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How Motivation Works: The Science Behind It

How Motivation Works: The Science Behind It

Interested in helping yourself or others achieve lasting behavior change? Use this article to gain a deeper understanding of the science behind motivation so you can spark the flame that propels your clients’ toward their most important goals and aspirations.


Unlocking the secret to motivation is an ongoing quest for individuals striving to accomplish their goals. We know it's the driving force that propels us forward, pushing us to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness. And as coaches, understanding how motivation works is crucial for effectively assisting our clients in reaching their full potential.

While our digital world is full of “hacks” promising endless motivation—the best coaches recognize the importance of digging deeper into the neuroscience behind how motivation works and why people struggle with lack of motivation, so they can help their clients in the biggest and most impactful ways possible.

In this article, we’ll embark on a fascinating exploration of the science behind motivation, diving into the complexities of the human mind, and uncovering the hidden forces that ignite the flame of motivation.

Whether you’re a dedicated motivation coach or a tutor trying to help students level up (and everything in-between), you’ll gain valuable insights and strategies to guide your clients toward success and achieve well-being in all areas of their lives.

What is motivation?

At its core, motivation is the driving force behind our ability to “get it done,” whatever “it” may be. It’s the spark that ignites our actions, propelling us toward our goals and aspirations. Motivation is what compels us to take that first step, persevere through challenges, and ultimately achieve success. But what exactly is motivation, and how does it work?

Motivation can be defined as the inner desire or willingness to act, fueled by a combination of internal and external factors. It is the engine that powers our decision-making processes, guiding us toward specific actions and behaviors.

When it comes to motivation, there are two primary types:

  • Intrinsic motivation. This type of motivation rises from within an individual and is driven by internal rewards and personal satisfaction. It is the inherent joy, curiosity, or sense of accomplishment that fuels our actions. For instance, a person may be intrinsically motivated to pursue a hobby because they find it enjoyable or fulfilling, regardless of external recognition or rewards.
  • Extrinsic motivation. This type of motivation comes from external sources such as rewards, recognition, or consequences. It involves engaging in a behavior to attain a specific outcome or avoid negative consequences. For example, a fitness client may be extrinsically motivated to lose weight so that others offer positive verbal affirmation about how they look, or avoid the potential negative feelings that might arise from someone making a negative comment.

To better understand the distinction between these two types of motivation, consider these examples.

Imagine a person who loves playing the piano and spends hours practicing purely for the joy of creating music. This individual is driven by intrinsic motivation. Their passion for the piano and the satisfaction they derive from playing are their primary driving forces.

In contrast, consider a salesperson who is motivated to achieve high sales targets to earn performance bonuses. Their focus on meeting targets and earning rewards represents extrinsic motivation. While they may enjoy their work, the external incentives of financial gain and recognition drive their behavior.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can coexist and influence each other in various contexts.

As a coach, here’s the big takeaway: There are lots of reasons why people need a coach, but regardless of what niche or specialization you provide, motivation will always be a key factor in your clients’ success.

By tapping into both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations—and gaining an understanding of what motivates each of your clients—you can tailor their strategies and interventions to support them effectively. As a result, you’ll be able to help clients cultivate a sense of purpose, align their goals with their values, and harness their inner drive for sustainable success.

In the next section, we’ll delve deeper into the inner workings of the brain and explore the fascinating interplay of neural processes and motivational triggers that have been uncovered by neuroscientists devoted to the study of motivation.

How motivation works in the brain

Motivation is a fascinating phenomenon that originates within the intricate workings of the human brain. By understanding the inner mechanisms of how motivation works, we can unravel the complexities of human behavior and gain valuable insights into what drives us forward.

Let’s take a peek into what’s going on inside our brains when it comes to “feeling motivated.”

Neurotransmitters: The brain relies on a complex network of chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Among them, dopamine plays a significant role in motivation. It is released when we experience pleasurable or rewarding stimuli, reinforcing our motivation and encouraging us to pursue similar outcomes (more on this below).

Reward Circuitry: Deep within the brain lies a system known as the reward circuitry. It involves the prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens, and other interconnected regions. When we engage in activities associated with positive outcomes, this circuitry is activated, releasing dopamine and strengthening the link between our actions and the rewards we seek.

Prefrontal Cortex: Often referred to as the brain's executive center, the prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role in motivation. It helps us set goals, plan actions, and evaluate potential rewards. This region of the brain integrates information from various sources and enables us to have the self-determination to make decisions aligned with our desires and aspirations.

Neural Pathways: Motivation is supported by specific neural pathways in the brain. Through repeated behaviors and the release of dopamine, these pathways become more efficient and robust. As we engage in goal-directed actions, neural connections strengthen, facilitating the flow of information and fueling our motivation, problem-solving ability, and more.

Neuroplasticity: The brain's remarkable ability to change and adapt, known as neuroplasticity, underlies our capacity to reshape our motivational patterns. With deliberate effort and practice, we can forge new neural pathways and modify our motivational tendencies. By consistently engaging in motivated behaviors, we can rewire our brains and cultivate a lasting drive towards our goals.

