How to maximise your motivation, according to a neuroscientist © Getty Images

Dr Gabija Toleikyte on the neuroscience of motivation

Read the full transcript of our Science Focus Podcast interview with Dr Gabija Toleikyte – listen to the full episode at the bottom of the page.

Thomas Ling: Hello and welcome to the Science Focus Podcast. I’m Thomas Ling, staff writer at BBC Science Focus magazine. As the UK enters its 13th month of lockdown restrictions and home-working, many surveys cite a slump in mental wellbeing and general productivity. But are there any scientifically about ways we can maximise our motivation and prevent procrastination? Neuroscientist Dr Gabija Toleikyte, author of the new book Why the F Can’t I Change, to tell us all about it.

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Hello. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast today. So firstly, could you give us an overview of what motivation actually is from a neurological perspective?

Dr Gabija Toleikyte: Hi, great to be here. Well, and it’s not necessarily a very straightforward question, as in when we talk about the brain perspective, we usually discuss brain regions, brain networks and brain chemistry. Now for motivation, there are multiple brain regions involved, but one in particular is called reward centre of the brain, which consists of two key areas, one called VTA – ventral tegmental area – and the other called nucleus accumbens or NACC.

So both areas, they register if something is kind of pleasant to us when we do certain activities and VTA secretes the chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is called the molecule of pleasure, reward and anything that feels enjoyable to us, it feels that way because of dopamine. Now, people who have low levels of dopamine, no matter – which happens actually in depression and some people are prone to have lower levels in general – no matter how pleasant things they do, they could be eating like the most delicious meal ever, they wouldn’t feel any joy. They wouldn’t feel any pleasure doing it. Now, different activities secrete different levels of dopamine. So the things which kind of are objectively enjoyable, such as our favourite food, time with our loved ones or hobbies we enjoy, they secrete high levels of of dopamine. So for motivation, what we need to know is dopamine, ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens, OK?

TL: Are some people more prone to getting these high levels of dopamine or high levels of motivation? And if someone suffers from low motivation, are there some genetic factors at play?

GB: Yes. So there is probably is both the genetic and environmental factors. So some people in general might have higher levels of dopamine secreted than the brain, but also those levels change based on what we do. So if we are constantly sort of stimulating that dopamine system, actually there is a phenomenon called dopamine over-sensitisation, which basically reduces… So dopamine is is a neurotransmitter which needs the other kind of molecule called the receptor on the neurones to join, to be active. So when we kind of stimulate the system too much, there are less and less receptors left behind. It gets taken away. So the same amount of dopamine will cause less pleasure. But imagine you’re eating a bar of chocolate every day. And for some, if you discover some really, really amazing chocolate and you eat that chocolate, it feels like, wow, this is amazing. Now, if this if you start eating it everyday, it’s then it becomes less and less pleasant when you get used to it. So then suddenly you need actually either more of that chocolate or a different kind of chocolate to elicit the same amount of pleasure. And that’s kind of a tricky thing with dopamine when we kind of do the same thing, especially if it becomes predictable, it gives less pleasure. Pleasure, interestingly, well, there is some research showing that actually in order to secrete more dopamine, we need unpredicted rewards.

TL: So how could you use these some unexpected rewards to boost your motivation? So I guess if you want to self-motivate, it’s hard to come up with an unexpected surprise. You know, you’ve got to buy yourself a chocolate bar.

GT: Yeah, well, first of all and some things naturally create a level of surprise. So when we work with other people, social situations naturally bring level of uncertainty. Right. So 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 those social situations and having contact with colleagues if possible, which, you know, during these times of lockdown, we probably all crave desperately, but trying to find the way to have the social collaboration or even with friends, if you’re like working from home and really fed up, you know, having a Zoom call with your friends and working together, kind of still staying online could increase levels of of dopamine.

