We asked hundreds of RescueTime users how they stay motivated at work. Here’s what we learned.

When we talk about finding a meaningful career or hitting our long-term goals, we often think about the results of our actions, yet skim over what actually gets us through each day.

Motivation is a seemingly simple idea that gets complex once you really start to explore it. Some days we wake up with an abundance of it. Others, just getting out of bed can feel like trying to hold onto a fistful of sand.

But in order to meet our goals we can’t be at the whims of motivation. We need to understand what gives us our get-up-and-go and make sure we build our life and career around whatever that is.

And while there is tons of fantastic research available on just what motivates us (which we’ll cover as well), sometimes it’s best to just go to the source. To help us start the new year off on the right foot, we surveyed hundreds of RescueTime users about what drives them to do their best every single day.

Motivation is a struggle for just about everyone

We all have different levels of motivation based on the work we do and our values. But after surveying our users, it’s clear that motivation is something many people have issues with. On a scale of 1–10, people rated their motivation to do daily work as a 6. Interestingly, only 3 people said they were 100% motivated every single day.

Motivation survey 1We have a complex (and confusing) relationship with money and motivation

When you think of motivation, you probably think of rewards. If you’re rewarded for the work you do, you’ll want to do more of it. However, our survey showed that it isn’t that simple.

When asked what motivates them the most about their work, 32% of our respondents said they were motivated by the freedom to work how and where they want versus 9.5% who said it was their salary and other perks.

What motivates you?

However, when asked point blank how much of a motivating factor their salary was, 45% of people said it was significant, 41% said somewhat and 3% said it was the only thing that mattered. So, while we’d like to think our salary doesn’t motivate us, we can’t say it isn’t an important factor.

We value overcoming a challenge over getting a reward

Motivation is often easier to uncover when we think back on why we worked so hard. When we asked users to reflect on a recent goal they accomplished, 50% of people said overcoming a challenge was the most rewarding part while another 32% said it was learning something new.

That leaves only 18% of people who felt that recognition or some sort of prize or award was most rewarding.

Motivation survey 3

What actually keeps us motivated to hit our goals?

It’s clear from our survey that we don’t have a great grasp on what truly motivates us at work. The problem is that without knowing this we’re prone to feeling disillusioned and stressed and can even become burnt out.

So, using our survey results as a starting point, let’s dive into the bigger pool of motivation research to understand just what keeps us motivated and learn how to recognize what is (and isn’t) motivating us in our own lives.

The Hedonic Treadmill: Why you can’t buy happiness (or motivation)

For years, the classic approach to motivation looked something like this:

  1. If you are rewarded for something, you’ll be motivated to do more of it
  2. If you are punished, you’ll want to do less

While that might seem to make logical sense, unfortunately we’re not always the most logical creatures.

Studies have consistently found we aren’t motivated by reward (or punishment) alone. But why is that? If we’re rewarded for an action, we’ll want more of that reward and continue to do it, right?

“Desire hath no rest,” wrote Robert Burton in 1621 quoting St. Augustine. And if you’ve ever experienced a bit of good luck or some level of success you know what he was talking about.

You get a raise or a smart investment pays off and you feel on top of the world. But what happens next? Pretty quickly, that glow starts to fade. And before you know it, you’re back where you started.

Psychologists call this the Hedonic Treadmill—the phenomenon where the more success we find, the harder we have to “run” just to keep up with it. We adapt to change quickly, and those temporary boosts of motivation and happiness from a good event are just that: temporary.

Hedonic Treadmill example

Sure, this might be true for small rewards, but what about large ones?

Unfortunately, size doesn’t matter in this case. Studies have even shown that a higher reward actually decreases our motivation when it comes to tasks that take mental energy, like writing, coding, designing, or conceptual thinking.

Not only does the increased motivation from a reward not last, but the reward itself can actually cause us to lose motivation. (Remember what I said before about us not being logical creatures?)

You can’t simply rely on rewards to keep you motivated. While we all love to be recognized for our work, these incremental increases aren’t enough to sustain our motivation.

Intrinsic motivation: Why meaning trumps money in keeping us motivated

This isn’t to say that money isn’t a motivator, because it is. But only to a point.

If you don’t pay someone enough to cover their basic needs, that paycheck becomes a pretty big motivator. But once money is off the table and our needs are being met, our relationship with motivation changes drastically.

