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How to think your way into motivation

How to think your way into motivation

Life’s busy, you’re stressed, and  your social/work/personal calendar is booked out for weeks. Everyone seems to want a piece of you. How in the hell are you supposed to stay on task and motivated when you’re tired, spent and all around distracted by life?

What is motivation?
Motivation is the process that drives us to initiate and maintain goal directed behaviors. It can be either intrinsically or extrinsically derived.

Intrinsic motivation comes naturally, it is based on the internalized reward we get from engaging in or doing a task; pride, a sense of accomplishment, love, validation of our sense of self are all examples of intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation in large part is what allows athletes to get up at the crack of dawn, train for hours at a time, and repeat the process the next day. It is the reason people who love their profession are willing to spend hours building a business, putting off other pleasures and rewards for the chance to follow a passion. Intrinsic motivation is extremely powerful, and ideally is what we would all want to have.

Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards and reinforcements; money, praise, avoiding a punishment, earning a privilege are all forms of extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators can be extremely powerful too, since they motivate us to do things that are not inherently pleasurable to us, but they are subject to losing value, and therefore to losing effectiveness. Finding the right kind of external motivation can be hard, and people often make choices that don’t hold over time; which, is partially why most new year resolutions fall through.

[bctt tweet=”Motivation is driven by our perception of reward. ” username=”LifeinFocusSD”]

How does it work? 

From a biological perspective motivation is tied to the reward and pleasure centers in our brain. When we engage in behaviors that we perceive as potentially rewarding our brain responds, among other things, by producing dopamine (think happy neurotransmitter). There is some evidence that dysfunctions in the brain’s ability to properly process dopamine is associated with motivational issues. And although our reward mechanism drives the initial process of acquiring a behavior, research from the City College of New York is showing that once the behavior becomes part of our habits, dopamine reactions decrease. Bottom line, motivation is driven by our perception of reward and biologically what gets us moving is when our reward centers light up in response to dopamine production.

Keeping your head in the game:

shutterstock_111255830Research has shown that if you introduce an extrinsic motivator in an activity that was initially intrinsically motivating, your internal motivation will decrease. In plain speak, if you give someone a reward for doing something they were initially motivated to do on their own, you reduce their natural drive to do it without the reward. Not to repeat myself, but the reason this is an issue is that over time extrinsic motivators can lose their value or significance and, therefore, no longer work to elicit a behavior. This is why ideally we want to instill a love of learning and accomplishment in children, rather than paying them to get good grades. If you pay them they will start to expect compensation in return for performance and may refuse to perform unless paid, furthermore, over time they will expect higher fees to remain motivated.

[bctt tweet=”Find a way to make the behavior you are trying to engage in naturally desirable or pleasurable.” username=”LifeinFocusSD”]

The key to remaining motivated over time then is to find a way to make the behavior you are trying to engage in naturally desirable or pleasurable. It is important to find a meaningful, personal reason for initiating the behavior*. There is an exercise I do with my clients, where I ask them to picture what they will feel, think and be like once they achieve their greater goals. We work to create a clear, precise and vivid image that we pair with internal sensations. The purpose of this exercise is to allow someone to call upon that imagery when they try to motivate themselves to action. This works because:

  1. The reward centers in the brain are activated by the perception of reward, and don’t necessarily need to have the reward come immediately (see Pavlov’s dog and conditioning to understand the pairing).
  2. What you think becomes your reality so simply imagining the reward allows you to trigger similar emotional responses.
  3. We are focusing on what is personally and internally gratifying, not on the short-term reward of the action.

This is actually what I did to motivate myself to write and then re-write** this blog post. It is  akin to staying focused on the end game, except in this case we make sure you can picture it, you know what is sounds an feels like and you can call upon that sense of satisfaction and accomplishment to stay motivated.

* Once the behavior has become a habit, this need mostly subsides.

** For reasons I cannot fathom my first completed and read to publish draft of this post did not save.

Some light reading on the neurochemistry of motivation:

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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