Also creating sort of a bit… Finding good balance between routine and variety. If everything is really predictable, you know exactly what are you are doing at what time, you will, you know, inevitably secrete less dopamine, but if you create an element of variety in that so each day you do something differently, then it would actually secrete more dopamine. That activity also, if you when you work, if you take the breaks and do the activities which naturally secrete loads of dopamine for you. Right. So you could be browsing the pictures of cats. For some people, it could be doing some push ups. For other people, it could be listening to really kind of loud music and kind of dancing for other people. So having those breaks, when you get that dopamine hit, it will actually spill over into your working time later on. So you’ll be actually in a better state to do the work later on.

TL: So how often should you have a break, you know, looking at cat videos, exercising or maybe at the same time?

GT: It varies depending on what time of the day it is and how your brain is feeling. But probably a good rule of thumb is to start with having at least one break an hour and a half, every 90 minutes, taking a 15 minute break. Now, for some people, an hour and a half is too long to do focused work. So they might work 45 minutes and take five to 10 minutes break. So depending on your own individual preference and time. Also, if we’re going through challenging times emotionally, as a lot of people unfortunately are these days, then we need more frequent breaks. Then not more than 45 minutes of actually focused time, a break, 15 minutes break. If you’re feeling, you know, if you need some downtime and get a bit of dopamine and motivation, another 45 minutes, another break and so on. As the day goes by and the brain actually gets more tired and there is quite a few things that happen. We deplete neurotransmitters which are necessary for us to focus, have willpower and do productive work. So then actually we need to reduce the working times and increase the frequency of the breaks as well. So it’s kind of different. And also it kind of depends on what we do in those breaks. So some things like physical exercise or social time with even just talking to people on the phone or online, help the brain to replenish quicker than if you are watching news in your breaks or if you are browsing social media. So, again, this is quite circumstantial.

TL: OK, just to give you a scenario, then. So what would you say to somebody who needs to write a huge report for work? And it’s really, really boring. It’s really boring and they just don’t want to do it. How would you sort of help them motivate themselves there?

GT: OK, well, firstly, I would suggest not even get started until you see a point in doing it, because it’s going to be really unpleasant. You will accumulate resentment towards your work. So firstly, sit down, take a piece of paper and write all the benefits of you getting this report done for you personally based on your individual value. You could say OK, once I get this done, I can go and play with my kids in the snow. Once I get this done, I can cook myself a nice meal. Once I get this done, I could finally send it to my boss and he would be happy. Once I get this done, I could call my mom. Whatever is important to you at that given moment. Look through that prism of those values, because we need to change perception first, because if you if you stimulate pain centres related to that task, A, your performance will be worse. B, you would be not enjoying that then C, it would take much, much longer for you to get it done. So once you kind of write down as many things as you could think of, I like to suggest people writing about 50 benefits. Now, a lot of people think that would be crazy. It’s too many. So start with 20, right. But the more you write down, the better. We’ll see the point in doing it. Now, the second thing is breaking the task down. What exactly do you need to do. And kind of break it down. So first, maybe write the introduction, second read this article relevant for the other part. Third, doing this. So each part should be maximum 30 to 40 minutes long to complete if you break it down in those steps. Then there is a technique called Pomodoro technique which could help to complete the task, where you actually set the timer and during that time you can only work on that task. You can’t check the emails. You can’t, you know, like do anything else. And after you completed, let’s say you work in 25 minutes chunks, so for 25 minutes you set the timer, just work on that task, on that specific aspect of the task. Once you’ve completed, take 5 to 10 minutes break and do whatever you like in that break and then do another chunk, and so on. So then what? Actually coming back to dopamine, just completing that time, focusing on the task secretes dopamine. It creates a sense of accomplishment. Right. And it is quite important that we focus on the time we spend working on the task, but really focusing on the work on the task as opposed to how much we got done, because different times, different days, we kind of can produce different amounts of work. So we shouldn’t really stress about it. We should you know, it’s kind of… It really helps to just focus on something within our control which is focusing on the task.

TL: And in your book, you talk about aligning tasks overall to your intrinsic sort of values. Is it OK if you can explain a bit about that and how it works neurologically?

