Your motivation is at rock bottom. Here’s how neuroscience can help
Willpower wilting? Dr Gabija Toleikyte explains the scientifically-backed ways to boost your productivity – and be happier with your work.
Admit it. With the UK hitting its first anniversary of coronavirus restrictions and working from home orders, your motivation levels aren’t the highest at the moment.
As we learned while sitting down with her (virtually, of course), there are several scientifically-backed methods that can increase your general enthusiasm and ramp up your productivity.
So: neurologically, what actually is motivation?
For motivation, there are multiple brain regions involved, but one in particular is the reward centre of the brain. It consists of two key areas: one called VTA (ventral tegmental area) and the other called nucleus accumbens (or NACC).
During pleasant activities, the VTA secretes a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is called the molecule of pleasure – anything that feels enjoyable to us, it feels that way because of dopamine.
And different activities secrete different levels of dopamine. And the things which are enjoyable, such as our favourite food, or time with our loved ones, they secrete high levels of dopamine.
Interestingly, there is some research showing that actually in order to secrete more dopamine, we need unpredicted rewards.
Practically, how could you create unexpected rewards to secrete dopamine and boost your motivation levels?
Some things naturally create a level of surprise. For instance, social situations naturally bring a level of uncertainty. When you have a meeting with somebody, they might praise you or they might tell you off or they might be neutral. You don't know. So, if you're working from home and really fed up, having a video call with your friends or colleagues online could increase levels of dopamine.
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Also, it’s good to find a balance between routine and variety. If everything is really predictable, you will inevitably secrete less dopamine. But creating an element of variety will secrete more dopamine, especially in your breaks. You could look at pictures of cats, do push-ups or listen to loud music and jump around. Get that dopamine hit and it will spill over into your working time.
How often should you take breaks from work?
A good rule of thumb is having at least one break an hour and a half. Every 90 minutes, take a 15-minute break. For some people, this is too long – so they might work for 45 minutes and take a five to 10 minute break. It depends on your own individual preferences.
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As the day goes by, several things happen in the brain. It actually gets more tired and we deplete neurotransmitters that are necessary for us to focus, have willpower and do productive work. So you need to reduce the working times and increase the frequency of your breaks.
Plus, in your break, things like physical exercise or socialising (even just talking to people on the phone or online) help the brain to replenish quicker than if you are watching the news or browsing social media.
What should you do when faced with a large piece of work you have no motivation to tackle?
Don’t even started until you see a point in doing it, because it's going to be really unpleasant. If you if you stimulate pain centres related to that task, A) your performance will be worse, B) you won’t enjoy it, and C) it would take much, much longer for you to get it done.
So, write down a list of at least 20 benefits of doing the task (although, I like to suggest people writing about 50 benefits!).
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This is a game-changer for many people, but you have to work out what your true 'values' are first. So look at what things keep on distracting you, what things you always find money, time, energy for.
For me, I know my daughter, my relationship with my husband and my work are my top three values – I always find the energy for those things. If I was tasked with something I wasn’t interested in, I would try and link it to my values, writing down how it benefits them. Once I stack up those benefits linked to my true values, I would be much more motivated to do it.
What happens in the brain when you do link a task you don't want to do and your 'values'?
It changes whether you stimulate reward centres or pain centres in the brain. When we resent something, we naturally stimulate our pain centres, which changes our emotional state and the blood flow to different regions of the brain – blood and energy is prioritised for your muscles.
This so-called sympathetic nervous system in our brain and body has been designed, evolutionary, for us to escape the predators. But it doesn’t know the difference between a predator and a difficult work task. And when it's stimulated, the blood vessels in the smartest centres of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, are contracted so that actually the smartest cognitive centres don't get as much glucose and oxygen, so they can't function optimally.
In contrast, when we stimulate the reward system of the brain, it naturally stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and digestion), which is crucial for being creative, empathic and for brain plasticity to be taking place. In that state, our performance is greatly enhanced.
What would you say to somebody with low motivation reading this article instead of working?
Take a piece of paper and write down one thing that would be really meaningful for you to get done today. It can be something tiny – sending an email or working for a small amount of time. It's still better than nothing, right?
Once you’ve finished reading, set yourself a 25-minute timer and work on that. Once the task is up, do something pleasant again.
It’s really important to be proactive, where we feel we aren't victims of the tasks we're given. This mindset helps you to get more done and enjoy it more.
Thomas is a Staff Writer at BBC Science Focus and looks after all things Q&A. Writing about everything from cosmology to anthropology, he specialises in the latest psychology and neuroscience discoveries. Thomas has a Masters degree (distinction) in Magazine Journalism from the University of Sheffield and has written for Men’s Health, Vice and Radio Times. He has been shortlisted as the New Digital Talent of the Year at the national magazine Professional Publishers Association (PPA) awards.