Why’s it so hard to stay motivated? We’re not the first to pose the question and we definitely won’t be the last, and that’s because it’s one that bugs everyone at one stage or another. Even with the best intentions in the world, why is motivation sometimes so fleeting? Why does old brainbox let us down when we need it most?
The biology behind motivation
Think of your brain as a city full of houses, where each house is a neuron (there are around 86 billion in the human brain, so we’re talking about a pretty big city here). Now imagine that the main way everyone in that city speaks to one another – the main way the city functions – is through messages. In the brain, those billions of messages firing back and forth between each house are called neurotransmitters, and they take many different forms depending on the subject in the letter.
One of those letters is dopamine, and it fires around messages about motivation, productivity and focus. So, as you’d expect, this is the chemical most modern neuroscientists are focussing their attention on when it comes to picking apart how motivation works.
If we’re getting super technical, dopamine’s path takes it through a region in the basal forebrain called the nucleus accumbens. There’s one of these in each of your brain’s hemispheres, and both are divided into two parts – the nucleus accumbens core and the nucleus accumbens shell. They deal with feelings of aversion, motivation and reward, and use all that lovely dopamine to carry those messages from the middle of the brain outwards.
But what’s really key here is that all the above is fairly new thinking. If you’ve heard of dopamine before, it’s probably been in the ‘reward’ context – firing around after you’ve done something worth feeling good about. And that was all we thought it did for quite a while.
Thing is, dopamine also handles predicting those rewards.
In a ground-breaking study for the US National Institute of Mental Health from 2012, Professor John Salamone found that dopamine levels actually dictate how willing we are to get going – whether that’s lacing up your running shoes or replying to all those emails at work. Dr Salamone put rats with altered dopamine levels up against tasks for food, where the less motivated chose the easier payout.
“Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things,” he said, “so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”
In other words? If you think yourself a bit of a slacker, your dopamine levels may be to blame. But before we move on to what you can do to combat that, we need to look at the other side of the motivational coin…
The psychology behind motivation
From a psychological standpoint, there are three universally-recognised motivational blockades. Daisy Yuhas outlines these in a great article for Scientific American as ‘Autonomy, Value and Competence.’
So what does that mean? Let’s take a quick look at each one separately:
In simple terms, autonomy is all about the difference between having to do something, and wanting to. Making a proactive choice to go for a run, as just one example, is a lot easier mentally than being made to. Or even feeling like you’re being made to. Leading tests for this include one from 2006, in which people were forced to choose a side in a debate and then complete an unrelated quiz straight afterwards. Those who were then allowed to choose a side took to the quiz much more strongly, and for longer.
This is all about whether or not you’re interested. It may be obvious to say, but there’s huge correlation between your aptitude to doing a task and how important you think it is. It’s just like being at school – everyone has their favourite subjects, and chances are you did best in yours. This is pretty ingrained, but there are things you can do to affect how you value certain things, which we’ll get onto in a bit.
Are you any good at what you’re trying to do? If not, you’ll feel less confident and less motivated as a result. And that makes total sense, right? Your motivation to do a stand-up comedy routine would falter if you thought you’d crash and burn on stage. The cool thing here is that breaking out of this Catch 22 is not only possible, but common: the more you do something, the better you get at it.
And then we need to talk about the psychology behind habits. Odds are you’ve heard someone posit that it takes ‘21 days to form a habit’ – it’s a commonly held belief.
Ready to have your mind blown? It’s nonsense.
So where does this oft-repeated rumour come from? Writing in a piece for UCL’s blog, Ben D Gardner traces the 21-day myth back to the 1960s, in a book by Dr Maxwell Malts called Pyscho-cybernetics:
“It usually requires a minimum of about 21 days to effect any perceptible change in a mental image,” said Dr Maltz. “Following plastic surgery it takes about 21 days for the average patient to get used to his new face. When an arm or leg is amputated the ‘phantom limb’ persists for about 21 days. People must live in a new house for about three weeks before it begins to ‘seem like home.’”
All of which is too anecdotal for us; we’re on the quest for science here, after all. In Ben’s piece, he cites a study that showed an average of 66 days for test subjects to form new habits, but the habit in question was simple (have a glass of water when they got home), and the numbers varied wildly:
“There were quite large differences between individuals in how quickly automaticity reached its peak,” he writes, “although everyone repeated their chosen behaviour daily: for one person it took just 18 days, and another did not get there in the [test’s] 84 days.”
All of which leads us onto the final part of the puzzle: tricks and tips to outwit that bad brain of yours...
How to boost your motivation
As Sir Isaac Newton said: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Case in point: you now know how motivation works, and what might be putting the squeeze on yours, but now you probably feel even more powerless to change! Worry not, though: there’s plenty you can do to switch up your psyche and pump up your dopamine levels naturally.
On the biological front, you can get your neurons firing on all cylinders in loads of different ways. Your diet is a good starting point. Foods like almonds, avocados, bananas, chicken, coffee, eggs and yoghurt have all been proven to boost dopamine levels naturally – keeping you alert and helping you feel ready to take things on.
Likewise, trying new ways of exercising and fresh experiences will boost your motivational fuel, because being excited and challenged triggers dopamine production. Regularly listening to music, meditating and self-rewarding also all help, alongside – of course – plenty of regular exercise.
And it’s here where the neuroscience and the psychology cross over – helping you turn that non-motivational Catch 22 into an upwards spiral of fresh vigour.
The takeaway? Eat right and treat yourself to surprising, brand new forms of exercise, and your brain will work overtime making fresh dopamine. Keep doing it and you’ll get better, and that will quickly overcome those hangups around competence and value. Keep going further and you’ll find yourself wrapping that regular workout into your routine – tackling the autonomy part of the puzzle.
Motivation skyrockets when you feel in charge of what you’re doing, and every little thing you do helps. So next time you’re struggling to build the motivation to head out there, remember: it’s all in your head. And that’s a good thing.
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