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Home » Blog » The Science of Motivation: It’s All in the Head

The Science of Motivation: It’s All in the Head

In a nutshell:

  • Dopamine is more than a pleasure chemical; it is responsible for both positive and negative motivation.
  • People with low motivation can become high-achievers by tricking their mind into producing enough dopamine.
  • Instead of an excess or an absence of dopamine, small bursts of it will help increase productivity.
  • There are several easy hacks to produce small bursts of dopamine.

It is rather a shared feeling among us to be actively charged for our duties when a new year beckons. In fact, the feeling makes its way into most of the new year resolutions across the globe. “I will commit myself and be more productive and efficient this year,” can be seen emphatically scrawled somewhere along the list.

And yet, what plays out for most of us is this all-too-familiar scenario. By the second month of the year, your days are in disarray, you barely meet your goals, and you spend hours just staring at your screen, waiting for motivation to kick in.

It is a fundamental truth of life that while some of us struggle with finding motivation, there are others who ride on its wave like mythological knights riding fiery dragons.

Why is motivation such an elusive treasure for some while it’s an abundant possession for others?

It’s Not You, It’s Dopamine

“What the workmen want from employers beyond anything else is higher wages.” Our wealth of personal experience ousts this theory of Frederick Winslow Taylor because for most of us, as important as our financial rewards might be, they are not the primary driving force for higher accomplishments. There is that ‘something unknown’ which fuels us to push against odds and rise above pain to reach greater heights. And in the absence of it, we find ourselves lost, unable to trod a path we had carved out for ourselves.

In moments like these, we turn to science. In 2012, a research team at Vanderbilt University made an interesting discovery. Dopamine, which till then had been considered as the hormone that induced happy feelings, the ‘pleasure chemical’, is the primary chemical that deals with motivation. The study revealed that dopamine was responsible for both positive and negative motivation depending on which part of the brain it acted.

A high level of dopamine in one part of the brain drives people to work harder and stay goal-oriented. A high level in another part causes people to reject work.

So, instead of being just a reward chemical, dopamine is actually a motivational one. In very simple terms, it encourages us to act towards something or against something in order to achieve a reward. 

The Vanderbilt discovery created quite a breakthrough in the field of neuroscience because it finally gave us a glimpse into the psyche of high-achievers. Another reason, and a far more important one, is that it revealed that people with low motivation can indeed become high-achievers because there’s nothing wrong with them. They just had to trick their mind into producing enough dopamine.

Consider the impact of this discovery on individuals and managers alike. Where the former can condition themselves to cultivate intrinsic motivation, the latter can effectively coach them in that journey. All in all, it paints a rather hopeful picture.

Dopamine Detox: Does it Really Work?

There has been a lot of debate recently on whether dopamine detox as a means to resetting your mind is a fact or a fad. The question of whether or not a short-term deprivation of our chosen pleasure would help us focus more in the long run still remains unanswered. 

Dopamine detox is the process in which a person avoids all the dopamine triggers for some time, essentially detoxing their mind in order to reset it. The idea behind dopamine detox is to help centre the mind and ensure more focus at the end of the process. A form of abstinence, it is a process similar to the digital unplugging we sometimes practice to create more mindfulness and avoid stress.

But does it really work? The world is divided on the subject. Perhaps the benefits of dopamine detox vary from person to person and depend on the individual. Maybe what is required to boost productivity is not an excess or an absence of dopamine. As Lord Buddha said, what we must do is try to walk the middle path.

Train Your Brain: Trick, Hack, and Succeed

Our lives, for the last two years, have been anything but predictable. Routines we had set for our personal and professional lives through the years were tossed out the window, blurring the boundaries of where work begins and ends. With fewer options of recharging and detoxing, most of us gave into overworking or underworking. In either case, motivation was perhaps the most missing element.

When we’re feeling unfocused and uninspired, what we need is small bursts of dopamine to ensure that we are well motivated and feel rewarded with our accomplishments. The operative phrase here is small bursts. The process is easier than we would imagine.

Draw Up a Daily Plan

We start the day with a clear picture in our heads of what we need to attend to. Unfortunately, the common tragedy is that by the end of the first hour, this imaginary plan would have become so muddled that we hardly ever give it a second thought. This is a more common malady than you think.

The simplest solution is to write down your daily to-do list. As simple as it may sound, we find innate satisfaction in solidifying our plans and ticking off a task every time we complete one. Never underestimate that sense of achievement, even for something as tiny as sending a mail. Dopamine kicks in when you see yourself making steady progress.