GT: Yes. So that’s that that can be a big game changer for people. So in order to do that, you first need to understand what your true values are. So look at what things keep on distracting you, what things naturally drew you to spend time doing. What things do you always find money, time, energy for? So for me, I know my daughter Amelia, my relationship with my husband Matthew and my work. So my seminars, my book, my coaching and my lecturing at university. These are the top three values for me. And and I always find time, energy, money and everything for those three things. Now some other things like understanding politics. Probably a quite low level. Some people say you should understand that, but intrinsically, for me, it’s not very important. However, if somebody asked me, Gabija, could you write a report, let’s say, on how Brexit is going to affect mental wellbeing of people? And so that’s quite a political topic. But given that my work and actually my daughter, my husband and my work, they’re kind of score very similar amounts. So they’re equally almost like sharing the three places. So my work comes really, really high. And what in my work is important to me is actually truly helping people to understand themselves. So in that politically flavoured article, it’s very, you know, I could see how that would help me with my work to help people to understand themselves. And then I might actually, given that it links to my one of top three values I might write down, how would would benefit, you know, my daughter, my husband, my clients, my book sales, my… I kind of write down all the things which are high on my list, how this article would benefit me. And once I stack up those benefits linked to my true values, then I would be much more motivated to do the research needed on Brexit in order to actually write a good article on that. So it’s kind of changing the perspective, but from actually much kind of a deeper sense it requires for something. What things truly are meaningful to you then, what this task, you know, involves and how to bridge those two things together.

TL: What happens in the brain when you do link a task you don’t want to do and a value that you do agree with?

GT: Well, it just changes, you know, whether you stimulate reward centres or pain centres in the brain. When we resent something, we naturally stimulate pain centres, which when we do that, not only it kind of changes our emotional state, but also it changes the blood flow to different regions of the brain.

So when we stimulate pain centres, it naturally triggers the so-called sympathetic nervous system in our brain and body. The sympathetic nervous system has been designed evolutionary for us to escape the predators. Really. So your kind of really primitive centres of the brain. Then the mammalian reptilian brain areas according to the true brain model. They don’t know the difference if you’re actually running away from a bear or if you’re writing, you know, the report on Brexit. So what we need to do, we need to kind of sort of educate those primitive centres. And now when we actually stimulate those pain centres and sympathetic nervous systems is released, blood flow is changed, then blood and energy is prioritised for your muscles, for your limbs. So you can either run away or fight the predator. And 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. Now, in contrast, when we stimulate the reward system of the brain, it naturally triggers rest and digest or parasympathetic nervous system, which is crucial for us to learn to be creative, to be empathic, to understand other people’s way of being and for brain plasticity to be taking place. So in that state, our performance is greatly enhanced and we can get much more done. But also in the prefrontal cortex is a crucial centre also for personality. So when we do those tasks which are linked to our highest values, we feel like it’s part of who we are. So we kind of link to our identity almost, which then, you know, needless to say, we tend to go an extra mile when that happens.

TL: I could do that, yeah. OK. Of course, if you have low motivation, that can lead to procrastination. From a neurological point of view, what actually is procrastination.

GB: Well procrastination is quite a lot of different things altogether. It doesn’t necessarily require low motivation to procrastinate. So different things could trigger procrastination. One could be, of course, if you don’t see a point in the task, you’re more likely to procrastinate. But also for some people, the task is so important that they feel overwhelmed. I talked to many people after I published my book. A lot of people say, oh, wow, you’re so brave to publish the book. And when we got to talk to them, it seems to them writing and publishing a book is so important. That they’re never going to do it because it overwhelms them, the idea of actually getting the work done and getting yourself in such a vulnerable position of sharing information. It’s almost like opening your heart to the world, right. Seems just to exposing. So it triggers certain emotional state that they want to avoid. And a lot of times in procrastination is an emotional component to it. But it could be different triggers for different people. For some people, it could be being overwhelmed by the task. The testing is just so big and, you know, it would take so long to complete it that they put the delay, even starting it, because it’s just overwhelmingly large task for other people. They fear rejection, they fear criticism, they fear some other kind of judgement on their work so they can procrastinate with the task. For other people it’s boredomness. It might not be the task that they are interested in or enjoying.

