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What keeps you motivated in life?

The Science Behind What Motivates Us to Get Up for Work Every Day

The Science Behind What Motivates Us to Get Up for Work Every Day

So, here is the thing right at the start: I’ve always been uncomfortable with the traditional ideal of the professional — cool, collected, and capable, checking off tasks left and right, all numbers and results and making it happen, please, with not a hair out of place. An effective employee, no fuss, no muss, a manager’s dream. You might as well be describing an ideal vacuum cleaner.

I admit that I’ve never been able to work that way. There is one thing that always came first and most importantly for me: How am I feeling today? I found that it can easily happen to think of emotions as something that gets in the way of work. When I grew, I often heard that they obstruct reasoning and rationality, but I feel that we as humans can’t shut off our humanness when we come to work.

Feelings provide important feedback during our workday. It doesn’t make sense to pretend that it’s best or even possible to keep our emotions and work separate, treating our capacity for emotion and thought as weakness. I wanted to look into whether there was anything besides a gut feeling to my suspicions behind keeping the head and the heart separate in business.

What does emotion have to do with our work?

It turns out, quite a lot. Emotions play a leading role in how to succeed in business because they influence how much you try and this is widely misunderstood by bosses and managers.

Psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer interviewed over 600 managers and found a shocking result. 95 percent of managers misunderstood what motivates employees. They thought what motivates employees was making money, getting raises and bonuses. In fact, after analyzing over 12,000 employee diary entries, they discovered that the number one work motivator was emotion, not financial incentive: it’s the feeling of making progress every day toward a meaningful goal. In Fact, Dan Pink found that actually the exact oposite is true:

“The larger the monetary reward, the poorer the performance. – money doesn’t motivate us, at all, instead emotions do.”

In the famous expriment by Dr. Edward Deci clarified again whether emotional feedback or money would engagement with work. People were sitting in a room and tried to solve a puzzle while Deci measured how much time they put in, before giving up. For Group A, he offered a cash reward for successfully solving the puzzle, and as you might expect, those people spent almost twice as much time trying to solve the puzzle as those people in Group B who weren’t offered a prize.

A surprising thing happened the next day, when Deci told Group A that there wasn’t enough money to pay them this time around: Group A lost interest in the puzzle. Group B, on the other hand, having never been offered money in exchange for working on the puzzles, worked on the puzzles longer and longer in each consecutive session and maintained a higher level of sustained interest than Group A. So if it not money what else really motivates us?

The 3 real reasons that motivate us to work hard every day

Pink explains further that there are in fact just 3 very simple things that drive nearly each and everyone of us to work hard:

  • Autonomy: Our desire to direct our own lives. In short: “You probably want to do something interesting, let me get out of your way!”
  • Mastery: Our urge to get better at stuff.
  • Purpose: The feeling and intention that we can make a difference in the world.

If these three things play nicely together, Amabile and Kramer called this the somewhat obvious “inner work life balance” and emphasize its importance to how well we work. Inner work life is what’s going on in your head in response to workday events that affects your performance.

The components of the inner work life — motivation, emotions, and perceptions of how the above three things work together — feed each other. So ultimately our emotional processes ultimately our motivation to work. They end up being the main influencer of our performance.

Deci’s experiment showed that payment actually undermined intrinsic motivation because such external rewards thwart our “three psychological needs — to feel autonomous, to feel competent and to feel related to others.” As he told, “You need thinkers, problem solvers, people who can be creative and using money to motivate them will not get you that.”

What’s going on inside our brains that connects our emotions to motivate you as a thinker and problem solver?

Amabile and Kramer tell us this:

“depending on what happens with our emotions, motivation for the work can skyrocket or nosedive (or hardly shift at all).”

So how does our brain deal with emotion and connect it to such practical results like motivation and productivity? Well, the ironic part is that the parts of the brain that deal with emotions are actually connected to those that deal with cognition. Richard J. Davidson explains how emotional and cognitive functions interrelate. To get all “brainy” with this:

The brain connection of cognition and emotion is not segregated. The idea is that your “limbic system” is the seat of emotion […] and it is critical for your cognitive processes (e.g., the hippocampus for memory).

Emotions are wired straight into our thinking and cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and reasoning.

Let’s switch this around. We know what happens if we positively affect our emotions. But what about the other way round? Famous psychologist Alice Isen found that positive moods facilitate creative problem-solving. Negative emotions, on the other hand, lead us to think more narrowly:

“Negative emotions like fear and sadness can lead to brain activity and thought patterns that are detrimental to creative, productive work: (a) avoidance of risk; (b) difficulty remembering and planning; and (c) rational decision-making.”

Personally, I found this particularly interesting. I always had a good hunch that positive thinking will improve my daily performance. The impact of negative emotions was never that clear and gives me a lot to think about working hard on limiting these emotions.

3 Most important things to improve your inner work life and manage your motivation:

Yes, it’s done! With the knowledge about the impact of a positive inner work life and our emotions’ connection to great performance, I think we win the battle against the reserved, rational robot.

