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The Science of Motivation: How to Get Motivated

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Written by
Medically reviewed by
Dr. Christopher Knee, ND

Have you ever noticed that some days you feel motivated and eager to accomplish something and other days you feel sluggish and struggle to find the motivation to complete simple tasks? If so, you’re not alone. It’s completely normal to experience peaks and valleys in motivation; however, you can use certain strategies to boost motivation and remain focused on your goals. Continue reading to learn more about the science of motivation and simple tips you can implement to improve your chances of success.

 

two people hiking with backpacks and hiking sticks
Cultivate motivation by setting realistic goals, finding enjoyment in the process, and establishing a rewards system.

 

What is motivation?

Motivation is the force that drives our decisions and influences behavior. (13) Whether you’d like to learn a new skill, master a second language, eat more vegetables, or be more active, motivation is necessary for keeping you on track to accomplish that goal.

Critical to our survival, motivation directs us to positive stimuli, such as food and water, and helps us evade negative situations, such as stress, pain, or danger. (13) Motivation isn’t something that always comes naturally; it often must be cultivated. Even the most driven and successful people experience lulls in motivation. Finding what motivates you is a great place to start.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is driven by internal forces such as personal enjoyment and satisfaction. (11) Going for a daily walk because you enjoy nature’s sights and sounds is an example of intrinsic motivation.

In contrast, extrinsic motivation involves being motivated by an external factor, such as an award, praise, money, or social status. (11) An example of extrinsic motivation includes pursuing a promotion at work for your hard work and dedication.

Depending on the situation, you may find that both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation influence your behavior. For example, the decision to study a particular subject in school may be influenced by your passion for that topic and desire to learn (intrinsic motivation). The desire to earn good grades and make the Dean’s list may also serve as a primary motivation (extrinsic motivation).

Did you know? Intrinsic motivation is associated with enhanced learning and creativity. (4)

The science of motivation

Researchers have begun to better understand the science of motivation. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain most commonly associated with pleasure), has recently been identified as highly influential to motivation. Studies have shown that dopamine transmits signals before receiving rewards, encouraging us to achieve something positive or avert something negative. (1)

 

woman on top of a mountain with her arms up stretching
Low levels of dopamine may be linked to diminished motivation. (2)

 

A 2012 brain imaging study demonstrated that individuals who were more likely to work hard to accomplish a task experienced a more significant release of dopamine in the striatum, the region of the brain involved in regulating motor functions and reward systems. (15) Another similar study recognized that individuals who are more likely to experience intrinsically-motivated flow states, a state of mind that involves being fully immersed in an activity, have greater dopamine D2-receptor availability in the brain. (3)

A recent study investigating the effects of stimulants (methylphenidate) used to treat attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may explain how dopamine influences motivation and our decisions. These drugs successfully treat ADHD because they prevent the reabsorption of dopamine, resulting in increased dopamine in the striatum. Researchers determined that individuals with greater dopamine levels were more likely to focus on the extrinsic motivator (in this case, money) and participate in more challenging mental tasks than individuals with lower dopamine levels. In other words, dopamine helps your brain analyze the cost/benefit of a task and determine whether it’s worth accomplishing. (16)

Reasons you may lack motivation

Lack of motivation is a common concern that can be influenced by several factors, including:

Additionally, you may encounter barriers while trying to reach your goal. Barriers can cause you to lose focus and motivation. Examples of perceived barriers include:

  • Insufficient funds or resources
  • Fear of failure
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of time/inflexible schedule
  • Overwhelming responsibilities (7)

How to motivate yourself

Cultivating motivation requires some effort and careful planning. Consider the following tips when planning and pursuing your goals.

 

graphic with a mountain shaped journey of all the motivation factors and tips
Use these helpful tips to cultivate motivation.

 

Set SMART goals

To maintain motivation, establishing realistic goals is essential. “SMART” is an acronym used to describe a set of actions to consider when setting and working towards a goal, which include:

  • Specific: the goal is clearly defined and answers several questions such as “who, when, what, why, and how?”.
  • Measurable: the goal can be measured using metrics or a specific indicator
  • Attainable: the goal can be achieved
  • Realistic: the goal’s results can be realistically achieved
  • Time-related: the goal specifies a timeframe for when the goal can be achieved (6)(10)

Download a handout on goal-setting strategies.

Identify potential setbacks

Experiencing setbacks or perceived barriers can derail your efforts. (7) When first setting a goal, take some time to recognize any setbacks that you may encounter along the way. Once you’ve identified these setbacks, create a plan for overcoming them. For example, if your goal is to exercise five times a week, but you frequently travel for work, identify some creative options and any resources available to you at each destination. Consider utilizing hotel gyms, packing lightweight resistance bands in your suitcase, or mapping out walking routes you can take each day.

Consider incentives

If incentives motivate you, try setting a specific goal using the SMART goals guidelines and establish a reward once you reach your goal. Extrinsic factors, such as a vacation, a meal from your favorite restaurant, or a new outfit, can serve as excellent motivators. Research shows that incentives are highly effective in initiating behavior change. (6) In one study, participants received various amounts of monetary incentives for fruit and vegetable consumption. Participants in the group receiving daily incentives reported a more significant increase in consumption during the intervention than the groups receiving delayed or zero incentives. The study also noted that participants experienced more substantial increases in self-efficacy and maintained their fruit and vegetable consumption post-intervention. (6)

Use productivity tools

If you struggle with balancing your tasks or staying focused, using a productivity app may help. ClickUp, Focus To-Do, Daily Planner, Habit, and TimeBloc are all great options to help you organize your tasks.

Find social support

Social support from friends, family members, or co-workers has a significant influence on health behavior and can provide accountability. Research has identified a correlation between social support and promotion of improved health behaviors, including smoking cessation, exercise, and fruit and vegetable consumption. (12) Try exercising with a friend, joining a support group, or sharing your goals and achievements with someone close to you.

Make pursuing your goals fun

If you’re striving for a goal that involves behaviors or activities that you don’t particularly enjoy, you may find your motivation dwindling. There’s no sense in engaging in something that you don’t find fun or rewarding. Instead, consider finding new and exciting ways to stay motivated. For example, if your goal is to be more active, try finding activities you genuinely enjoy. If you dislike running, give swimming, cycling, or dancing a try. A bit of variety has been shown to increase enjoyment and participation. (9)

Track and celebrate your progress

Keep track of your progress and identify milestones along the way. Celebrating your small wins can encourage you to push forward with your goals and further promote behavior change. (8) Research indicates that dopamine activity increases in response to positive feedback. (1) You can easily track your progress using a journal or wellness app.

The bottom line

Cultivating motivation can seem like an impossible feat, but you can accomplish anything you set your mind to with some strategic planning. Establishing realistic goals, tracking your progress, finding enjoyment in what you do, and utilizing incentives along the way can help you find success.

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  1. Bromberg-Martin, E. S., Matsumoto, M., & Hikosaka, O. (2010). Dopamine in motivational control: Rewarding, aversive, and alerting. Neuron, 68(5), 815–834.
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  3. de Manzano, Ö., Cervenka, S., Jucaite, A., Hellenäs, O., Farde, L., & Ullén, F. (2013). Individual differences in the proneness to have flow experiences are linked to dopamine D2-receptor availability in the dorsal striatum. NeuroImage, 67, 1–6.
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