Motivation consists of three elements:

When we’re deciding whether to do an action, we evaluate all three of these elements, often intuitively or unconsciously. The end result—our motivation for or against the action—comes from a combination of these elements. I will do anything if:

Each factor is important. If I am certain that I will not be able to do a given action, I will be less likely to try, even though I would enjoy succeeding. If I have no idea what might happen, I will be less likely to try, even if I believe I am able. If I don’t want the results I expect, I will be less likely to do the action, even if I believe I am able. Motivation combines these factors in a manner akin to multiplication:

Motivation = Ability × Results × Preferences

Don’t take this “equation” seriously as being mathematically precise. I use it only as a handy summary of my Motivation Model. Each factor (confidence in ability, certainty about what will happen, strength of preference) can be high or low. If any factor is near zero, motivation will be low. And preferences have not only magnitude but also valence (or sign) — we may be attracted to a given result (positive valence) or averse to it (negative valence).

This model may seem at first blush to oversimplify the complex concept of motivation. In describing the model, I’m not ignoring that complexity so much as summarizing it. To explore the hidden richness of the model, pick one of the factors and expand it. What factors influence a person’s expectations about whether they are able to do a given action? What factors influence a person’s cause-and-effect expectations about the results of a given action? What factors affect a person’s preferences? (For my partial answer to the question about preferences, see my article “The Structure of Values”.)

I’ve found this model very helpful in a number of ways. The most important is that it helps me to explore my own motivation. If I find myself avoiding some task that I wish I would do, I can quickly check which element is missing. Am I able to do the task? What would happen if I tried? Which of those results do I want? Which do I not want? My answers usually give me a hint about how I can motivate myself. Sometimes my answers tell me that I really don’t want to do the task after all. In those cases, I stop trying to motivate myself (which is a perfectly fine result).

I also use this Motivation Model as I try to understand other people’s reasons for their actions (or inactions). The model is one of the foundations of my work on resistance. For details, see my article “Resistance as a Resource,” especially the section called “The First Factor: Expectations”. (If I were writing the article today, I would call that section “The First Factor: Motivation.”)

I developed this Motivation Model about 10 years ago, as I began to study resistance in earnest. Not long after I first formulated the model, I discovered that many other people had already described very similar models. You can read about some of those models in Edward Lawler’s book Motivation in Work Organizations.