Healthy Habit: How Does Motivation Work?

Motivation makes us move toward what we want or need. And it seems that everything should be simple: we want to watch a movie – watch it, we want to be healthy – get enough sleep, go for walks, do exercises, we want more money – work more or better.

But this does not always happen. Many times it is difficult for us to go to the goal, even when we realize how important it is.

In the article we understand why we sometimes want, but do not want, and whether it is possible to control the impulse to love the unloved.

How motivation works and how it doesn’t work

Let’s take an example. Let’s say a person has gastritis and is temporarily forbidden to eat fatty foods. Before that, he didn’t limit himself, but now he has to. What can motivate him to follow the advice of doctors? There are several options.

urgency. The expression “even roasted rooster presses” is about it. If a person suffers from gastritis and any fatty food causes unbearable pain, he will probably stop eating it himself. But only as long as it hurts.

If nothing hurts him, but the doctor diagnosed and prescribed a diet, then it will be difficult to follow it. After all, there is no urgency, there is only a ghostly danger.

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The desire for reward. Imagine that for a week of lean soups and cereals, a person will receive a million dollars. Most likely, for the sake of money, it would not be difficult for him to eat chicken breast broth instead of fried chicken. This is the desire for reward.

pleasure. Another option: a person is crazy about steam cutlets, and fatty foods may be tasty, but they do not cause delight. For him, a low-fat diet is not a problem, as he enjoys such food.

Instead of a diet, you can substitute anything. We are always motivated by one of these three things: necessity, desire for reward, or pleasure. And sometimes both, and another, and a third.

You can object: it happens that you like a profession, and there is an objective need to do it, and the profit would be good, but still laziness.

It sounds like you should start going to the pool—the doctor advised a sitting position, and you even bought a subscription. We read online about how swimming strengthens the latissimus dorsi and abs, and looked at before/after photos. Maybe he went once or twice. But there was force majeure, you missed a workout, and now not everyone can find the time and the flight is again postponed. Yes, it happens, and most of them do.

The history of dopamine or why we are often lazy

The brain has a reward system that is stimulated by the neurotransmitter dopamine. It helps to stay motivated and focus on achieving something of value because it is associated with a sense of pleasure.

The main levers of the dopamine system are food, sex, and communication. These stimuli cause an increase in dopamine on their own. After all, we love to eat, have sex, and communicate. But there are other things that trigger the reward system, and they each have a difference. It is important for someone to receive praise and approval, the individual is ready to work with great enthusiasm for the sake of big money, for the third it is important to recognize his status and respect from colleagues.

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All of these things can become drivers of motivation, a kind of “reward”. But dopamine in the reward system is produced not only at the moment a reward is received, but also when we expect it. This is why expectations are often better than reality.

It is in our nature to strive for something, and striving is more important than searching.

That is, the more we are attracted to a reward, the more dopamine and the stronger the desire to work towards the goal. However, once we reach our goal, we are never satisfied—we always want more. We seek new dopamine without realizing it. Therefore, it would seem that there should be no problems with motivation at all.

There are really no problems. Stimulation works great when we want an extra serving of ice cream, another episode of the series, or we catch up with a friend we haven’t seen in a long time.

But when we decide to learn a language or become musicians, motivation can falter. At first we are burning with an idea, we buy courses, a guitar or a synthesizer, but after a while it seems to us that we are lazy. What is the matter?

The fact is that the reward should be obvious and close. That is, achieving the goal should be easy and quick or very enjoyable.

When a person wants to become a musician, he often imagines a beautiful picture: a stage, a costume, a thousand spectators in the hall, fans, autographs. Or maybe something of their own, but always ‘cool’ and loosely connected to the music itself. He does not think about how much time and effort should be spent. He is unlikely to realize that everything will start with learning notes and scales. Wanted a picture and not to learn notes. The reward here is illusory and takes a long time to come by.

Few people like to wait for late pleasures. Of course, there are purposeful and strong-willed people who want to overcome difficulties, but most of us want everything here and now. This is why we often give up, abandon what we have planned, or are not responsible for it. Because the goal we have reached, for all its attractiveness, is just too abstract and distant.

But our desire for everything to be simple and fast is not the main problem. Even the fact that we give up is not important either. After all, this does not mean that we do not have willpower or something else. This means that on the desire-motive-reward path we didn’t get much pleasure.

The reward turned out to be far away, and the path to it was very thorny. After all, we want to be good and we don’t want to be bad. And if “good” is the picture we have painted in our heads, and “bad” are endless stressful activities, we will simply stop making ourselves feel bad and find simpler ways to enjoy—remember food, sex, communication, TV shows, and so on.