So there’s multiple triggers. Whenever we procrastinate, what I suggest is asking what happened right before you started procrastinating. In other words, was the trigger a certain emotion? And if so, what’s the emotion? And then based on that, when you identify the trigger, the solution would be different depending on what’s the trigger.

TL: OK, so if you are procrastinating, I take it you’re not really activating these reward centres in the brain.

GT: Well, you might be, actually. So it’s kind of it’s a bit tricky with those complex behaviours. We can’t quite put the, you know, specific brain regions and brain chemistry to it. It just would be oversimplification. But sometimes people trigger loads of actually reward in procrastination. So imagine, instead of doing, let’s say, accounting, you might be watching some sort of funny movies on YouTube. You might trigger reward centres even more, right? So a lot of times we choose to procrastinate with tasks that are quite efficient at triggering reward.

So those things like TikTok, YouTube videos, games on the phone, they are so clever in the way they are done that they trigger huge amounts of dopamine. And therefore, we do them, you know, like if you look at TikTok, there’s no point of doing it, but because it triggers dopamine, it feels pleasant, it feels addictive, and we keep on doing it. But doing accounting won’t give the same amount of immediate reward, immediate amount of dopamine. Therefore, it requires willpower and long term vision to do it. So there kind of is different things can succeed dopamine. So it doesn’t necessarily mean that when we procrastinate, we don’t get it. We just might get dopamine from different things then the task we procrastinating over, OK?

TL: So if you are in like a YouTube hole and you’ve been watching funny cat videos for 15 minutes, how do you get the motivation to go back to do your work?

GT: I would suggest to, sort of, a little bit train yourself. So using the Pomodoro technique I mentioned and I discuss more in my book, work for, let’s say, 25 minutes, set the timer and only if you focused on the task for 25 minutes, give yourself 5 to 10 minutes break to watch YouTube videos. Set the timer once it’s over, but you have to stop. Then another 25 minutes of work, only if you focused on that task for that period of time, you can allow yourself to do to watch those videos, to still be using it as a reward rather than as a kind of the overall activity.

TL: What would you say to somebody who’s feeling like they have a lot of low motivation at the moment and they’re listening to this podcast instead of working?

GT: That’s a good way to procrastinate. That’s what I would say. It’s called metaprocrastination, listening about procrastination. OK, well, that’s fine. You’re listening to this podcast now. Take a piece of paper. I’m like a strict teacher. Take a piece of paper and write down what is one thing that would be really meaningful for me to get done today. It has to be a small thing. It could be like, oh, I need to send this email to somebody or I’ll do my work for five minutes.

It’s still better than none, right? And write down what that one thing that comes to your mind. Once the podcast is over, close the laptop, set your timer for 25 minutes and work on that task. It could be different. And by the way, if your goal was to to, you know, do push ups for five minutes, then set for five minutes, doesn’t matter. But set the timer.

Once the task is up, do something pleasant again. And look into the Pomodoro technique. For a lot of people, it really helps to take the emotional component of the performance. And that generally helps to start by asking yourself, what is the most important task for me to get done today can help us to be in that proactive mode where we feel like, you know, we aren’t victims of what the tasks we’re given. Actually, you chose the job you are at. You can leave any time. Of course, we all need money. So you’re still getting something out of it. So kind of getting into that proactive mindset would help you to get more done, but enjoy your work a bit more and just kind of tweaking your working day in a way that actually feels more like who you are would help you as well to enjoy it more and get more done. Bringing yourself into your work, into your relationships, into your home-schooling your kids, into your time you spend, you know, with with your loved ones, into the meals you cook will help you to, A, have healthier activation of your reward system and ultimately would not only increase your motivation, but would increase your inspiration, which is the kind of ultimately longer term much, much kind of more well suited to you who you are type of motivation.

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TL: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Science Focus Podcast. The February issue of BBC Science Focus magazine is out now. In this issue, we explore the baffling science of dark boson stars, Dr Michael Mosley shares a top tip to boost your sleep, and as always, our panel of experts answer your questions. There’s much more inside and on sciencefocus.com.