The science behind motivation

Health Agenda
Mental Health

How to get stuff done – the science behind motivation

Finding motivation isn’t always easy. We discover where it lies in the brain, and how to activate it.

Angela Tufvesson
November 2018

When Charlie de Haas (34) from Alexandria NSW, first started her small business, she felt driven and business was booming. But it wasn’t long before she became bogged down in the nitty-gritty of running a business and managing staff. At this point, she had a huge dip in motivation.

“It felt like every day I was permanently in a bad mood and didn’t know what kind of ‘hit’ I was going to take,” she says.

That’s the trouble with motivation – even though we really want something, it can be very difficult to put in the effort to make it happen.

What’s happening in the brain?

The system in your brain that impacts your levels of motivation is called the reward network, explains Fiona Kumfor, senior research fellow at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

There are 2 areas of the brain in this reward network that are important for motivation: the prefrontal cortex and the striatum.

“The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher-level thinking, so things like making decisions, reasoning and planning for the future,” says Dr Kumfor. “The striatum is important in habitual processes or what we do without thinking.”

A chemical called dopamine is another important component of this reward network. It’s released when we do something that makes us feel good, from eating a tasty meal to going for a jog, and the prefrontal cortex and striatum are very sensitive to it.

“Dopamine is really important for reward and motivation,” says Dr Kumfor. “It’s the release of dopamine in the striatum and prefrontal cortex that ultimately determines our level of motivation and helps us decide what we’re going to do.”

When you receive that dopamine boost, you’re encouraged to repeat the activity, so that you get that rush again. But you’ll only receive that dopamine boost after you engage in the behaviour.

Why can motivation dip?

The trouble is that short-term decisions are more likely to yield a dopamine rush than things that take longer to achieve, like losing weight or, in de Haas’ case, operating a successful business. 

“When we’re deciding whether to do something, we’re weighing up the costs versus the benefits,” says Dr Kumfor. “If you take something like eating healthily, for example, the benefit might be that you lose some weight or you’re less likely to have certain medical conditions, but the cost is you’re potentially not going to be able to eat chips, ice-cream or other unhealthy food.”

So when we’re making these decisions it’s hard to be motivated by benefits that are far off in the future.

How can you improve motivation?

First, make rewards more immediate so you have alternative options for dopamine release.“Rather than saying you’re going to reward yourself when you’ve run a marathon, have smaller steps along the way,” says Dr Kumfor. “Aim to run for 10 minutes and slowly work your way up to an hour and so on.”

Or instead of saying you’re going to eat healthy from now on, aim to have 5 serves of vegetables a day for a week, and reward yourself when you hit your goal – for example with a trip to the movies.

De Haas says making a conscious effort to reward herself for small achievements was key to improving her motivation. “I spent time checking in with myself and making sure that if I did something small, I spoke to myself in a kind and loving manner, saying ‘well done’ and noticing how good it felt.”

She also focused on making these small changes regular habits, which Dr Kumfor says is another effective motivation-boosting strategy. Instead of relying on the pre-frontal cortex to perform a cost-benefit analysis every time you need to make a decision, letting the habit-forming striatum take charge means changes to your behaviour become automatic.

“This helps reduce the amount of motivation that’s necessary, so that rather than relying on the prefrontal cortex and goal-directed behaviour, you establish habits so the automatic part of the brain can take over.”

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