Despite having a wide variety of clients, one thing I hear over and over is: “I’d like to be more motivated”. This may seem like an easily addressed issue, but it is actually quite complex. The good news? You can increase your motivation and productivity with some help and hard work. Before you start setting your goals, it’s helpful to understand where motivation comes from.
The Science Behind Motivation
So, how do we get going? Motivation starts in the brain. Dopamine, the “feel good” neurotransmitter has been tied to motivation. In one study, rats with lower levels of dopamine were less likely to climb up to a larger pile of food than rats with a higher dopamine level. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be as simple as just raising Dopamine levels. Further studies indicate that it’s not just about overall dopamine level, but having Dopamine in the right parts of the brain like the prefrontal cortex (Patel, 2015). There are other neurotransmitters that contribute to motivation. Cortisol is produced when we feel threatened and helps us take action to alleviate this stress. Testosterone contributes to a competitive drive that may increase our willingness to perform (Souders, 2020).
Can We Control Motivation?
In order to have motivation, we need a motive! As humans, we have an instinctive motive to stay alive and reproduce to maintain our species. This internal motive gives us the energy to do tasks that work towards those goals. For example, we are naturally driven to eat, quench thirst, and be social.
We’re not just motivated to survive, we’re also motivated to succeed, compete with others, and find happiness. Research suggests that by tapping into these natural motives, we can set ourselves up for greater success (Souders, 2020). For example, thinking about completing a task at work as leading to a promotion with more money, happiness, and flexibility can make you more motivated than thinking of the task as something you are being forced to do.
Chicken, Meet Egg.
One of the hardest truths about motivation is that it often comes after we start a task. A common trap that people fall into is waiting around for motivation in order to start a task. Starting the task may feel like going uphill, but eventually, you’ll get some traction (and those sweet, sweet brain chemicals) which will lead to motivation.
Ways to get started when the motivation isn’t there yet:
- Hold yourself accountable by telling others about your goal, including when you need to start.
- Find a reward that’s worth the effort.
- Use a mantra: “Do what you need to do now so you can do what you want to later”, “I got this”, “My therapist told me this would work”.