Motivation can be a powerful tool that helps us rise up to the challenges in our lives. But when our motivation levels are low, it can be the biggest obstacle to our progress. There are times when it is easy to get motivated, when we just dive right into our work with a splash of excitement. Other times, we can feel totally stuck, not knowing how to get ourselves started, and it’s more like wading through a quagmire of procrastination.
What is the brain-basis of motivation?
There is a small area of our brain within the limbic system called the amygdala, which acts as an emotionally-sensitive relay station. When the brain is in its normal baseline state, the amygdala directs information coming into the brain towards the prefrontal cortex, which then processes that information, either passing it through cognitive and emotional processing networks or forming memories.
This process is disturbed by high-stress states, because the amygdala is central to emotional responses. Even though it seems counterintuitive, both the stimulation of stress/frustration/anger and the absence of stimulation of boredom count as high-stress states for the amygdala, and minimise the ability to focus on a mental task.
Some people are naturally more motivated than others.
A study from Vanderbilt University investigated self-identified ‘go-getters’ and ‘slackers’ and revealed fundamental differences in their brains. The ‘go-getters’ were willing to push themselves hard for rewards, and also had high levels of dopamine in both their prefrontal cortex and striatum, two areas involved in motivation, while the ‘slackers’ only had dopamine in their anterior insula, a part of the brain that is involved in emotions and risk-perception.
As well as some people being more or less motivated, individuals vary in motivation across time.
Different levels of motivation within the same individual are related to two main factors: the perceived difficulty of the task and the expected rewards. The more difficult the task is perceived to be, the less motivated we will feel. The more we can expect to receive from completing the task, the more motivated we will feel.
Basically, when the task is framed in a way that seems achievable and the reward is something that you really want, the higher your motivation levels will be. But sometimes we don’t get to choose our goals, so...
What are some tips you can do to increase motivation on any task?
First, make sure the goal is achievable, and if it isn’t, break it down: when we are intimidated by the difficulty of a task, it is really demotivating. So try to set achievable goals. If you have a big goal, deconstruct it into a series of smaller, more manageable tasks, so that each individual goal is achievable. Essentially, if you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, you are more likely to keep pushing forwards, so keep each tunnel short. If you need help with this, reach out to a coach or someone you know does this well.
Increase the positive feedback you get from achieving the goal: you can set up a reward plan for yourself to increase your motivation to see the task through. For example, if you are trying to read through an intimidatingly long report, you can plan that every time you read ten pages you can watch five minutes of a show you like. As well as increasing the expectation of reward on a conscious, a plan like this will reinforce the desired behaviour at an unconscious level, and make you feel more positive about doing this behaviour in the future.
Make sure there are consequences to not achieving your goal: one of the strongest rewards is avoiding the opposite, a sense of disappointment in yourself. You can increase this effect by increasing your accountability: tell your coach or a buddy that you are working towards a goal and your timeline for getting there, and this way when they check in with you your desire not to let them down will act as an additional motivator.
Try to keep your values in mind as you set goals: you are more likely to be motivated to do something that is meeting your needs. Our needs vary from the most basic, like the need for food, to the highest levels, like personal development or existential significance. If you set goals that are related to either developing yourself as a person or to a concept that you believe in, you will be more motivated to put in the effort needed to achieve them.
Frame your thoughts about your motivational status carefully: brain imaging studies show that, when you’re stressed, your brain responds differently to statements that start with ‘I am’ and ‘I feel’. If you are feeling overwhelmed and you say to yourself, ‘I am stressed’, you will exacerbate and perpetuate the feeling, whereas if you say ’I feel stressed’, you will decrease activation of the parts of the brain that produce the stress response and activate the areas of the brain used in empathetic observation.
This is because ‘I am’ statements make your brain believe that a sensation is a permanent component of the self rather than a transient state. We can use this trick to make us feel more motivated: tell yourself ‘I am motivated’, rather than ‘I feel motivated’, and you will feel more motivated for longer.
I hope that these tips will help you to help yourself get motivated and stay that way!