The key takeaway here for me is to pay more attention to our emotions and thoughts. It’s simple, we use them to be more awesome at what we do. Following on from the studies above, the following three main actions have proven the best results for keeping our emotions and positive thinking the highest:

  • Exercise – How to get started and why: We’ve discussed before in detail how exercise makes us happier. Any work-out will automatically release mood-enhancing chemicals and endorphin into your blood. This can immediately lift your mood and lowering stress. Exercise and maintenance of our physical health boosts our emotional health. The hard part here is of course how to get started with an exercise habit. Whatever it is you want to get into, the key is to start with easier task than you could actually do. Yes, that’s right. If you feel comfortable lifting 10kg, make it 5. The art is in the start as this post found.
  • Set yourself up for success – here is how: Amabile and Kramer’s most important finding is that making progress at work is the main way to fuel positive inner work life. Making progress is easier said than done but breaking it down to ask what will facilitate progress can be helpful. Identify barriers and remove them, whether it’s too many meetings or micromanagement. Identify facilitators and implement or improve them, such as better communication or increased autonomy. The feeling of progress triggers the emotions and brain activity that result in creativity and your best work.
  • Reflect and review through work diaries: Pay careful attention to your inner work life by writing down thoughts and feelings about your workday in a work diary by yourself or with your team using a tool like iDoneThis. A regular practice of reflection helps you recognize patterns, gain insight about your work and work relationships, celebrate and appreciate achievements and gestures, and puzzle out what helps and hinders progress. Journaling itself will improve your inner work life, lifting your emotions and aiding cognitive processing and adaptation. Take ten minutes out of your day to reflect, vent, and celebrate.

Quick last fact: Emotions are the key driver to make your daily decisions

Here is an interesting last fact for you. Making decisions is all about our intellectual capability, right? I thought so too, turns out, that’s completely wrong. In an experiment by Antonio Damasio, named Descartes’ Error he discovered that the key element for making daily decisions is to have strong emotional feelings:

“One of Damasio’s patients, Elliot, suffered ventromedial frontal lobe damage and while retaining his intelligence, lost the ability to feel emotion. The result was that he lost his ability to make decisions and to plan for the future, and he couldn’t hold on to a job.”

The way our brains are built make it necessary that emotions “cloud” our judgment. Without all that cloudy emotion, we wouldn’t be able to reason, have motivation, and make decisions.

Of course, I am sure that you have tons more insights into how you manage your own work-life balance and which things help you to stay motivated every day. What have you found to be your main driver to get up for work every day? Do you think some of the new habits mentioned above could be useful? I’d love your thoughts in the comments.

Photocredit: opensourceway

About the author: Walter Chen is the co-founder of iDoneThis, a simple way to preserve and celebrate progress at work, every day, that amazing companies like Zappos, Shopify, and reddit use. He’d love to hear from you on Twitter at @smalter.

What Motivates You? Sample Answers

what motivates you at work interview question

Answering interview questions like, “What motivates you?” or “What motivates you at work?” can be tricky because they are so open-ended. Coming up, I’m going to walk you through the most important do’s and don’ts.

Then, we’ll look at multiple sample answers so you can give the best response possible.

First, Why Do Employers Ask This Interview Question?

There are a few reasons that employers will ask what motivates you. For one, they want to get a sense of your personality and who you are. But more importantly, they want to see how you’ll react to obstacles at work, and whether you’ll stay determined and motivated. So when the interviewer asks you this question, they want to see that you will stay motivated and handle challenges on the job. They want to know that you’ll respond positively if you’re asked to do something that isn’t quite in your job description, or if you have to work late or fill in for another team member, etc. And they want to know how you’ll respond if the job is harder than you expected after being hired. They do not want to hire someone who will quit. So when you answer what motivates you, aim to show the hiring manager that you’re driven and care about your work.

Here are some further guidelines and examples for answering questions about what motivates you.

How to Answer “What Motivates You?” – Do’s and Don’ts


When employers ask interview questions about what motivates you to work, you need to show them that you’re not just coming to work for the paycheck. Your answer doesn’t have to be some heartfelt story about how your grandmother had an illness and you dedicated your life to finding a cure. But do some self-reflection and come up with a clear, good answer for what drives you at work each day aside from the money.

Real-life examples:

You can say you’re motivated by solving complex technical challenges (if you’re a software engineer, etc.) You can say you love collaborating and accomplishing big things as a part of a team. You can say you enjoy work that has a meaningful impact, such as creating products that improve people’s lives. You can also talk about personal interests that tie in with the job. Maybe you’re a huge fan of playing guitar but didn’t become a professional. So you’re interviewing for jobs as a music producer. Or as a guitar designer. Or a guitar teacher, etc. Another example of this: Maybe you were an athlete in high school and college, and this is what you’re passionate about. Those are all fair game, and good, creative ideas for how to respond.


Let’s talk about what NOT to do now.

