The “Science” Behind Self-Motivation


January is long gone, and by now maybe your New Year’s resolutions are too, or perhaps your motivation to keep at it is dwindling. Willpower is a finite resource, and you’re bound to get exhausted at some point. Heck, maybe the goals you set over a month ago suddenly felt too daunting, and you’re still waiting for the inspiration to begin. That’s totally okay. Step one: cut yourself some slack. Self-motivation is not an innate personality trait. In fact, our brains play a major role in our ability to motivate ourselves.

Voluntary movements (that drive to get things done) depend a lot on dopamine production in the brain. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, assists electrical impulses in moving between neurons. A deficiency in dopamine can make it especially difficult to create these voluntary movements. Without this neurotransmitter the intensity of the electrical impulses will be lower, which will in turn send a weaker signal to the muscles.

Concurrently, motivation levels are related to the perceived difficulty of a task. It makes sense that the harder we think something will be to complete, the more anxious we may feel to begin. Have no fear, the good news is that there are tools we can apply to trick our brains and set ourselves up for success.

There are three components that make up someone’s ability to self-motivate; their sense of autonomy, what they value in the task, and whether or not they feel competent enough. Let’s start with autonomy. Why are you tackling this goal? Does it involve outside pressure? When you feel in charge of the choices you make, the work is more likely to uplift you. Second, and similar to the first question, what does this goal mean to you? When you’re able to find value in the work and make a personal connection to it you’ll be more willing to push through the tougher times. The third part is competence, and it totally sucks to do things that make us feel dumb. However, competence and practice go hand in hand. Doing something frequently will increase your competency at it, and feeling competent spurs your desire to practice more often.

There are two ways we can boost dopamine in the brain and increase those “go get ‘em!” vibes. The first is to reduce the perceived difficulty in the activity. Just like feeling incompetent, we’re more likely to shy away from things that seem hard. A simple way to make something feel easier is to break it down into smaller pieces. Set specific, manageable goals, and avoid multitasking. You’ll accomplish more by honing your focus on one thing at a time. You don’t have to do all your work at once either, but rather try working for 90 minutes followed by a 10-20 minute break. Your brain will thank you.

When something seems extra difficult it helps to map out the steps you plan to take in order to complete it. Try visualizing working on the task. Anticipate potential roadblocks, and see yourself getting through them. Imagine how you’ll feel when your goal is complete. It’s helpful to record the smaller victories as you check them off, because seeing incremental progress is reinforcing. Positive feedback boosts dopamine, so it’s important to be your own daily cheerleader.

Another way to avoid crumpling to the powers of the almighty dopamine is to increase the rewards for completing your mission (as long as the rewards don’t foil all your hard work.) Not all goals end in a big celebration or dream vacation. Sometimes what we need to tackle, and lack the motivation to do so, is the daily mundane stuff like folding laundry or finishing a routine work project. Maybe you want to learn a new language or instrument as an adult, and external praise is hard to come by. That’s when it’s time to shift into a results-driven mindset. Keep an eye out for any little rewards you may reap as a byproduct of your actions. Your house will be clean; you’ll stay on top of work assignments; you’ll have a new skill. Remember why you started in the first place.

The last piece to harnessing that buzz of motivation remains in your mindset. You have to reframe your perspective about the work, and look for ways to bring in optimism and fun. People who think that hard work (over pure talent) determines success are more likely to persevere in times of difficulty. The #1 thing that does not mix with motivation is doubt. In order to even begin to succeed you must absolutely believe that you can learn, improve, and grow.

If you ever find yourself in a complete motivation desert sometimes the only thing you can do is simply force yourself to take one tiny step. There’s this wonderful phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect, where our brains are overtaken by a compulsion to finish something once we’ve started. Take one step; write one sentence, I dare you! With equal parts effort and determination we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.

-Erin Hackbarth


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