There are tons of videos teaching tips and tricks and rah rah motivation, but in this video I’m going to teach you how your brain works so you understand the principle behind how to get motivated and how to stay motivated. You’re going to learn how dopamine, the neurotransmitter of reward and motivation, works in your brain and four simple things you can do to get motivated and stay that way.
When it's Hard to get Motivated
I’ve got this friend in my neighborhood who’s a super high-achieving high school student. She gets straight A’s, has taken a handful of college classes in high school, and is an amazing musician — you know the type, right?
Well, she’s been telling me lately that she’s struggling to finish her application to her dream university. I mean, she’s going to get in if she applies, but she’s having a hard time getting it written. What’s the deal with that? It’s so out of character, and it got me thinking.
Have you noticed how, during the pandemic, people are less motivated? I mean, I feel less motivated; it can be hard to get moving. People have more time on their hands than ever but are getting less and less done. And it’s not because they have changed, because their genetic makeup has magically changed or anything, it’s because of how dopamine works in the brain.
Dopamine and the Dopamine Cycle:
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter (the chemical in your brain) that’s associated with feeling rewarded or motivated. It helps us strive, feel focused, or find things interesting. It has to do with how we feel pleasure when we have sex or eat ice cream, but it also motivates us to work hard to earn money to eat ice cream.
Dopamine is associated with sticking with something until it rewards you. So for example, casinos take advantage of the dopamine response in our brain by randomly rewarding meaningless behavior (putting coins in a slot), and when you do get a win, it dumps a ton of dopamine into your brain, which feels amazing. And that dopamine reward motivates you to keep doing it.
Same thing goes with fishing (just one more cast) or metal detecting (just one more signal — that could be the lucky one).
And on a random side note, people who take artificial dopamine medication L-dopa for a disease like Parkinson’s have developed terrible gambling addictions, when before they took the meds they never had a problem with gambling. Dopamine creates a reward that motivates behavior, like gambling, fishing, or working.
So basically here is how the dopamine cycle works:
But here’s where people get stuck. They think you need to feel motivated first to take some action. As in, I don’t feel like writing so I’m not going to start until I feel motivated. Or I’ll just watch YouTube until I feel like exercising, then when that bolt of motivation hits, that’s when I’ll be productive.
And sometimes that works; sometimes you feel motivated first, and then take action, but that’s not how motivation works in the long run.
And this is also why so many people, my friend included, are having a hard time getting motivated during the pandemic: because motivation levels drop when you do fewer things. So because we’re not leaving the house for work, we’re less motivated. Because we don’t have scheduled activities with our friends, we’re less motivated. The less you do, the less motivated you feel.
The Motivation Trap
So this is the real trap that many people get stuck in: waiting to get motivated before you do something. Doing something is how you get motivated. Motivation and dopamine come after taking action. This is hardwired into our brain.
Just imagine our ancient ancestors foraging for food and coming across an unknown berry. Perhaps they decide to eat it, and it turns out to be delicious and nourishing. That little kick of excitement comes in after eating and absorbing the berry and motivates them to find the next berry patch.
If, on the other hand, the berry makes them puke, then they don’t have the motivation next time to eat that berry or to work for it. But if the motivation came before trying the berry, then they’d be motivated to eat all kinds of dangerous foods. Motivation comes after action, not before it.
One thing that many emotionally unhealthy people have in common is putting a lot of energy into trying to change how they feel. This is a massive waste of energy. People struggle against feeling sad, or they wait until they feel motivated to act, or they avoid things that make them anxious. And you know what they get? More sad, less motivated, and more anxious.
Stop putting your energy into trying to change your emotions directly. We are most likely to change emotions by changing how we act and changing how we think. Nick Wignall says “Anyone can feel motivated from time to time. But highly motivated people build routines and habits into their lives that generate motivation consistently.”
You can build up a chronic cycle of demotivation or a chronic cycle of motivation, and it really comes down to one small thing that you do. That determines whether you stay motivated or not.
Let me give you one more example of that cycle, and then we’re going to jump into specifics of how to get motivated and stay motivated.
Depression and Motivation
So some of the big aspects of depression are having a hard time getting motivated, feeling low energy, and feeling little to no pleasure with things you used to enjoy. It’s easy to see how the motivation/reward/dopamine cycle is broken. And it’s hard to know what came first, the chicken or the egg here, but a common style of self-talk with depression is someone dismisses any praise they get.
When they do something well, they talk down to themselves: “It’s no big deal.” “So and so could have done it better.” “I’m such a loser.” You just minimize all your accomplishments, turn down every compliment, and crush that sense of reward. Then the next day, you feel less motivated, and it’s harder to get out of bed.
That negative self-talk interrupts any rewarding feeling you may get from taking action. This stops the dopamine from flowing and decreases motivation the next time. This is why changing your self-talk can be really helpful, but it’s also why medication can be a good treatment option for depression, because once it helps you get moving, then you can keep moving. It’s all about building a motivating cycle to keep that dopamine flowing.
How we reward ourselves for tasks determines in the long run whether we build or decrease motivation. And it all starts with building small regular habits, which really just starts with choosing one small thing to act on.
How to Stay Motivated: Build Motivation Habits
So the way to get motivated isn’t to wait until you feel motivated, but rather to take some action first and then highlight the reward it has for you.
So first, choose one small thing to start with and try to do it. I know this can sound hard, but pick something like just making your bed. And then after you’ve done that, take a second to congratulate yourself for how nice it looks now, and give yourself a moment to bask in that tiny pleasure.
If you can’t get yourself to start a big task that you’re avoiding, start by moving in the smallest possible way. Go for a five-minute walk without a phone or drink a tall glass of water.
Anything that gets you moving can start that dopamine cycle. Don’t work in bed. Don’t lay down. Research shows that for people who stay in bed, their motivation decreases.
Getting started can be the hardest part, so you could set a timer and do that task for x long — so I will just write for five minutes, then I can quit if I want. Then when you’ve completed the task, give yourself some credit. Reward yourself with some praise or check off the item on a list. And that reinforces your wins.
This is how you build lasting intrinsic motivation: sit and bask in how good it feels. You found this video and watched it; nice work! You’re trying to improve yourself; give yourself some credit. When you build one new habit at a time, the habits make it easier and easier to take action the next time.
How to Stay Motivated: Intrinsic Rewards
- I hate it if a guest comes over and the bathroom is messy. Blech, I guess I’ll try to clean the bathroom.
- Eww, the bathroom is kinda gross, and I hate worrying about it. It will feel so nice when it’s all clean. It will smell nice, it will look clean, my husband will be so happy that it’s taken care of so we don’t have to do it on the weekend. It’s going to feel so nice when it’s cleaned.
- Take a moment to write down your values, what you want to be doing with your one wild and precious life.
- Track them. Use a to-do list. Track your routines on paper. Use a big calendar with a big red marker. This is just reinforcing that sense of accomplishment.
- Reward yourself before the task. If you really want to build lasting motivation, imagine how you’re going to feel when you do complete a task. Visualizing how good it’s going to feel when you’re done strengthens that sense of accomplishment and motivation.
- Stop rewarding bad behavior. Many people are unmotivated because they accidentally reward bad behavior like procrastinating. So if you do something fun while procrastinating, like gaming or watching a show, you’re actually rewarding yourself for procrastinating. Don’t reward yourself for bad behavior. Turn off your phone or TV if you’re procrastinating, Boredom is uncomfortable, so let it be a motivator. And then use a game or a show as a reward for doing something.
- Stop the negative self-talk. Beating yourself up when you fail doesn’t work in the long run, because if you think you’re going to be punished then over time your motivation decreases a little each time.