Mind,  Motivation

Motivation Part 1: Why We Should First Understand What Motivation Actually Means

There are countless motivational speakers, books, sayings, and support groups aimed to motivate us to start, stop, or continue something. So, it behooves us to ask the question: what is motivation?

Motivation Staircase

Before we begin, below is an illustration that’ll be referenced in each post in this Motivation series. The picture presents motivation as literal steps that go from having no desire to do something to getting it done.

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock, By Cherries

Looking at the image and the title of this post, one might say a basement should be added. That would be correct.

We’re literally and figuratively starting from the very ground up when we ask ourselves: what is motivation.

Why does knowing what motivation means matter?

A better understanding of what motivation actually means is necessary to having an honest reflection about our motivation and taking the appropriate “steps” to increase our output and productivity.


If we were to look motivation up in the dictionary, we’d find something like 1. The reason(s) why we do something and 2. The desire or willingness to do something.

Both of these are accurate definitions. However, the dictionary doesn’t give the word enough justice.

Perhaps the best and most comprehensive definition of motivation is by L.S. Barksdale. He wrote that “To be ‘motivated’ is to want to do a specific thing more than we want to do anything else at that particular time.” It’s “what we would rather do than not do.” Meanwhile, what we’d rather do doesn’t necessarily mean what we want to do (20).

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock, By rangizzz

Let’s put this into context.

Even though we might want to get more sleep, we’re motivated to get up when our alarm rings because of the possible consequences of being late for work. For instance, losing our job, a stable income, and being able to pay our rent or mortgage. If that’s not the case, something will eventually motivate us to get up: thirst, hunger, discomfort, etc (21).

So, to say someone is unmotivated would be a misnomer, because “everyone is always motivated.” Unless a person is being forced against their will, no one can ever do anything they aren’t motivated to do. That means even someone who’s “lazy” IS motivated (19). It’s what they’d rather do than not do.

Therefore, when we talk about motivation, we need to make a clear distinction between being unproductively motivated and positively motivated.

Now we’ve defined motivation, and we’ve moved up from the basement.

How can we use this understanding to go to the next level? How do we go from the main floor of the staircase (I won’t do it) to the third step (I want to do it)?

That is where we have to go back to our new definitions and restate the above questions. Put in a different way, the question becomes: How do we turn things we’d rather not do into things we’d rather do so that those things come naturally–having now become what we’ll rather do?

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Barksdale, L. S. Building Self-Esteem. The Barksdale Foundation, 1989.

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