Being motivated is a key part of being successful as an entrepreneur, and as such, it’s a subject that’s always fascinated me. Motivation comes from vision, goal setting, and celebrating small successes, but there’s more to it – there’s actually a science behind motivation.
Psychology – Why is Motivation So Hard?
In truth, it’s all in your head. When you need to do a task, how you think about it has a lot to do with how you complete it – or whether you do it at all. Psychologists have identified three primary sources of resistance to getting things done. Once you can identify these factors in your own thought processes, you can change how you think in order to get yourself motivated.
- Resistance: “I have to.” Very few things create resistance as effectively as being forced to do something. Sometimes, you may not even want to do things you usually enjoy, just because you feel you have to! This particular type of resistance keeps many people from taking an entrepreneurial step in their lives, as they don’t want their formerly fun activities to become ‘have to’ tasks.
- Solution: “I choose to.” To combat this effect, change how you think. Realize that nothing in life is actually a ‘have to.’ You don’t have to get up, and you don’t have to go to work – you choose to because you enjoy the benefits those actions create. When you focus on the benefits of your actions, resistance melts away.
- Resistance: “I don’t feel right about this.” When you’re approaching a task that’s opposed to your values or beliefs, you’ll likely find that you don’t have a lot of motivation to get it done. As an example, suppose you’re asked to work overtime when you value your family life over your career advancement. In this situation, you’re not likely to have a good attitude since the task conflicts with your beliefs.
- Solution: Realign your tasks. There are two ways to better align a task with your values. The first is to change the task. Following the example above, you could see if you could trade extra hours this week with time off next week, so that you’re not actually losing time with your family. Another option is to add value to the task you’re doing. In this instance, you could think about how your extra overtime will allow you to get away with your family this summer on a nice vacation.
- Resistance: “I can’t do this.” When you feel unequal to a task, it can be very difficult to get started. The feeling that you’ll certainly fail, or that you don’t know how to begin, will make any distraction seem infinitely more interesting than the task itself.
- Solution: Realize that effort creates excellence. Everyone knows the saying “practice makes perfect,” but they rarely apply it to themselves. When you put effort into a task, you’ll get better at doing it. If you need help, ask for it, but don’t let your lack of knowledge stop you. Next time, you won’t have so much resistance to doing that particular task.
Biology – Your Brain on Dopamine
We normally associate dopamine with pleasure, but it has a far wider effect than that. Dopamine has been found to fire before a reward is given, in addition to showing up in times of stress, pain, loss or pleasure. As a result, dopamine levels are now believed to be strongly linked with motivation. Interestingly, one behavioral neuroscientist discovered that rats with lower dopamine levels weren’t willing to climb a small fence to get to a larger pile of food, compared to rats with higher levels of the hormone.
However, although the link between dopamine levels and motivation isn’t a straightforward connection, a team of Vanderbilt scientists has demonstrated that dopamine has a strong impact on your willingness to work. To come to this conclusion, they used brain-mapping technology to analyze the brain patterns of “go-getters” who were willing to work hard for rewards and “slackers” who weren’t.
The team found that the “go-getters” had higher levels of dopamine in the reward and motivation portions of the brain – the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. The “slackers,” on the other hand, had a higher level of dopamine in the area of the brain associated with emotion and risk – the anterior insula.
This interesting result shows that it’s not just a matter of raising dopamine levels overall. Brain scientists have to understand how to target dopamine production in the right areas of the brain in order to help people overcome depression, low energy, and other medical issues associated with this neurotransmitter.
Willpower – How to Get Things Done
Now, it’s one thing to feel motivated. It is, unfortunately, another thing entirely to actually find in yourself the ability to accomplish the tasks that you’ve set for yourself!
This process of getting things done represents the intersection between motivation and willpower; the place where you not only want to take action, but where you have the ability to execute as well. Therefore, no discussion on the science of motivation is complete without also mentioning the science that underpins our willpower; or, our ability to get things done.
One of the most interesting discoveries of the last few years has been the realization that willpower is a finite resource. That is, you only get a certain amount of willpower on any given day, and once you’ve exhausted that supply, you’ll find yourself feeling much less able to do the right things and act on the motivation that you may feel.
For the scientific background underpinning this issue, consider a really fascinating study by researchers at Columbia University, which found that judges tend to make more rulings in favor of prisoners at the start of each of their three decision-making sessions. Rulings made later in the sessions – as demonstrated in this graph – were far more likely to favor the judges’ interests; a result the researchers chalk up to “decision fatigue.”