Don’t just talk about money. Everyone comes to work for a paycheck. The interviewer knows. If they’re asking you “what motivates you?” in an interview, they want to hear something besides money. If you seem only money-focused in your interviews, it can cost you job offers. The only exception is when interviewing for jobs that pay commission, like sales jobs. If you’re getting a paycheck every 10 working days, there are 9 other days when something else will need to keep you motivated. That’s what they care about. Also, don’t feel like you need to make up some impressive story. Tell the truth. It can be a simple, straightforward answer. I’ll share more on this coming up soon. Being dishonest is not a good idea with this interview question.

Example Answers to “What Motivates You?”

Now let’s look at some word-for-word answer examples for “what motivates you?”…

Interviewer: “What motivates you to come to work each day?”


“I like challenging myself and advancing on a personal level. That’s what attracted me to Sales to begin with. It’s personally challenging, it forced me to develop new skills that I never would have attempted on my own – like cold calling somebody or starting a conversation with a complete stranger. It’s changed my confidence level and my entire life, not just my career, and this continues to keep me motivated and get me through tough days, or days where things don’t go my way.”

Remember, never mention money in your answer here! If you don’t know why, go back and re-read the article. It’s one of the most important points mentioned. And remember one of your big goals is to show them that you’ll work hard and “stick with it”, instead of quitting if things get tough. That’s why “What motivates you?” is such a common interview question. If you look at the answer example above, you’ll see the end of the answer is focused on showing them that I’ll stick with the work when it gets tough. You should try to do the same.

One more example answer…

Interviewer: “What motivates you?”


“I’ve watched multiple family members suffer through addiction, so after graduating with my degree in Psychology, I knew I wanted to work in addiction research and treatment. The impact this research can have is huge, and that keeps me motivated. Also, the field is always evolving and providing new challenges to keep me growing professionally. I love the work, and it’s what I want to continue doing throughout my career.”

Your Answer Can Get Personal, But Doesn’t Need to…

Those two example answers above got a bit personal. The first one mentions confidence and personal development goals, and the second one talks about addiction and family members.

You don’t need to get personal in your answer, though. It’s perfectly fine to say something like:

“I’ve always liked math and computers. I don’t have a personal reason, it’s just what I’m excited about doing. I can’t imagine doing something else with my career.”

So don’t feel pressure to lie or make up some personal reason when you answer “what motivates you?”

As a recruiter, I’ve spoken with a lot of GREAT job candidates who were simply motivated by one of the following:

  • Technical challenges
  • The “mission” of the company (helping people, saving lives, connecting people across the globe, etc.)
  • Personal interests

Here’s one more sample answer for how to respond to this interview question without using any personal reasons:

“I’ve always found that I do my best work in a creative environment where I’m able to think openly, and I’ve found that working in graphic design allows me to use my creativity, which keeps me motivated and energized. At this point, I can’t imagine working in another field, and I don’t find it very difficult to come to work motivated each day, since this is what I want to be doing.”

Give an Answer That’s as Close to the Truth as Possible

The best answers to this question will make you sound highly motivated and clear on what drives you and motivates you at work. Of course, not every job/industry is going to have you jumping up and down with excitement, and it’s understandable if you stretch the truth a bit in the interview. However, I strongly recommend you give an answer that’s as true as you can.

Why give a completely honest answer?

For one, your response may prompt follow-up questions. Imagine the interviewer asks, “What motivates you in your career?” and you say that you’re passionate about helping others. They may say, “That’s great, and is one of our core values here. How did you feel your previous roles helped others?” See how this can lead to a chain of questions or a conversation around the topic? This doesn’t mean it’s a trick interview question, but the hiring manager does want to get to know you, and may dive deeper into this topic after your initial response.

So before your interview, pause and do some self-reflection, and write down a list of what truly does motivate you.

Tailor Your Answer to the Job/Company

To give the perfect answer in your interview, it also helps to be familiar with the company culture, work environment, and job description.

Think about the work they’re offering and make sure your answers fit that to some extent.

Good answers for one company won’t necessarily be great for another. For example, some companies have a competitive, sales-driven culture. It’d be beneficial here to talk about your competitive nature and your constant drive to improve. In a more calm and collaborative environment, they may see this as too aggressive, and may worry about your ability to mesh with the existing team.

Answering “What Motivates You” – Quick Instructions

  1. Name at least one thing that motivates you at work, aside from money or a paycheck
  2. Your answer for what motivates you can be a personal reason, but doesn’t need to be
  3. Don’t lie or make up an answer that isn’t genuine; tell the truth about what motivates you at work and you’ll be much more likely to get hired
  4. Don’t say you’re only motivated by money, or that you work to pay your bills
  5. Don’t say that you’re not sure or aren’t motivated by anything in particular
  6. Show excitement and enthusiasm in your answer; your goal is to sound energetic and driven to work hard and learn this new job you’re being considered for – that’s what will convince them to hire you

If you follow the tips above you’ll be able to give a great answer when employers ask questions like, “what motivates you?”, “what motivates you to come to work each day?” etc.

Your answer to this question can be the difference between getting a job offer and getting rejected after the interview… so as a last step, remember to practice and get comfortable with the answer you’re going to give.

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