You may be the kind of person who starts out the year motivated and ready to crush every single personal and professional goal you set. It’s truly a great feeling — a whole new year stretched out in front of you, loaded with possibilities. You’re psyched. You’re ready to go.
Making a plan, working hard, learning new skills, and staying focused are essential ingredients needed to reach your goals, but one of the most important things you will need is motivation. A lack of motivation can bring progress to a screeching halt, make you procrastinate, keep you stuck, cause you to doubt yourself, and take you far off the path to achieving those goals.
How do you keep that pumped-up, energized feeling going and stay motivated to make the right choices and behave in a way, day in and day out, that is going to get you to your goals as the months go by?
When you understand the basics of neuroscience and how your brain works, you can hack the reward system in your brain to stay motivated all year long until you cross the finish line to your goals.
The Neuroscience of Motivation
At the most basic level, our brains are programmed to avoid pain and seek pleasure. It’s how our ancestors were motivated to find food, shelter, and mating opportunities. It’s all tied to your brain’s reward circuit and the neurotransmitter dopamine. Physically, dopamine gives your brain energy, motivation, a rush, and that “switched-on” feeling — like your first cup of coffee in the morning.
Dopamine is behind all human reward-seeking behavior. You can think of it as governing “movement” — physically and motivationally. It determines “salience” or how important something is to your brain. In an evolutionary context, it rewards us for beneficial behaviors and motivates us to repeat them.
In fact, dopamine is responsible for all addiction because it promotes any goal-directed, motivated behavior — bad or good. Physically, dopamine affects the processes that control movement and plays a crucial role in Parkinson’s disease.
Motivation is all about dopamine
When you do something pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine to make you feel good mentally and physically. This can happen, for example, when you eat your favorite foods, have sex, hear a song you like, buy something, or do a million other things you enjoy. The first time you do something, the dopamine release comes after the action. In the future, dopamine is released earlier and earlier until just thinking about something in anticipation causes a dopamine reward.
So, the dopamine released before the action and along the way motivates you toward a behavior. It becomes the expectation of the reward rather than the reward itself that has the strongest influence on memories of what’s pleasurable which governs choice and behavior.
And that is how you keep your motivation to reach your goals – you keep the dopamine flowing.
Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation
Whether your motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic matters.
Extrinsic motivation is when you are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity because you want to earn a reward or avoid punishment. Intrinsic motivation is when you engage in a behavior because you find it rewarding. You are performing an activity for its own sake rather than from the desire for some external reward. Research has shown that each type has a different effect on human behavior.
Most people assume that intrinsic motivation is best, but not always. Extrinsic motivation may be more effective for some people than others. Certain situations may also be better suited for it. Extrinsic motivation is best used in circumstances when the reward is used sparingly enough so it doesn’t lose its effect. The value of the reward to a person can decrease if the reward is given too often. However, when they are used appropriately, extrinsic motivators can be useful.
Research shows that, while external incentives do work to get people moving and give them an extra push to get over an initial, short-term hump, they do not motivate long term. They can even encourage people to focus too narrowly on a task, do it as quickly as possible, and take fewer risks. The focus becomes the prize, not the process, and people begin to feel as if they are being controlled by the reward which can cause them to become less invested and less determined which, in turn, can make the creative juices and motivation dry up. Too much focus on extrinsic rewards can actually erode intrinsic interest and motivation.
For someone to stay motivated over the long haul, personal meaning and intrinsic value have to kick in.
Intrinsic motivation involves seeking out and engaging in activities that you find challenging, interesting, and rewarding on their own. Intrinsic motivation results in more sustained interest, excitement, confidence, persistence, self-esteem, and performance over time.
Framing incremental steps positively towards an outcome and finding inspiration in them causes the amygdala in your brain to stay active and gives your brain a dopamine shot as a reward which helps keep you going in the right direction. Fortunately, there are ways to understand, increase, and build intrinsic motivation and keep dopamine flowing.
Natural Ways to Increase Dopamine
Some natural ways to increase dopamine to sustain motivation are:
Sleep – Dopamine helps modulate both slow-wave and REM sleep. Dopamine has a large impact on sleep (and pain and depression), and sleep has a large impact on them. Lack of sleep has been shown to reduce the concentration of neurotransmitters and their receptors.
Exercise – The dopamine system is positively affected by exercise. It was found that weight lifting especially helps increase dopamine. In fact, all regular physical activity increases blood circulation and levels of many different neurochemicals and hormones in the brain influencing the dopamine system.
Sunlight: Research ties sunlight exposure in humans to dopamine receptor count. It is known that sunlight can affect serotonin levels, but the amount of light exposure may also influence dopamine.
Massage – Getting a massage boosts serotonin levels by as much as thirty percent, increases dopamine, activates endorphins, improves sleep, and decreases the stress hormone, cortisol.
Meditation – Scientific evidence shows that various types of meditation can increase concentrations of dopamine in the brain’s cortex.
Deciding – The act of intentionally making a decision – any decision – has been shown to cause positive changes in attention circuits and increase dopamine-rewarding activity.
Setting and achieving goals – When you achieve a goal, dopamine is released. Dopamine is not only released when you cross the finish line. You get dopamine boosts at each step along the way, which helps to keep you motivated.
Petting a dog – Studies show that simply petting a pooch increases dopamine and endorphins.
Yoga – Yoga has been shown to increase dopamine levels – plus it reduces stress, increases oxygen to your brain with deep, slow breathing, and ups soothing GABA.
Whether you need the motivation to reach your professional pursuits or personal goals, you can strategically increase your productivity and chances of success by understanding how motivation works in your brain and harnessing that power. You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to understand and harness the science of motivation. Once you understand dopamine and the neuroscience of motivation itself, you can help your brain help you. You don’t need to try all of the suggestions listed above, but you will want to find a few that work consistently for you.
Published in the Neuroscience and Peak Performance Section of the Industry Expert Magazine
Omozua Isiramen is the #1 Neuroscience Coach and Peak Performance Specialist in Luxembourg