Set Achievable Goals

For high-achievers, losing sight of their goals is an anomaly, in that, it rarely happens. But for others, it is easier to get lost in our everyday tasks and lose the bigger picture. No one’s at fault, really. It just happens. So what will be ideal is to break the goal into smaller achievable ones with a clear deadline for each.

Enrich your to-do lists with these goals and voila, you have a success quotient in your hands.

It works wonders, much like the humble daily to-do list. Keeping track of your progress regularly will give you the necessary high to keep going. 

Avoid Excessive Multitasking

Most of us have the tendency to do too many things at one time to meet our target. While this does make us feel like a superhero, it’s not always a good thing. We’re hard-wired to multitask, especially women, but it has the propensity to muddle our focus and blur our vision. 

Multitasking is not just physical. So many of us fall prey to the habit of constantly planning something in our heads while working on something entirely different. What happens is a situation of neither here nor there. That is one middle path you don’t want to find yourself on.

Try to focus on only the task at hand. Reset your mind every time you finish one task to completely devote yourself to the present one. It’s not easy, not in the least. We have to dismantle years of conditioning to do that. Yet, it’s worth a try. 

Imagine doing a factory reset on your phone and how clear and light you feel when you do that. Don’t you think your mind deserves the same? After all, it’s more powerful and useful than your smartphone.

Set Aside Small Rewards

This one is bribing, plain and simple! We know so many people who hit the gym religiously with a set target in mind. And once they achieve it, they treat themselves to a reward, a forbidden food of some kind, like a Death by Chocolate ice cream or a decadent cheese-stuffed pizza. For a lot of us, the prospect of a reward is great motivation. And that’s exactly how dopamine works, showing us the reward at the end to help us stay on the path to achieve it.

So for each sizable accomplishment, set aside a reward for yourself. It could be materialistic like a long-coveted smart watch, or something mentally soothing like a quiet vacation. Delayed gratification does have its benefits.

Share Your Accomplishments

“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote centuries ago. And that is still the truth. We have the innate need to reach out to others, communicate, and share. Put it to good use. Share your accomplishments with colleagues, friends, and family. Make use of that wonderful digital phenomenon called social media to share your achievements.

Appreciation from others and their acknowledgment of your accomplishments act as great sources of inspiration. Praise and recognition increase your dopamine levels, which explains why you are always in the mood to do more when you’re at the pinnacle of your success. Which is also why when you wean yourself off of your profession or passion, you find yourself lost and alone, joyless and empty.

Not Just For the Chosen Few

Now we know that all of us have it in us to focus, commit, and succeed. It’s only a matter of training your brain to keep us motivated. And no, it might not be easy at first, but the trick is to do this enough times to cultivate a habit out of it. And habits are always hard to shake. Whether you buy into the benefits of dopamine detox or not, the simple tricks to create small bursts of dopamine are sure to garner results.

For the leaders and coaches out there, this information can be the golden compass with which you show the way to your teams and coachees. Motivation is not just for a chosen few but for everyone. A few simple practices and habits can propel anyone with an ounce of potential to greater glory. 

So go ahead and claim your victory this new year. And this time if hard work and dedication are part of your resolutions, you can rest assured that you will indeed not fall short of them.

What is dopamine?

In 2012, a Vanderbilt University research team made an interesting discovery. Dopamine is the major chemical involved in motivation. It was formerly thought to be the hormone that caused good sensations, or the ‘pleasure chemical.’ Dopamine is a motivational chemical rather than merely a reward chemical.

How does dopamine act as a source of our motivation?

Dopamine was found to be responsible for both positive and negative motivation depending on which portion of the brain it acted on in the study. People who have a lot of dopamine in one section of their brain work harder and stay focused on their goals. People refuse job because of a high level in another part. In the simplest words, it motivates us to behave in favour of or against something in order to obtain a reward.

What is dopamine detox?

Dopamine detox is a process in which a person abstains from all dopamine stimuli for a period of time in order to reset their mind. The goal of dopamine detox is to assist the mind relax and focus at the end of the procedure. It’s a type of abstinence that’s akin to the digital unplugging we do from time to time to increase awareness and reduce stress.

How is dopamine the science of our motivation?

Small bursts of dopamine are needed when we’re feeling distracted and uninspired to keep us motivated and feel rewarded for our successes. Small bursts is the key phrase here. The procedure is far simpler than we had anticipated.

How to get yourself motivated and finish your tasks for a day?

Here are few steps to help you stay motivated and finish your tasks for a day:
Draw Up a Daily Plan

Set Achievable Goals

Avoid Excessive Multitasking

Set Aside Small Rewards

Share Your Accomplishments