Motivation — it’s one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around among self-help circles. It’s like the catch-all cure for all your ailments. Struggling in life? Get motivated! Want a better relationship? Try a healthy dose of motivation!
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Although we might someday be heading toward a cyberpunk-esque future-world where you can pick up tiny bottles of motivation (to balance out your bliss hangover from the past weekend) from your nearby convenience store, for now, you’re stuck with the basics.
It isn’t just a buzzword, though, and there is a reasonable amount of science behind what we call motivation. Let’s dig into some of the misconceptions around motivation, as well as some of the science that powers it.
Origins Of Motivation
Motivation, as a concept, didn’t begin as this ephemeral self-help fountain of productivity. It originated from the word “motive,” dealing with the concept of movement. Initially, motivation was a very practical concept, tied to our roots as nomadic peoples — the cost-benefit of getting up and moving to better things.
You can see, then, why it would become rather complicated in modern terms — rather than being a simple notion of movement, it became this catch-all term for taking action toward something you really wanted to do.
In a way, this became a very damaging evolution — “motivation” was once just an actionable thing you decide to do, rather than this secret sauce you would often wait around for, hoping it would happen.
So let’s dig into the science of it. What is motivation, and how does it actually play a role in productivity and business?
Dopamine And Motivation
As it turns out, the modern concept of motivation — this special sauce, this surge of energy in your brain — is actually something entirely different. It’s the same chemical that makes you happy when you see a dog, that gets you excited about a good cocktail and that improves your mood after a heavy workout.
The feeling commonly associated with motivation is in fact generated by a spike in dopamine — and here’s the kicker: It’s not just any spike in dopamine, it’s dopamine registering in particular areas of the brain. It’s been shown that ambitious and productive people have these dopamine spikes in the reward centers of the brain, whereas less effective people shine brightly on the side of the brain controlling emotion and risk.
That’s why “hacking” motivation doesn’t actually make much sense. Even if you will yourself into a dopamine rush (through, for instance, an inspiring online video about a beloved animated movie), it could end up in the wrong side of the brain, making you even lazier.
So, the verdict? That rush of emotion that comes before what people associate with “motivation” isn’t motivation at all, and is the emotional equivalent of an energy drink: Once in a while is fine, but relying on it is a recipe for disaster.
A More Practical Approach To ‘Motivation’
If we go with the more ancient, practical definition of motivation, which is the ability to take action toward a particular task, psychologists are a bit more helpful in cracking it. In fact, a study has identified three specific sources in the brain of resistance to doing work.
1. ‘I have to.’ Being compelled to do something is the chief reason that blocks taking action. It’s the most insurmountable of the three. It’s the reason everyone, no matter what job or career they’re doing, think they “have a plan.”
Believing you’re working toward a higher purpose is what makes the mundane easier to do — which is why it’s essential to first establish that purpose. Even if that purpose is a long way away, the daily grind is much easier once you have a concrete, long-term goal for why you’re doing it.
2. ‘I don’t feel right about this.’ Know why religious royalty was such a powerful force in the world for over five thousand years? In part, it’s because soldiers who felt they were going to war for moral reasons had plenty of motivation to get through the hassle of lost limbs and flesh-eating gangrene.
Assuming you’re not a Roman footsoldier, how does this apply to you? Well, in simple terms, where you work has to align with your values to get good work done. List out your values and your principles, and then ask yourself honestly whether those values are shared by the people who run your company. If the answer is “no,” that might be what’s reducing your motivation.
3. ‘I can’t do this.’ An increasingly common cause of low motivation is imposter syndrome and the general feeling that you’re unequal to a task. This is, unfortunately, the trickiest of the three to get right, because the fact is, you might not be up to the task.
So, how do you combat this? For starters, ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. It’s a lot better to start off on the wrong foot and deliver strong than to set expectations high and deliver weakly. Work hard. Put in the time to learn what you don’t know, even if it’s out of work hours. If you want to be up to the task, you need to put in the time.
There’s no easy solution to this; you just have to slowly do the work, ask questions and build the confidence that you’re up to any task.
Motivation is a fickle beast, and focusing on techniques to improve motivation long-term is dangerous. Discipline is a better overall approach, fostering strong habits and letting them carry you through. A lack of motivation is more of an ailment than a lack of something and can generally be addressed by working through a few inaccurate thought processes.
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself to be motivated and get into “flow.” Just wake up every day striving to be a little bit better than you were the last, and your motivation will come with it.