The Secret to Motivation You Probably Didn’t Know

You’ve likely had days where you wished you had the secret to unlocking your motivation, any time you needed it.

Well, with neuroscience, you can!

With the right understanding of the specific conditions under which motivation occurs, you can confidently move toward your goals.

Understanding exactly how motivation occurs helps you work these mechanisms to your advantage!

And you know, each time, that you’ll succeed, which can do wonders for your confidence and drive.

Table of Contents

The Science Behind Motivation

But Motivation Isn’t as Simple as Boosting Dopamine

3 Science-Backed Strategies to Maintaining Long-Term Dopamine Balance

1. Balance Dopamine and Serotonin
2. Cut Down Bright Lights at Night
3. Consciously Prolong the Dopamine Effect

The Science Behind Motivation

The Secret to Motivation You Probably Didn’t KnowYou’ve probably heard of the molecule dopamine described as “the pleasure molecule.”

Dopamine does play a part in the enjoyment you get out of digging into your favorite food or hanging out with your favorite people.

But dopamine isn’t responsible for pleasure – it’s responsible for motivating you to seek out that pleasure.

For example, maybe you really enjoy a certain type of granola in the morning.

The thing that gets you out of bed, into your kitchen, gathering the ingredients for your breakfast bowl, is dopamine.

If you had low levels of dopamine, no matter how much you love your granola, you wouldn’t feel motivated to get out of bed.

In fact, dopamine’s work is somewhat anticipatory.

Think about something that you’re looking forward too. Maybe there’s some cake you’ve been saving, or you’re looking forward to meeting a friend, or reuniting with a pet.

Doesn’t that make you feel excited, in anticipation of the reward and satisfaction you’ll get when you meet that goal?

That’s dopamine, being pumped down your mesolimbic reward pathway to get you all excited and looking forward to the experience.

It makes you want to act to get that reward – and that’s motivation!

But Motivation Isn’t as Simple as Boosting Dopamine

The Secret to Motivation You Probably Didn’t Know

So, if a spike in dopamine levels is what gets us feeling motivated to do things, you’re probably thinking:

“Then I just need to boost my dopamine for motivation!”

But motivation isn’t quite as simple as boosting dopamine.

And this is because dopamine spikes don’t stay consistent over time.

The more you pursue a certain thing that you gain pleasure for, the amount of dopamine you release actually falls.

And each time you release dopamine, your nervous system follows up by releasing other chemicals that actually make you experience a small degree of pain.

This pain is what causes you to crave that sense of pleasure and pushes you to pursue it again. And as dopamine levels fall, this pain increases.

As a result, the craving for whatever you were pursuing increases. You continue to push for more to satisfy that pain, but in turn it just reduces the pleasure you experience and feeds into the craving.

This is why dopamine can cause addictive behaviors. Substances like cocaine and nicotine can cause massive surges in dopamine. And they’re followed by massive crashes that push you to seek out more.

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It’s also why, for example, after accomplishing something and feeling great about it, you might start feeling a little down afterwards.

You start asking yourself, “Well, what next?” and worrying about whether you can meet that level of accomplishment or surpass yourself next time.

You might end up so focused on achieving your goals that you’re no longer present and enjoying life.

You might also end up overwhelmed and unable to stick to your long-term goals because of the build-up of pain versus pleasure.

This is why the goal to managing your motivation isn’t simply boosting dopamine, but rather regulating your dopamine.

The trick is to find and maintain a balance. And thanks to neuroscience, you can do just that!

3 Science-Backed Strategies to Maintaining Long-Term Dopamine Balance

1. Balance Dopamine and Serotonin

The Secret to Motivation You Probably Didn’t KnowDr Andrew Huberman, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, describes dopamine as the molecule that biases you to think about what you don’t have.

On the other hand, the molecule serotonin creates a sense of contentment in your circumstances. This neurotransmitter or brain chemical makes you feel great about yourself and life in the here and now.

One of the ways to make sure you don’t completely crash and burn your dopaminergic systems is to maintain a healthy balance between dopamine and serotonin.

You both focus on and commit to your long-term goals, but you also remember to appreciate and live in the moment and enjoy life.

Practicing mindfulness is a powerful way of doing this.

Meditating, be it talking a long slow walk through that park or by the sea, or practicing breathing exercises at your desk, ground you in the moment.

And it’s a science-proven method of boosting your serotonin and dopamine levels. You feel both a sense of bliss in the present moment, while also positive and driven about the future.

2. Cut Down Bright Lights at Night

The Secret to Motivation You Probably Didn’t Know

Bright, artificial light sources, especially blue light, wreak havoc on your sleep by suppressing the sleep hormone, melatonin.

But that’s not all. Bright light, especially between the hours of 10 pm and 4 am, not only suppresses dopamine in the short-run but also affects your long-run anticipation of things you typically look forward to, says Dr Huberman.

If you’re continuously on your blue light emitting devices and exposed to bright light night after night, you’re both damaging your sleep pattern and ability to release dopamine.

Sleep is an important part of your learning and memory process.

Without sleep, your brain doesn’t get the chance to process what you learned during the day and work it into long-term memory.

Lack of sleep also impacts the size of your amygdalae. These almond-sized nuclei in your brain regulate emotions like anxiety, stress, embarrassment, etc.

Not getting enough Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep might leave you more reactive to negative experiences from the day before.

So, bright lights at night can not only damage your motivation for the next day, but also harm your sleep. And this in turn damages your ability to learn and remember, as well as your mood.

The most ideal solution is to cut down blue light altogether a couple of hours before bed.

If you have to work or simply don’t have any other time in the day to indulge in a bit of YouTube or Netflix, consider blue light blockers.

These could be in the form of blue light filtering screens, or tinted glasses, especially red ones, which completely block blue light.

3. Consciously Prolong the Dopamine Effect

The Secret to Motivation You Probably Didn’t KnowDr Huberman stresses that dopamine is very subjective.

Just thinking about the thing you’re looking forward to or enjoy can get your dopamine levels to spike in anticipation.

And when you accomplish that thing, it leads to a greater increase in dopamine levels.

But you need to make sure that that increase isn’t followed by diminishing levels of pleasure and increasing levels of pain.

One way of doing this consciously is through intermittent reward scheduling.

Basically, rather than giving yourself a reward, or allowing yourself to experience a sense of reward, for every milestone, do so for every other milestone.

Think about it like a toy crane machine.

If you managed to grab a toy every time you used the machine you’d probably lose interest in it pretty quickly, right?

But what if, at every other attempt, you do succeed?

The anticipation that maybe you’ll win something during the next turn keeps you going, right?

This helps prolong the dopamine effect and offset the pain by spacing out the spikes of pleasure and reward.

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For example, say you’ve broken down a task or goal into a set of steps.

Would you be able to sustain your motivation if you celebrated completing each one of those steps?

As you know by now, the answer is no.

The dopamine spikes initially might be great, but over time, they would diminish, and you’d experience more pain than pleasure.

And it would be pretty tough to keep yourself motivated in the long-run this way.

This is why intermittent reinforcement – by spacing out your rewards without any set pattern – works much better in keeping you motivated.

And when you do experience a dopamine spike, you can consciously prolong it to last longer. For example, by reliving it and thinking back on your achievement, you’re reactivating your dopaminergic system.

There you have it – the secret to motivation that you probably didn’t know.

It’s not about pursuing pleasure constantly, but knowing how to balance it out so you can consistently stay motivated!

Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.

Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including Total Recall Learning™. 

Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!

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