Motivation can be described as the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-orientated behaviour. It is what causes you to act, whether the task is as simple as getting a glass of water to reduce thirst or a little more complex like reading a book to gain more knowledge. Motivation, therefore, involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behaviour. It can be the reason behind why someone does something. However, motivation and its process are much more complicated than offering someone sticks and carrots to do something. Motivation does not refer to just the factors that activate those desired behaviours. It also involves the factors that can direct and maintain the desired goals. The reality is that various forces motivate and drive us, and several of these aspects are neurological. Before we dig deeper into the different types of motivation, we first need to understand how motivation, as a process, works within our brain.
Neurotransmitters, our brain’s networking system, regulate our motivational behaviour. One area regulates our emotional response for risk-reward processing (the limbic system), the second for reinforcement (the lateral and ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus), the third for memory (the hippocampus) and the fourth area, finally, regulates functions such as decision-making (the frontal lobe). Without getting too technical, motivational behaviour is regulated by chemicals in our brain and other factors, such as the environment, available resources, timing and how we feel. Now that we understand how motivation works within our brain and that various factors can influence motivation, we need to distinguish between the different types of motivation.
- Extrinsic motivation arises from outside of the individual – doing something because you want to earn a reward or avoid punishment.
- Intrinsic motivation arises from within the individual, in other words, doing something because it is personally rewarding to you. When you are intrinsically motivated, your behaviour is driven by your internal desire to do something for yourself.
Understanding our motivation can be very useful to achieve our goals. However, we can all recall a time when we made a list of new year’s resolutions but never felt motivated enough to achieve it successfully. Why does this happen, and what are the factors that influence us, thus leaving us feeling demotivated? There are a few common reasons for being demotivated, such as not having a clear purpose or goal to work towards, fearing that we will be unsuccessful, doing things for the wrong reasons, taking on too much and feeling overwhelmed, or having a habit of not doing anything. These are notable reasons. However, we have come to realise that people feel more demotivated and mentally tired than before. The term to describe this is “motivation paralysis”. This is something that doctors, psychologists and other experts have noted as well.
We cannot expect to run a personal-best marathon with a sprained ankle. So, why do we expect our brains to perform at their utmost best and to stay motivated when it has been compromised by months of unending emotional and mental upheaval. The whole world has experienced unusual circumstances and faced new and challenging situations.
Dr Alison Haar, a psychologist at The Ross Center in New York, stated that, due to the worldwide circumstances, we have lost many anchors that functioned as guideposts throughout our day. Before social distancing and lockdown regulations, simple anchors, such as going to work, socialising with friends or participating in other activities outside our homes, helped us regulate our mental and physical energy. Other factors, such as fears about our circumstances, also significantly impact how we prioritise our motivation. Experiencing fear and anxiety daily can lead to chronic stress and anxiety, but it can also show up as a lack of motivation, even in people who previously did not struggle with it. Constantly being stressed because of fear takes a surprisingly significant amount of mental and sometimes physical energy. This leads to feeling tired. Your brain is processing more than usual, and it is taking its toll.
Like most things, recognising what is causing the problem is the first step to address the problem. Once we realise that our lack of motivation may be due to our brains running on anxiety fumes, we can start identifying useful techniques to help us tackle our motivation. Below are some techniques you can give a try to help you get back on track:
Give your brain a break. This may sound very simple and easy. However, do not underestimate the importance of this technique. Often, our first instinct is to blame ourselves for not being productive or getting things done but doing so does not help us to get things done, especially when our brains are tired. Instead, try to be more positive and kinder to yourself (and your brain). Do something you know you enjoy. Reading a good book or completing a difficult crossword puzzle are activities that help us relax and are good for our brains. These or similar activities require minimum effort and can leave you feeling accomplished and even joyful. That accomplished feeling is like a reset button for your brain and allows your brain to be more open to doing other things.
Activities that involve a change in behaviour to reignite brain activity can similarly reignite your motivation. This can be an activity ranging from something as simple as taking a shower to something more complex, like baking macaroons. The point is to get your brain to focus on the here and now rather than contemplating intangible worrisome distractions.
Practice positive thinking. This can help and encourage mindfulness, gratitude, optimism and self-compassion. It is especially helpful when facing hopelessness, helplessness and feeling out of control. Try to take a few moments a day to reflect on what makes you happy and write it down. When you feel convinced that things are bad, your written reflections can serve as evidence that it is not.
These are all useful and simple techniques you can practice to help reset and re-energise your brain. Consistency is key and, therefore, these techniques need to be practiced daily. Shift your mind to allow yourself to set realistic goals and be flexible when needed. This article highlights the importance of understanding the various factors of motivation and factors that influence motivation. Having this knowledge and insights can help us better manage ourselves and help us perform to our utmost best.
By Zilmarie Carstens