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Self-Motivation and Self-Control

Learn how to motivate yourself and control your own thoughts, behavior, and emotions.

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Self-Motivation and Self-Control


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Everyone is motivated. Motivation means having a need, desire, expectation, or goal that is not being met at an optimal level. A "gap" is experienced between the ideal and the actual.  That gap helps give direction and energy towards getting that gap minimized.  We have all sorts of "motives."  Our basic needs for food, water, air, warmth, learning, etc. all propel us to act as do more socially-learned desires for money, love, respect, accomplishment, creativity, beauty, self-growth, etc. 

However, the word self-motivation usually means something more. It usually implies that some people can "motivate" ourselves even in situations that don't appear very condusive to motivation.  These situations may lack the external incentives and/or rewards or punishments that usually help motivate people.  Perhaps these rewards are very delayed or uncertain.  Some people are good at working hard toward delayed or uncertain consequences and others aren't so good at it.  Early philosophers called this quality "will power" or "self-discipline."  Freud called it "ego strength."  Some now call it "internal control."

Whatever it is called, it is a quality that research has shown to be a very important component of mental health, success in almost every area of life, and in personal happiness.

What is the cause of it?  It is clear from research that children who grow up in environments where they are frequently challenged and must gradually learn to work for more and more delayed and uncertain rewards are much more likely to develop good self-motivation.  Also, their learning is increased by having good role-models of adults or peers who talk and act with good self-motivation.  They will emphasize characteristics like thinking of delayed consequences before acting, saving, rationing resources prudently, and planning for long term goals. 

Ironically, many people who developed high degrees of self-motivation had parents who didn't care well for them.  They learned how to struggle and overcome barriers and problems.  They learned how to overcome fears, make decisions, plan, and work hard toward achieving uncertain goals.  They learned how to take good care of themselves and how to be successful despite the negative comments or influences from others. They learned how to have good internal control and self-management skills (see below).

What if instead of that type of childhood, you had one where parents overly pampered or overprotected you.  What if they never challenged you or had you work hard with little reward for delayed consequences?  What if they let you get away with having no self-discipline?  Then how do you develop it now?

You may be more externally motivated by immediate external consequences such as others' approval, feeling good right now, paying the rent this month, etc. then by long term goals such as completing a college degree or saving to buy a house five years from now.   Fortunately, most people lead pretty good lives without having a great deal of self-motivation.  If they have enough to get up in the morning and go to a job they aren't crazy about, go to the doctor when needed, do their chores, and do the other main things that are needed in life, then that is good enough to lead a pretty good life.  This is the way most people are, and it works out just fine for most people.

However, if you want to reach more difficult goals such as achieving a great deal of success, living life according to your own inner direction instead of being so dependent upon others, or doing anything else that goes against the grain of what is normally supported by your immediate environment, then you need to develop more self-motivation and internal control.

There may be many causes of low self-motivation and self-control; following are several common types of causes and methods of modifying those underlying factors.

Low Internal Control and/or Assertiveness. If you think that you may be to swayed or influenced by others,
Go to: The Transition from External to Internal Control of Your Life. Has specific information about how to change underlying beliefs and change habits that can help you become more internally controlled. Chapter 6 of Dr. Tom Stevens' Book, You Can Choose To Be Happy; at

If low assertiveness is part of the problem,
Go to:
Assertion Training section,   

If low self-esteem is part of the problem,
Go to:
 Ch-5: Develop Your Self-Worth and Self-Confidence at   

If you have difficulties with uncertainty about goals, achieving goals, time-management, being organized, or being distracted from your inner priorities, Dr. Stevens' proven O-PATSM time management system that has been learned by thousands of students and professionals.
Go to
O-PATSM: The Heart of Managing Your Time and Yourself and other material at:

If you are having problems with procrastination,
Go to:
  Procrastination at 


Psychological Assessment of Causes of Low Motivation  

If you would like help with assessing what is causing your low motivation and/or negative feelings, take the Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ). Research has shown it to be a very good predictor of life happiness and success.
Go to:

For a self-development program to increase motivation and happiness

 Read the (free here) book, You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression for a more comprehensive self-development program that will likely make you a happier, more more motivated person.
Go to:


Analyze the causes of low motivation yourself. 

Many factors can affect personal motivation.  Often counseling can help you understand them better.  However, try this simple procedure:

1. Make a list of all the factors external to yourself and internal to yourself that may be affecting your motivation can be a good starting place. 

2. Take each factor and prioritize them on what you believe to be the most important.

3. Take each factor and list possible steps you can take to improve that factor. Sometimes you may not be able to do much, but list whatever you can.

4. For the most most important (and most likely to work) solutions,  write out more specific steps you can take to get started, and put them on your to do list and schedule. Hang a list of them in your closet.  Then begin.  (Use the OPATSM system to get you to follow through if you don't have a good system of your own.)

Improving self-motivation can be a major factor in achieving more success in your college, career, and personal life. Following up with these links can be a good first step. People really can improve their motivation, happiness, and success in life.  You can be like many others who have done so in the past--including this author.



The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

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California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
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