The science backs this up, too. Studies consistently show that we’re driven to do our work by intrinsic motivation—the internal drivers or values that we connect with. For example, if you have a deep connection to helping others, you probably won’t be intrinsically motivated to work 100-hour weeks as an investment banker. Rather, your purpose would most likely motivate you to do charity or social work.

How to identify intrinsic motivation

What makes intrinsic motivation so difficult to understand is that it’s often at odds with how other people (and jobs in general) measure success. Money, prestige, status—most people see these as symbols of growth. So how do we discover what’s beneath those rewards and what truly keeps us motivated?

In his book, Drive, author Daniel Pink defined the 3 basic qualities of intrinsic motivators share:

Autonomy: Our desire to be self directed. When we have the ability to choose what kind of work we do or we know that there is openness to change and growth in our environment it increases engagement over compliance.

Mastery: Our urge to get better at skills. Money is a fantastic motivator when the tasks are repeatable. But once some level of conceptual thinking is involved, it’s important we feel motivated to get better at it.

Purpose: Our desire to do something that has meaning and is important. Going back to the opening conversation, being “just in it for the money” rarely gives us this meaning. This goes for businesses as well. Not only will employees with low levels of purpose be unmotivated, but businesses that only focus on profits without valuing their own larger purpose will end up with poor customer service and unhappy employees.

When you put these factors together, it’s easy to see why intrinsic motivation is so powerful in the workplace. Of course we’ll feel motivated if we’re empowered to get better at our jobs, have the freedom to choose what we pursue, and feel our work is connected to a larger purpose.

A simple self-test to discover whether you’re intrinsically motivated at work

Intrinsic motivation test

As we’ve said, motivation is a complex subject. For many of us, work fulfills basic needs for support and social interaction, but not much more.

However, if you can discover a job you’re intrinsically motivated to do, you’ll not only be happier and more content, but have increased learning, performance, and creativity, according to a recent review of studies.

When discovering how we’re motivated to do our job, there are a few questions to ask yourself:

Are you challenged?

We have higher levels of intrinsic motivation when we pursue goals that challenge our abilities. Where the outcome is uncertain, but we understand the path we need to take to get there. Too little challenge and we become bored and uninterested. Too much and it adds to our anxiety and stress.

Do your daily tasks challenge you or do they feel simple and repeatable? Are they constantly changing or does every day feel like just going through the motions?

Do you feel a sense of curiosity?

Internal motivation is increased when something grabs our attention about the work we’re doing. This could be a new challenge, applying your current skills to a new client, or uncovering a potential path to some new innovation. Unless there is something driving you forward and urging you on to learn or adapt your skills, you won’t stay motivated to complete it.

Are you in control of how you spend your day?

More than just time management, we’re talking about the freedom to choose how you work. Is your schedule set for you when you show up? Or do you have some autonomy to work how you want?

Are there opportunities for cooperation and competition?

Working with others helps build the purpose and meaning that’s so important to intrinsic motivation. Is the work you do part of a larger goal? Do you have ample opportunities to work with others and talk through your work? Is there a culture of friendly competition at your work?

Do you feel you get enough recognition?

We’re social creatures and crave attention and praise. However, when we’re intrinsically motivated to work, recognition becomes an added bonus, not the main event. Still, it’s important to know the work you’re doing matters.

Look at your work environment or leadership. Do they regularly show appreciation for the work being done? Is recognition and positive feedback a part of their management style?

If it’s a slog to get out of bed in the morning, you’re most likely suffering from a lack of motivation. Which can be demoralizing. Life is meant to be lived with excitement and energy. Not simply going through the motions just to bring home a paycheck.

Ask yourself these questions to see what’s motivating you at your job. Or better yet, use the answers to start identifying areas where you can make positive changes to your day-to-day tasks. With the right changes to our goals and work environment we can build a career we’re motivated and excited to work towards every single day.

Photos by Austin Chan and Helloquence

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


  1. Outstanding article! Thank you so much for posting this, Jory. I especially appreciated the statistics that you presented to illustrate the “motivation fog”. And the self-test at end definitely helped me identify my own true motivations. Thanks again!

    1. Thanks so much Joel! I’ve definitely felt that “fog” of motivation as you’ve put it, so it was great to hear from our users about what gets them through the day.

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