By recognizing the intricate interplay between neurotransmitters, reward circuitry, the prefrontal cortex, neural pathways, and neuroplasticity, you can begin to grasp a foundational understanding of what all goes into “feeling motivated.” Next, let’s take a look at how motivation occurs from a practical standpoint.

What causes motivation? (Is it more than a “feeling?”)

We all know motivation is key to reaching our goals (or helping others reach theirs)... but what is it exactly that drives our behavior and propels us toward our goals? Understanding what causes motivation can empower us to cultivate and sustain it effectively.

Let's explore the key contributors to motivation:

  1. Personal Values: Our deeply held beliefs and values play a significant role in shaping our motivation. When our goals align with our core values, we experience a strong sense of purpose and drive.
  2. Emotions: Emotions can both fuel and hinder motivation. Positive emotions like enthusiasm and passion can ignite our motivation, while negative emotions such as fear or doubt can impede our progress. Recognizing and managing our emotions is essential for maintaining motivation.
  3. Environmental Cues: Our surroundings can exert a powerful influence on our motivation. Environmental cues such as visual reminders, supportive environments, and organized workspaces can enhance our motivation and focus.
  4. Visualization Techniques: Visualizing success involves creating mental images of achieving our goals. It serves as a powerful motivator by reinforcing the belief in our capabilities and painting a compelling picture of the desired outcome.
  5. Goal Setting: Setting specific, challenging, and achievable goals provides a roadmap for our motivation. Clear goals help us stay focused, measure progress, and experience a sense of accomplishment as we move closer to our desired outcomes.
  6. Social Support: The support and encouragement of others can significantly impact our motivation. Surrounding ourselves with a network of individuals who believe in us, provide guidance, and offer positive feedback can fuel our motivation and help us overcome obstacles.

By integrating these factors into your life and coaching practice, you can begin to understand that motivation is not just an elusive feeling we can hope shows up when we need it—but rather a natural reaction to internal and external stimuli that we have a significant amount of control over. Don’t have the level of motivation needed? Change the stimuli by leveraging the elements outlined above, and you can effectively guide clients toward a strong and sustainable drive to achieve their goals.

Dopamine and motivation: Are they related?

As touched on briefly above, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is a crucial component involved in the brain’s ability to generate motivation and drive.

What’s the big deal with dopamine? Well, you might think of dopamine as a messenger in your brain, influencing various aspects of your behavior. It plays a vital role in the brain's reward system, a specialized area responsible for processing pleasurable experiences and reinforcing our motivation.

When we achieve something we desire or receive a reward, our brain releases dopamine, creating a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. It strengthens the connection between our actions and the positive outcomes we experience.

In fact, dopamine is closely linked to the science of motivation and the study of human behavior. As renowned neuroscientist Andrew Huberman has said, “Dopamine is the molecule that makes us look at things outside the boundaries of our skin, to be in pursuit of things.”

When your brain receives a surge of dopamine, this not only makes you feel good but also fuels your motivation to seek similar rewards in the future.

But dopamine's role in motivation doesn’t stop with external rewards. It can also be triggered by intrinsic factors such as personal goals and achievements. When we set meaningful goals and make progress towards them, our brains release dopamine as a form of internal reward. This reinforces our motivation, making us more likely to continue striving for success.

In a very real way, dopamine serves as a catalyst, propelling us forward toward our goals and fueling our drive to overcome obstacles along the way. By understanding how dopamine works, we can harness its power for self-motivation and personal growth.

So, the next time you feel that surge of excitement and motivation, know that dopamine is working behind the scenes, acting as your motivational cheerleader. By harnessing its power to nudge us toward our goals (and the rewards that await), we can garner up more self-motivation to pursue personal growth.


As a coach, you have the incredible opportunity to guide and empower others on their journey to success. Knowing how to help your clients stay motivated will be a key factor in helping them overcome obstacles and reach their full potential.

Here are a few practical ways you can make the most of motivation:

  1. Help your clients set clear and meaningful goals. When our goals align with our values and aspirations, they become powerful drivers of motivation. Figure out what’s most important to each of your clients, break their goals down into manageable steps, and celebrate each milestone along the way.
  2. Provide support when challenges arise. Your clients aren’t always going to “feel motivated.” This is where you come in. By providing positive feedback and accountability, you can help your clients develop the grit and consistency to refocus on why their goals are so important to them when the feeling of motivation wanes.
  3. Encourage your clients to visualize their success. Creating a vivid mental image of ourselves achieving our goals can trigger the same cascade of chemical reactions that produce motivation in our brain that happens when we actually experience something. By having your clients imagine the emotions, the sense of accomplishment, and the rewards that come with their achievement, you can strengthen their motivation and help them stay focused on their desired outcomes.

And remember: Motivation is not a fleeting emotion but a powerful tool that, when harnessed effectively, can propel individuals to accomplish extraordinary things. So, embrace the science of motivation, tap into its hidden forces, and unlock the limitless possibilities that await.

At Practice, we provide a range of tools and resources to help coaches like you build and grow their businesses. Our customer-relationship-management (CRM) platform covers everything you need to succeed—from scheduling sessions, to safely storing client data, managing payments, sending important documents, and more. Sign up for a free trial now to see how Practice can help you start or grow your coaching business!

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