The Difference Between Motivation and Intention


When my editors assigned me this piece, it took me a moment to wrap my head around. I’d never put the two words together or thought to compare them. I felt a bit like an explorer without a compass.

But then I remembered: I’m a writer with a Merriam-Webster dictionary at my disposal.

Intention: “the thing that you plan to do or achieve : an aim or purpose.

Motivation: “the condition of being eager to act or work : the condition of being motivated”

Notice that neither of these words actually includes the physical creation of anything and yet, they both imply working towards just that. Intention is what (the thing) you want to create and motivation is how you feel about what you’re going to do or create. In other words, intention feeds motivation.

Employers often say they’re looking for “self-motivated” candidates. They want people who don’t need a lot of hand-holding and encouragement to get the job done; ideally, they want people who seem to want to do the work for the work’s sake alone. So, where do these self-motivated people get all that motivation? Well, it starts with good intention. Don’t let anyone tell you the road to hell is paved with them.

Setting intentions.

The idea of “setting intentions” has some new-age buzz around it, but, when you blow away the pixie dust, it simply means being consciously aware of what you want to create. Living your life with intention means that you do things on purpose and that you know why you’re doing them.

How do you figure out what your intentions are? They come from within your heart, from a place within you that doesn’t judge or immediately tell you why what you want is impossible. Your intentions have to mean something to you; they have to matter.

In To Set An Intention, K. Ferlic explains: “It needs to be understood, to have an intention is different than to set an intention. To set an intention is to act to make it happen.”

Creating a visual representation of your intentions is a good way to bring them into your conscious reality. Many people create vision boards, in which they cut out pictures and create images that relate to their intentions, then display it in a place they can see daily. Others may write a letter as if they’ve already achieved their intentions, and in it describe what their life is like and how it feels. Then they put the letter in an envelope and leave it, only to open it in six months’ time or more.

The key to any physical representation of your intentions is that you are making a conscious statement of what you want to achieve, putting it into the world, and then paradoxically, releasing it. It isn’t the board or the journal that creates the outcome – it’s that you’re using these tools to focus your energy towards moving in the direction you want to go.

That’s where motivation comes in.

Motivation gets us to action.

Intention without motivation is like the proverbial castle in the sky. It’s dreamy, but impractical – it won’t hold up.

Motivation is what gets us to action, and it springs from our intentions. Once you’ve set out your intentions, how can you get motivated to achieve them?

If your intentions are something you care about, something that you feel truly matters, it can spark something called intrinsic motivation: the type of motivation that comes from within. Dan Pink, in his TED Talk on “The Puzzle of Motivation,” said intrinsic motivation revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

You can set yourself up for motivation when you’re in the intention-setting phase, by incorporating elements that will spark intrinsic motivation – the desire to do the work, because it matters.

Try it at home.

You can put these principles into action right away. Commit yourself to some quiet time alone to reflect on your intentions. Decide on a way that you’ll make your intentions visual and concrete, to bring them fully into your conscious awareness. Ensure that your intentions have the elements to provide intrinsic motivation – they must matter to you. Then, take action!

Categories: Life & Love, Spirit


Shelley Ruelle
Shelley Ruelle is an American who has been living in Rome since 2001. She is an expert on travel to Italy, and has professional experience in everything from running a study abroad center for American university students to starting her own business accommodating tourists in 17th-century apartments in the historic Trastevere neighborhood. She is a writer, licensed as a journalist in Italy with the regional journalism association Ordine dei Giornalisti del Lazio, and she translates Italian news into English for Italy's leading wire service, ANSA. Her ability to see the humor in everything is what makes her badass.

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