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Motivation: Tools to Succeed in your Intentions

Updated: Sep 16, 2021

Have you ever noticed that some days you feel inspired and energized to get something done and other days you feel lethargic and unmotivated to accomplish anything? When it comes to motivation, it’s common to experience unpredictable fluctuations; however, scientists have uncovered beneficial methods to maintain focus and continue working towards your intentions.

In this blog, we'll discuss the science behind motivation and introduce simple tips you can use every day to keep you inspired.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

There are two categories of motivation: intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external).

Intrinsic motivation has to do with internal wants. For example, if you love gardening on the weekends, then you're intrinsically motivated to get up and get to work.

Extrinsic motivation has to do with external "have-to-do's and should-do's". For example, if your family is coming into town for the weekend, then you're extrinsically motivated to clean the house. In a work context, this is referred to as "if, then" rewards. If your boss tells you if you take on more caseloads, then you will get a raise, you will likely be extrinsically motivated to take on more work.

Scientists have found that extrinsic motivation causes people to work harder; however, it also leads to a decrease in creative thinking and innovation, leading to worse performance. In this case, people focus on just getting the work done rather than innovating on better ways to get the work done.

Unfortunately, we can't train our minds to view everything as intrinsic motivation. After all, everyone is motivated by different things. Instead, scientists encourage people to use the tenents of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to their advantage.

If you're working on an extrinsically motivated task like paperwork, try using the "if, then" incentive method. For example, after you complete the task, reward yourself by taking a 15-minute walk, eating a snack, or even watching a funny video. Scientists have discovered offering our brain rewarding breaks during the day keeps us motivated, alert, and productive.

Dopamine and its Role in Motivation

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, is usually associated with pleasure. However, pharmacologists say dopamine has to do with motivational salience. Studies have shown that dopamine signals the perceived desirability or aversion to a specific task which then determines a person's behavior (1). This means that dopamine plays a significant role in determining whether a person will be motivated to complete a task or not based upon the brain's perceived perception of that task.

Psychologist, John Salamone, says, "often, depressed people say they don’t want to go out with their friends, but it’s not that they don’t experience pleasure – if their friends were around, many depressed people could have fun. Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself." (2)

So, How Can I Get More Motivated?

Harvard researcher, Teresa Amabile, found that nothing is more motivational than progress.

Amabile writes, "Even when progress happens in small steps, a person’s sense of steady forward movement toward an important goal can make all the difference between a great day and a terrible one."

For extrinsically motivated tasks, the feeling of progress is pivotal to continued motivation. In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write that there are two factors that enable progress: (1) catalysts—events that directly facilitate project work, such as clear goals and autonomy—and (2) nourishers—interpersonal events that uplift workers, including encouragement and demonstrations of respect and collegiality. (3)

Most people move so quickly, they fail to record and reflect their progress on any given activity. People often spend large amounts of time fretting about an activity, yet, once achieved, they give no energy to acknowledging their progress.

In order to stay motivated, experts recommend closely monitoring progress. Here are some simple ways to take note of, and celebrate your progress:

1. Record small accomplishments

Doesn't it feel amazing when you cross an item off your to-do list? It reinforces your progress. Rather than trashing the list try using a digital to-do list like Microsoft To-Do which is completely free to users. This way, you can see everything you have accomplished over the day, week, month, year, and beyond while still getting the satisfaction of drawing a line through that pesky task. That's a lot of progress!

2. Share your progress and results

When you were a child, did you enjoy sharing your test results with your caregiver? That's because positive reinforcement of our work also produces dopamine. When others recognize our work, we are more likely to feel that it was worth it. Even if you have negative results (for example, a negative outcome with a client) it is important to share with colleagues to receive recognition for our work.

3. Stay on task with a timer

Have you ever started a task only to find yourself writing an email 10 minutes later? Studies show that the most successful people carve out different increments of time to complete different activities.

For example, if you need to complete 2 hours of paperwork and also have an inbox full of emails to reply to, separate those activities into different time buckets. In the morning and afternoon set aside 1 hour to complete paperwork, then set aside 30 minutes to respond to emails. The separation of activities with a time limit not only helps you to stay on track but also ensures you aren't spending 5 hours on something you could complete in 2 1/2 hours.

4. Celebrate your progress

Life truly is made up of small victories. If we worry for 4 days about something, but once complete, immediately move on, we leave no room for recognition of our progress. After you complete a task or project, try discussing it with your colleagues, or buy yourself that fancy new set of gardening tools!

Of course, with anything in life, holistic wellness can never be overlooked. Try these natural ways to soothe your body and mind and deliver an extra kick of dopamine to aid in motivation:

1. Eat nutrient-rich foods

Foods rich in nutrients directly contribute to our brain health. Scientists and doctors recommend green, leafy vegetables (like kale, spinach, collards, and broccoli), fatty fish (try to eat fish at least twice a week, but choose varieties that are low in mercury, such as salmon, cod, canned light tuna, and pollack), berries, tea and coffee, and walnuts.

2. Take a power nap

It is recommended that people get 7-9 hours of sleep per day but most get less than that. Studies show that 20 minutes of sleep in the afternoon provides more rest than 20 more minutes of sleep in the morning. There is a lot of mixed messaging when it comes to the duration of power naps.

Elizabeth Scott, MS, and Carly Snyder, MD, recommend "if you only have 15 minutes to spare, take them! But if you could work in an hour nap, you may do well to complete a whole sleep cycle, even if it means less sleep at night. If you only have 5 minutes to spare, just close your eyes; even a brief rest has the benefit of reducing stress and helping you relax a little, which can give you more energy to complete the tasks of your day." (4)

3. Get moving midday

Cognitive functioning tends to decrease around midday, something often referred to as the afternoon slump. Studies show that even a brisk walk helps to boost your circulation, increase oxygen supply, and release endorphins. Also, who doesn't enjoy a change of scenery, especially when it involves some sunshine?

Motivation will always ebb and flow no matter how hard we practice it, but it doesn't have to always feel like an upwards battle. You really can achieve anything you set your mind to with some strategic thinking.

By utilizing the science of motivation to track and celebrate your progress and take care of your mental and physical wellness, you can get more done and experience more joy while you're doing it.

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