Motivation is the whole complex process of directing and regulating ones behavior towards a certain goal. What gets our motivation going are our physiological and psychological needs.
However, sometimes we struggle with completing even those tasks that seem to match our needs. Why is this? Well, there is no one quick and sure-fire way to get to the bottom of why you’re struggling with motivation. I can make assumptions, but that’s very personal and individual and you can get to the bottom of this with your therapist perhaps.
This being said, there are some general, neuro-science based, truths about motivation and ways to get motivated to do certain things.
One thing we know is that, the more dopamine is released while doing something, our motivation to keep doing it and to do it again gets stronger. Thus, if we want to be motivated to do something, we want to secrete more dopamine* while doing it.
Now, how do we get our brains to release more dopamine? Let’s take a look at some tips.
1) Before even starting to deal with the task, sit down and think about why you’re doing it. If you start the whole thing thinking about how awful it is, this will stimulate your brains pain center. Instead, try and stimulate your reward center by writing down and visualizing all the positive outcomes. Visualization is a powerful tool of motivation, as it helps develop neural connections that then increase the likelihood of you taking an action toward your goal.
2) Think about your values, what you stand for and what you care about. Next, look for ways to connect that with what you’re doing. If what we’re doing isn’t reduced to the thing we’re doing itself, but it instead forms part of our value system and our overall identity, it then starts to form part of who we are. After a while, just sitting down to do it starts to come naturally. For example, for most people, knowing our work helps others can be very motivating.
3) Break the task down. Each task should take 30-40 minutes to complete. This will make everything seem more manageable and less overwhelming, and the one thing that can help you actually focus on the task at hand is the well-known pomodoro technique**. Upon completing each individual task, our brain stimulates more dopamine, because we are constantly getting the sense of accomplishment.
4) Take breaks. Every 45-90 minutes, take a 15 minute break. Establish a rhythm that works best for you. It depends on your job, preferences, style, and attention span. As the day goes by, our brains need more break-time and less focused-work-time. So, pump up those breaks and cut down on active working time as the end of your “shift” comes rolling by. Get creative with those breaks – change them up, do something your body or mind isn’t used to (read a poem, dance, practice doing a headstand).
5) Again, surprise yourself. In order to secrete more dopamine, we need unpredictable rewards. But, if you want to self-motivate, how can you surprise yourself with a predetermined award?! One way could be finding ways to have more social collaboration – it may not always work or be rewarding, but it most likely will be – we can’t predict other people’s actions or reactions, so we’ll most likely be surprised. Even if you are the one planning out these surprise activities, your body and especially your nervous system will register them as new and therefore unexpected. Thus the surge in dopamine secretion. So, try to find a good balance between routine and variety – too much routine would leave you secreting less dopamine. If, in every day, you include at least one new activity (no matter how small), this will inevitably make you more motivated overall. The dopamine hit will “spill” over into your working time.
By repeating and reinforcing positive behavior patterns, you can train your brain to work in your favor.
*Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a very important role in how we experience pleasure and in determining what we’re motivated to do.
** You can read more about it here: https://todoist.com/productivity-methods/pomodoro-technique
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counseling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Kim, C., & Pekrun, R. (2014). Emotions and motivation in learning and performance. Handbook of research on educational communications and technology, 65-75.
Toleikyte G., (2021), Why the f*ck can’t I change? : Insights from a neuroscientist to show that you can