There are mornings when I look over my to-do-list and just keep staring blankly at it. Instead of getting to work, I keep checking my inbox, news feed, and making a fresh cup of green tea. Then I notice the dirty dishes in the kitchen.
I get the dishes cleaned up, but there are also those clothes sitting on the chair from last night, so I quickly get those hung up.
Next thing I know, I’ve just wasted two hours of my morning.
Of course a friend calls and tells me everything they accomplished in their morning. It sounds like they’ve done more than the average person does in an entire day -- and sometimes I realize that what they got done could take me a week.
What’s the deal? At first I wondered if I was just lazy? Maybe those others are just exceptional individuals. Or -- is it something else entirely?
Motivation: It’s all in your head.
Science has found that the source of motivation comes from the part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. It’s in the small section where neurotransmitters send chemical messages to the rest of your body. It’s these neurotransmitters that keep us alert, focused, and that part of the brain influences things like completing a project or going to the gym.
When it comes specifically to motivation, one of the most important neurotransmitters is dopamine.
Dopamine is one of the chemical signals that passes information from one neuron to the next. When dopamine is released from the first neuron, it floats between the empty space (the synapse) between the first and second neuron. As it moves between neurons, it bumps against various receptors.
"Dopamine helps bridge what scientists call psychological distance,” explains John Salamone, Ph.D., the head of the Behavioral Neuroscience Division at the University of Connecticut. "Say you're sitting at home on your couch in your pajamas, thinking you really should exercise, for example. Dopamine is what enables you to make the decision to be active."
But, here’s where things can get complicated. When it comes to motivation, dopamine has to take the mesolimbic pathway. This is essentially from the middle of the brain to the cerebral cortex. Without getting too scientific, this process seems to be the most rewarding pathway in the brain.
That’s because during this journey, one of the most important stops is the nucleus accumbens. When there’s a surplus of dopamine in this space it triggers feedback for predicting rewards.
In other words, when your brain recognizes that something important is about go down, and it's a good move for you, dopamine starts to kick-in.
Dopamine: It’s just not about pleasure.
Since dopamine is released before we ever receive a reward, it’s real job is to encourage us to act. It motivates us to achieve, while avoiding something bad.
What’s interesting is that when we think of dopamine, we associate it with pleasure. However, it’s been found that dopamine also spikes during moments of stress, pain, or loss -- it carries us through those episodes.
To verify this phenomon, a team of scientists at Vanderbilt conducted a brain imaging study that compared the brains of “go-getters” and “slackers.”
The team found that the “go-getters” had higher levels of dopamine in the reward and motivation portions of the brain -- which is the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
The “slackers” had a higher level of dopamine in the part of the brain that’s associated with emotion and risk -- the anterior insula.
“Past studies in rats have shown that dopamine is crucial for reward motivation,” said Dr. Michael Treadway. “But this study provides new information about how dopamine determines individual differences in the behavior of human reward-seekers.”
“Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself,” adds the University of Connecticut researcher, John Salamone.
How to harness the power of dopamine to get more done.
First things first. You will need to identify the three primary sources of resistance to getting things done. Touching very lightly on this, these primary sources are: “I have to,” “I don’t feel right about this,” and “I can’t do this.”
Combat sources of resistance.
To combat these sources of resistance, look for solutions. Don’t allow yourself to think about what you want to get done in terms of something you “have to do.” Begin thinking and helping yourself to believe in terms of getting your work done because you “choose to” or “want to” accomplish these items or activities.
Start aligning tasks with your values. Don’t be afraid of failure. After all, practice makes perfect. After you’ve identified these factors, you can start rethinking your thought process to get yourself motivated.
But, how can you get the dopamine flowing?
You can begin to get the dopamine flowing better by setting incremental goals. When you complete a step, dopamine will due to the brain’s positive reinforcement.
Other actions to try that will help you with your efforts:
- Record and celebrate your small wins.
This could be crossing-off an item from you to-do-list or tracking your progress. It’s effective since it shows that you’re working your way towards a goal.
Instead of multitasking, focus on one thing at a time. This prevents you from depleting your brain’s energy. Since you have more energy, you’ll get more done. And when you’re productive, dopamine is released.
- Exceed your expectations.
"When something feels better than expected, dopamine sends a signal to your brain that says, 'You need to figure out how to make it happen again,'" says Treadway.
- Focus on the end-game.
A study out of the University of Michigan discovered that results-driven focus can motivate people to complete their work.
- Help others.
“Neuroscience has demonstrated that giving is a powerful pathway for creating more personal joy and improving overall health,” writes Eva Ritvo, M.D. As a result, dopamine is triggered. Even if you’re not volunteering or sharing your knowledge, think about how your work is going to positively affect others.
- Share your results.
When you tell others about you accomplishments, you'll receive praise and recognition from your friends, family, or colleagues.
- Change your diet.
Eating foods containing natural probiotics is a quick way to kick-in dopamine, such as yogurt. You should also eat and drink items that contain L-tyrosine, such as apples, avocados, bananas, green leafy vegetables, peanuts, green tea, and coffeed.
- Turn setbacks around.
"You're going to go off track sometime -- everyone does. But that can provide valuable information on how to change what you're doing so you'll be successful next time around, "says Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Even though it may appear that others more motivated than you are, you can change that feeling around by life-hacking your dopamine. The easiest, and most effective, ways to do this is by tracking your progress incrementally and receiving positive feedback.
Once you do, you’ll be just as motivated as those whom you are perceiving as the successful “go-getters.”