design effective goals, you can use the SMART framework – which has a lot of overlaps with the principles of the Goal Setting Theory. Your goals should be:

  • Specific: The goal should be well-defined
  • Measurable: There should be a tangible way of measuring the goal
  • Achievable: While the goal should be challenging, it should still be achievable and realistic for one’s competency
  • Relevant: The goal should matter with your wider objectives
  • Time-bound: There is a clear deadline for the goal

An example of this would be: ‘I want to learn 100 new Japanese words within a month’ or ‘I want to finish reading 5 books within 3 months’. Having these defined goals gives you a clear achievement to work towards; and this can help to improve your motivation. (Download this worksheet and outline your goals here!)


Of course, no matter how inspired we are to reach our goals at the start, the challenge is sustaining this drive and having the stamina to continue working – particularly when a goal seems far-off in the future.

Another effective way to get unstuck is to seek professional help. Speaking to a therapist or a counsellor can help you identify why you’re feeling demotivated, so that you can come up with strategies to help you get back on track. Find a list of our therapists; and reach out to us, anytime, if you’d like to get started.



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