How to Motivate Yourself & Others: The 3 Needs That Must Be Met

We all want to be highly motivated in reaching our greatest goals.

We know the effortless productivity that arises from a burning motivation.

And we know how frustratingly hard everything becomes when we’re lacking it.

But what constitutes this awesome feeling and state of mind?

And how can we create more of it for ourselves and others?

Self-Determination Theory (SDT)

These are the questions educational psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci are trying to answer in their research. And what they’ve found is that all humans, no matter their culture or background, have three basic psychological needs. These are:

Autonomy – a need to feel they can do things on their own.
Competence – a need to feel that they’re a capable human being.
Relatedness – a need to feel that they belong to a group of people.

Ryan and Deci argue that in environments where these needs are met people are more intrinsically motivated. This kind of motivation makes people more likely to do a task simply because it is enjoyable. They value the task just for the sake of doing it.

In environments where these needs are not being met people have to rely on extrinsic motivation. If the environment doesn’t allow individuals to feel that they’re doing things on their own, that they’re good at what they’re doing and that they’re connected to other people, they will be motivated only to pursue rewards and avoid punishments.

Ryan and Deci argue that individuals who are intrinsically motivated are more likely than extrinsically motivated people to be self-regulated. By self-regulation they mean our ability plan and monitor our own actions and pursuits. A self-regulated person is much more likely to be able to set goals and effectively monitor and adjust what he or she is doing until it’s accomplished.

This is important because self-regulated people in general have better outcomes such as better achievement and greater health.

The notion of intrinsic motivation is the fundamental assumption of Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (1). According to their theory all human beings are actually fundamentally intrinsically motivated and that this is our optimal state.

When we’re born we have need for autonomy, competence and relatedness and it’s only when they aren’t met we become extrinsically motivated. Unfortunately, as we get older, certain environments don’t necessarily offer the possibility for us to get these needs met.

School may be one example where we’re controlled for the most part by rewards and punishments. This leads to extrinsic motivation, which makes for less self-regulation, which in turn leads to feelings of apathy and stagnation.

The Three Keys to Burning Motivation

If you want to experience more motivation (duh) or be able to motivate others, always remember to make sure all of these needs are met to as great an extent as possible.

Review your goal, or the goal you’re setting for others, and ask yourself if it has all the necessary elements to fuel a burning motivation. Does your goal allow for…

1. Autonomy
Is it designed in a way that allows you or the people you’re managing to feel like they’re completing it in their own, unique way?

Studies have shown that increasing a participants options and choices increases their intrinsic motivation to the activity they´re pursuing (2).

Other research has found that external factors like deadlines, which restrict and control, can decrease intrinsic motivation (3).

2. Competence
Does your goal allow you or the people you’re leading to experience mastery at the task? In other words, is it challenging but still attainable?

If the person accepts the goal and has the ability to attain it, research has shown that specific and ambitious goals lead to improved performance compared to easy and general goals (4).

Edward Deci has also found that unexpected positive feedback increases people’s intrinsic motivation to do a task while decreasing the need for extrinsic motivation (5).

Further research has found that negative feedback decreases intrinsic motivation by taking away people’s sense of competence (6).

3. Relatedness
Lastly, does it promote connections to other people? Researchers conclude that human beings are fundamentally motivated by a need to belong. We have a strong desire to form and maintain enduring relationships with others.

Our need to belong affects the way we think, feel, behave and a lack of relatedness is linked to decreased motivation as well as negative effects on health and well-being (7).

In Summary: How to Motivate Yourself & Others

Whatever change you’re trying to create in your life or for others, make sure to have as much of these three components involved as you possibly can:

Autonomy. Make sure the goals you’re pursuing are truly yours. When we’re going after what others have decided for us we’re very unlikely to experience true, intrinsic motivation. Also support this need in others by offering several options in how to achieve a certain goal and then let them decide for themselves which approach suits them best.

Competence. Goals should be challenging, but your focus should be on progress rather than results. Start small, tiny even, do things you can sustain, be consistent and celebrate every small step you take. Allow yourself and others to feel competent and proud of accomplishments.

Relatedness. Make sure your goals involve other people. Get an accountability partner, group and/or coach. Share your intentions with supportive people in your life. It’s way easier to show up and do the work when you know people are expecting you to do it. Also look for ways to support the need for relatedness when leading others. Create an environment that promotes positive feedback, teamwork and accountability.

Get these needs met and you’ll have all the intrinsic motivation you need to achieve your biggest goals.

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
– Confucius


1. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.
2. On the Importance of Self-Determination for Intrinsically-Motivated Behavior
3. Effects of externally imposed deadlines on subsequent intrinsic motivation.
4. New Directions in Goal-Setting Theory
5. Effects of externally mediated rewards on intrinsic motivation.
6. On the causal effects of perceived competence on intrinsic motivation: A test of cognitive evaluation theory.
7. The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.