The Science Behind Motivation and How to Finish What You Start
Have you ever set a goal and lost your motivation before completing it? Certain patterns hard-wired in your brain are often to blame. But there are some simple ways you can make your natural tendencies work for you instead of against you.
1. Seek pleasure
The feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine is released in your brain when you receive a reward or pleasure. It’s often thought that you will seek a reward in order to get the dopamine high.
A 2013 study revealed there is more to the story. It found that dopamine is actually released before you get a reward. This means the neurotransmitter also increases your motivation to achieve a goal.
In addition, dopamine is released by the sensations of pain, stress or loss. This has the benefit of motivating you to avoid negative situations, such as quitting smoking to avoid getting cancer.
You can get dopamine working for you by including small rewards for yourself as you progress towards a goal. If you’re having a really tough time, reward yourself every hour or even 15 minutes that you commit to your goal.
The more you associate your goals and dreams with pleasurable outcomes, the more your brain will naturally help you achieve them.
2. Silence your inner critic
Do you ever talk yourself out of achieving a goal because of that negative voice in your head? It turns out negative self-talk is a normal part of right prefrontal lobe function in your brain, which is more active when you’re feeling sad or stressed. But research shows you can tune into your left prefrontal lobe instead, which is active when you feel happy and peaceful.
One study taught mindfulness practice to workers in a high-pressure biotech company. After two months of practicing mindfulness three hours per week, the workers’ left prefrontal lobes were shown to be more active. Their emotions became more positive than before the study, their moods improved and they reported feeling more energized and less anxious.
This shows that your thoughts and awareness can actually change how your brain functions. You can turn off that negative voice in your head by staying mindful of how you’re feeling and interrupting any downward spirals.
If you have negative thoughts about a goal, try writing them down on a piece of paper. Look closely at each one and ask yourself if it’s really true. Most of the time, you’ll find that it’s not. You can let your negative thoughts go by ripping up and throwing out the piece of paper.
3. Mix it up
Your brain naturally tries to maintain an optimal state of excitement or arousal. If you’re bored, you’ll seek out something interesting to do. Whereas if you’ve had too much stress or excitement, you’ll likely take a break and relax.
Everyone has an individual level that’s optimal for them. Do you enjoy extreme sports and high-energy activities? Or would you prefer a day on the beach with your favorite book?
An awareness of your own arousal levels and preferences can help you achieve more. The Yerkes-Dodson law found that a simple task is done best when arousal is fairly high, and complex tasks are better completed when arousal levels are lower.
Keep this in mind as you work towards a goal. Perhaps you can group some simple tasks together to make them more interesting and keep your arousal up. Then save more complicated procedures for a time when you can relax and focus in a quiet space.
4. Stay realistic
It can be easy to dismiss a goal if it seems too large and unachievable. This isn’t simply laziness, it’s based on a deeper psychology. Research has found that setting a goal makes your brain believe the outcome is a vital part of who you are. Achieving the goal becomes very personal, which is why you can get very emotionally caught up in reaching a goal.
And if it’s a large undertaking, your brain sees working towards the goal as a stressful situation that it wants to resolve. This can fuel your motivation to complete the goal as soon as possible, but it can also show up as increased feelings of fear, anxiety and overwhelm that may knock you off course.
There are a few ways to keep your goals on track. When you set a goal, make sure it’s one you find meaningful and truly inspiring. It’s been shown that believing our actions will produce valuable outcomes is a strong motivator. If a goal is too difficult to attain compared to its value, it’s easy to give up before even starting.
Break your goal down into small, achievable steps. Then write down any obstacles you think you might encounter along the way, and how you’ll deal with them. This gives your brain something practical to process rather than stressing about the bigger picture.