The Science of Motivation

What gets you motivated?

Contrary to popular opinions, rewards and penalties do not motivate us to take actions. As a matter of fact, several types of research on human psychology have concluded that, once a reasonable level of living has been achieved, they no longer motivate us. Instead, they demotivate us. Chief among these is the classic example of lawyers who were asked to provide legal counsels for persons of low-income. They were grouped into two. The first group was offered a fraction of the normal rate to offer their service. The second group was asked to offer the service for free. The researcher found out that the first group that was offered a fraction of their regular fee was a bit reluctant and unwilling to do so. However, the second group was overwhelmingly willing. By offering a fractional fee, the first group could only think of the service as work in relation to their regular big billable. The second group were not motivated by money and had to think of other ways in which the work became the motivation.

Incentives and penalties narrow one’s perspective and as a result, they inhibit one’s ability to get work done. This was exemplified in Dan Pink’s TED talk on the candle problem. The subjects were given a box of tacks, some matches, and a candle. Seated at a table against a wall, they were asked to figure out a way to burn the candle without getting wax on the table. One group was offered money for figuring the puzzle out, while the other group was offered nothing. The group that was not offered anything as a reward did remarkably better.

The origin of motivation

The human brain consists of many important organs which include an emotionally sensitive switching station, called the amygdala, which lies deep within the limbic system. In the absence of fear or high stress, the amygdala directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for turning that information into long-term memory. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) may also process it through the cognitive and emotional control networks of the higher functions within our brain. That then allows us to either respond or to ignore it.
However, the reflector that produces dopamine (which is the brain chemical for motivation) does not operate in high-stress situations. Low levels of dopamine make people and animals less likely to perform tasks.

Staying motivated with the help of science.

Motivation happens when your dopamine rises because you anticipate that something important is about to happen. However, you cannot leave the fluctuation in the dopamine level to autopilot- the kneejerk reaction of anticipated danger or reward. Instead, you can create the dopamine environment for your brain. Here are five ways to train your brain to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences:

1. Set small achievable goals

Perceived motivation is largely tied to the level of difficulty of the task. It is, therefore, rewarding to record small wins. This boosts the spike in the dopamine release in the brain. When you are faced with a big task, you may want to break it down into small, achievable and manageable chunks.

2. Celebrate small wins

Although we have concluded in the opening section that rewards and penalties do not boost motivation. Nevertheless, when you reward yourself with little rewards like a cup of coffee, a walk down the block or a few minutes listening to music, you allow your brain to stay motivated. You can make use of a to-do list to record small accomplishments, which will show your progress, and ultimately boost your dopamine.

3. Make learning a primary goal

An important aspect of personal development is working towards mastery. Therefore, any work that moves us towards this goal is highly rewarding. You can apply the Seth Godin principle of finding at least three things to change about your job every day. When you start your day with this mindset of improvement, you no longer see work as a stressful thing to do. Rather, you see it as an opportunity to grow and attain personal mastery.

4. Have a mission

Whenever the big picture in a situation is missing or blurry, motivation drops. Perhaps, the single most fulfilling factor in our lives is the sense that we are fulfilling a higher purpose. That is why lawyers do pro bono— the sense that they are contributing to a purpose greater than them. We must have personal statements against which our daily actions can be evaluated.

5. Boost your diet with dopamine-filled foods.

To boost your dopamine, you have to eat foods which are natural probiotics such as yogurt and kefir. Examples of foods that are known to improve the dopamine level include soy products, turmeric, watermelon, olive oil, chocolate, apples, and almonds.  There are also some dopamine supplements that can be taken alongside food such as Tyrosine supplements, L-Theanine supplements, Phosphatidylserine (PS) Supplements, Curcumin + Turmeric Supplements.
Aside dopamine-filled foods, physical exercises have also been proven to be one of the best things you can do for your brain. The brain uses about 20 percent of the total blood and oxygen in the body. Exercises help to improve the inflow of nutrients, oxygen, and blood to the brain. Exercises also, directly, increase the levels of dopamine along with both norepinephrine and serotonin, a dual-purpose stress hormone and neurotransmitter that help you respond to stressful situations.

Take Away.

The point of this article is to prove that you can hack your dopamine. You can make yourself motivated anytime you wish. However, beyond motivation, lies sheer willpower— the tenacity to get things done regardless how you feel. Willpower is the secret of elite performers. Willpower helps us to get things done even when we don’t want to. A discussion on the science of motivation will be incomplete without an understanding of willpower.

Psychologists have discovered that willpower is a finite resource. This implies that there are only fixed amounts of willpower you can have per day to act on the motivation you have. As a result, if you have exhausted your willpower in the morning, no matter the height of the dopamine spike you have later in the day, it will be useless. Hence, when you combine motivation with willpower, you become a reliable, disciplined and effective performer.

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