In the bustle of daily life, you might not realize how caught up you get in making hasty decisions and overworking yourself. It is then unsurprising that you find yourself constantly exhausted, reluctant to repeat the same cycle without feeling any closer to achieving your goals. If I’ve just described something you’re experiencing (or have experienced), it’s not because I am some sort of mind-reader. As a fellow student, I too know what it’s like to wake up and have absolutely no motivation to get any work done. But if the neuroscience student stereotype fits, the one thing that has helped me through such a phase is actually consulting some of the interesting things I’ve learned in class about what drives our brain to do things. So call this a page out of my notebook if you will, but here’s a breakdown of how you can pick your brain!
Motivation: It’s Really in Your Head
Modern neuroscientific research is particularly invested in motivation just as much as you and I are, and has identified Dopamine as a key chemical involved in almost every aspect of motivation. As a neurotransmitter, Dopamine carries signals from one neuron to another in a specific route of your brain to energize thoughts.
It specifically affects some well-known ‘celebrity’ regions of the brain, such as the Hippocampus (memory formation) and the Amygdala (emotional regulation). It also affects some lesser known regions such as the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), which is responsible for decision-making, controlling behavior and recognizing reward.
When more dopamine flows to these parts of your brain, you feel a greater drive to initiate or complete an action, be it simple tasks like getting out of bed, or complex ones like finishing a paper.
Of course simply knowing what parts of your brain need to be energized is far from an effective motivational tool. Let’s zoom out a little more to understand why some situations increase dopamine flow almost automatically while others don’t. A distinction is to be made here, between intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivation. The former applies to tasks that you are genuinely interested in and value as extremely relevant to your life, which is an internal process. The latter however is concerned with any external factor that might be driving you to do something, such as expectations from family and peers.
Room for Vroom
It’s not always easy to identify if a motivational factor is internal or external, because what you identify as a goal might not always be something that genuinely interests you. Victor Vroom was first in noting this paradox. He proposed that your performance is based on unique factors such as your personality, skill set, knowledge and experience. These can only be utilized towards achieving a goal if you believe that there is a direct relationship between your efforts and performance and the rewards that ensue. He identifies three main variables that play a role in this: valence, expectancy and instrumentality.
Valence refers to the emotions people attach to outcomes and the degree to which they want an external reward (such as money, praise, etc.). Expectancy on the other hand relates to people’s assessment of their own abilities and the level of confidence and expectation that comes with it. Finally, instrumentality is the perceived likelihood of actually being satisfied by the reward after obtaining it. You are less likely to be motivated to complete a task that you know you will be rewarded for but less satisfied with, and hence a task that has low instrumentality.
Now that we know all this science, here’s some useful ways you can incorporate it to achieve your daily goals:
- Have long-term and short-term goals: it can be overwhelming to look at the entirety of a deadline, so having many stepping stones leading to an end goal can be good for you. This also means that you will have a more regular taste of victory and feel more motivated to continue pursuing it.
- Write out your goals: include with this rationale for why you want to achieve each goal, so that you can consider which actions have desirable outcomes.
- Give yourself rewards!: For those actions that don’t have outcomes that are immediately appealing for you, brainstorm ways to alter circumstances to add external rewards to increase the valence of those goals. This can include treating yourself to your favorite meal or doing anything else rewarding.
- Recognize your progress: this is exceptionally important when you feel like the goal you are working towards has completely lost meaning. Try taking a step back and considering the distance you have come and evaluating it against the distance you still need to cover.
Knowing the logic behind how my brain works towards accomplishing my goals has always been comforting to me. So if you are in the same boat, I hope this bite-size read on how your brain evaluates goals and rewards can help you maximize your potential!
- Ballard I.C., Murty V.P., Carter R.M., et al (2011). Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex drives mesolimbic dopaminergic regions to initiate motivated behaviour, The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(28), 10340-6.