We become lazy when the reward is too early, and the process itself is not fun.

True, in some cases, dopamine can help with resentment. If we are suffering and want it to end (as in the example of acute gastritis), it is easy enough for us to take actions that will cancel out our suffering. Dopamine is also responsible for the fact that we avoid the “bad.”

But there is one BUT.

Stress is the enemy of motivation

Suffering cannot be avoided for long. Working all the time when deadlines are burning and remembering about your health when you are already sick is not the best way.

Under conditions of acute stress, the body is ready for plenty: Animal studies show that a strong, stressful, short-term stimulus causes a spike in cortisol and adrenaline—stress hormones—and a surge of dopamine. For this reason, it is easier for us to get together and solve the problem quickly. But chronic stress leads to  a decrease in dopamine levels, chronic fatigue, fatigue and depression. All these states are characterized by a lack of any motivation and apathy.

Even when we are tired, the reward does not seem very attractive, and it is difficult for us to move towards it. The brain actually decides whether the work is worth the effort, focusing on the degree of fatigue of the person.

In addition, the brain can lock us up. If we are not suffering now but will in a couple of days when we don’t get the job done on time, the brain may not perceive it as a real threat. Two days later not today or even tomorrow. And if you don’t want to do any work at all, the brain will gladly support us and push us to watch the series, because there will certainly be dopamine.

In the end, there is only one option left: get enough sleep, rest, and do what you enjoy. Or learn to enjoy what you need to do. With the latter, our advice on motivation can help.

How to motivate yourself

The best way is to make the process itself a reward. That is, do what you really want.

Sometimes the impulse that drives us to do something that we like in itself is called internal. It’s easy to spot: When we’re driven by an intrinsic drive, we crave “more.” Another series, another bar of chocolate, more work on the mission that inspired us. Extrinsic motivation, on the contrary, is only triggered by external stimuli, such as praise or evaluation.

Internal and external motivation can be combined. For example, at the same time you can earn money on your favorite business and hear praise for the result — this will additionally motivate you. There is nothing wrong with this.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the internal drive to do something really important. For example, according to the results of the Atlas genetic test , a person can learn about the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, and the recommendations will contain important advice — engage in physical activity 150 minutes a week for 30 minutes a day.

It’s very important to his health, but he doesn’t want to do that at all.

Or someone decided to read more: he signed up for the “50 books a year” challenge, when he usually can read a maximum of 5 books, and as a result, you can’t even find 15 minutes a day to take a book. It turns out a vicious circle: until he starts, there will be no interest, and he cannot start due to a lack of internal motivation.

We have compiled a brief guide. It can be used when you want to form a good habit or start doing something new, but feel that there is not enough intrinsic motivation.

  1. Understand that a distant dream will not be a trigger. It’s normal, that’s how people are.
  2. Formulate small, realistically achievable goals that will drive you into action. When coming up with goals, focus not only on the details, but also on what brings pleasure. “Fifty pages read a week” is a given, but few people have the incentive to drop everything and start reading. But if you read it, you will learn something new  and be able to discuss it with interesting people. . With this addition, the goal becomes more attractive (at least to those who want to join the circle). Think about what is important to you and find a way to achieve it through the activity you want to develop.
  3. Find a way to enjoy the process. Remember that achieving the most desirable goals will not give you eternal happiness. For many, life is a constant game of faster, higher, and stronger. You can change the rules for yourself or not play at all. Focus on the process, not the goal. It is very likely that the motivation after that will be even greater.
  4. Add “fun” to the activity. If the habit is absolutely necessary, but you can’t enjoy it, ease up on the process. Drink your favorite tea while solving a difficult problem, put on pleasant music if you don’t interfere — anything that doesn’t interfere with the main task and brings pleasure.
  5. start. If the condition is new, dealing with it can be tedious or intimidating. But when you start and succeed, the dopamine reward system kicks in and pushes you to keep going.
  6. Make a checklist and track your progress. Every tick is a little incentive, it says “You’re doing a good job.” It’s best if the list is in a visible place — on the table or on the fridge. So you won’t forget it.
  7. Reward and praise yourself. Find support: a community of people with the same goal will appear, or you can simply ask your loved ones to praise you for small successes in a difficult and long work. Praise motivates. But berating yourself for every failure is a failed strategy, it robs you of motivation.

Just do not overdo it with prizes and promotions. If we shift the focus from the process to the outcome, the intrinsic motivation may become lower: we will want to finish the task quickly and get a reward rather than indulge in it.

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