A Neuropsychologist’s Guide to Motivation: 8 Tips to Getting Started

Have you ever wondered what the secret is to motivation? Many of my clients struggle with the driving force that initiates and sustains our behavior toward achieving a particular goal. Motivation is an essential component of achieving success in all aspects of life, whether it be personal, academic, or professional. While many factors influence motivation, understanding the psychological and neuropsychological mechanisms that drive it can help you enhance your motivation and achieve your goals.

Motivation in a Nutshell

Motivation refers to the underlying psychological processes that drive and direct our behavior. At its core, motivation is what gets us moving towards a goal or objective, and it can come in many forms. Some individuals are motivated by external factors, such as rewards, recognition, or approval from others, while others are motivated by internal factors, such as personal satisfaction, sense of purpose, or autonomy.

Motivation is also closely linked to our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. When we are motivated, we are more likely to invest time and energy into our activities and persist in the face of obstacles. Motivation is an essential ingredient for success in various domains, including education, career, sports, and personal growth. Understanding what motivates us and how to harness it effectively can help us achieve our goals and lead more fulfilling lives.

Neuropsychology of Motivation

Motivation is driven by the brain’s reward system, which includes several neural pathways that activate in response to rewarding stimuli. One system (the mesolimbic dopamine system) is involved in the anticipation of rewards. This is a system in the brain that is on the lookout for things that might lead to something pleasurable. The second system (the mesocortical dopamine system) is responsible for the perception of rewards, meaning it turns on when it experiences something it finds rewarding.

These systems work together to create a feedback loop that motivates us to seek out rewarding experiences and behaviors. For example, when you eat something tasty, one system in the brain turns on and makes you feel good with a natural release of dopamine in your brain, and then tells the other system to be on the lookout for chocolate in the future. When these systems and the systems that support them are not functioning properly, neither does motivation.

Imbalances in neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, for example, can impact motivation levels. Low levels of dopamine are associated with reduced motivation, while low levels of serotonin can lead to decreased mood and energy levels, which can also impact motivation.

Executive functioning, the set of cognitive processes that enable us to plan, organize, initiate, and regulate our behavior, is a huge player in motivation. Deficits in executive functioning can be the source of difficulty initiating and sustaining goal-directed behavior.

Emotion regulation also impacts motivation. When we are unable to regulate our emotions effectively, our thoughts and behavior follow our mood. Clinical mood disorders like depression and anxiety have actually been shown to diminish executive functioning, as well.

The Problem with Motivation

The authors of “Relationship between Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation for Learning – Research Review” (2014) explore the relationship between rewards and intrinsic motivation in the context of learning. While rewards can have a positive impact on extrinsic motivation (i.e., the motivation to obtain a reward), they can also undermine intrinsic motivation (i.e., the motivation to engage in an activity for its own sake). The authors conclude that while rewards can be an effective tool for promoting extrinsic motivation, educators and policymakers should be cautious about the potential negative impact of rewards on intrinsic motivation. They suggest that rewards should be used strategically, and that educators should focus on creating learning environments that foster intrinsic motivation, such as by providing opportunities for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

For many of the individuals that I work with, motivation feels like a myth. They wait around for motivation to come and then beat themselves up for not being motivated enough to get things done. My clients have been told since they were young that being overly dependent on rewards is bad because it undermines intrinsic motivation. In a sense, they are correct. Psychological research does support the idea that being rewarded too frequently or at a disproportionate amount will undermine a person’s motivation.

However, the studies used to support these expectations were conducted on largely neurotypical individuals. The brain of someone with executive functioning challenges (e.g., ADHD, autism) or with a mood disorder that suppresses executive functioning does not function entirely the same.

If a person has lower levels of dopamine or their reward system neural circuitry is less sensitive to dopamine and/or serotonin, they will have a much harder time feeling intrinsically motivated. They wait around to feel like doing the dishes or getting started on their homework or beginning a workout routine but nothing changes.

Ways to Override the Myths About Motivation

As a neuropsychologist, I teach my clients about how their brain impacts their behavior so that they can stop waiting around for motivation and create the lives they want. Here are a few ideas for things you can do to override the myths about motivation.

1. Stop waiting around to be motivated.

If you wait around until you feel like doing something, you’re very unlikely to ever get it done. Change how you think about what you have to do and tell yourself that motivation will come once you’ve gotten started. For individuals with initiation weaknesses, I recommend having an external cue like an alarm to help get started.

2. Reduce overwhelm by starting with something small.

Sometimes we have difficulty getting started because the task feels daunting. Being overwhelmed often means you don’t know how to do something, or you don’t know where to start. I encourage my clients to think of the easiest, smallest thing that they can do to get started. This should be something they absolutely know how to do and feel very confident in doing. Even if it means simply pulling out the materials for the task and looking at the directions, that’s a great start. Sometimes overwhelm comes from setting too large of a goal so I encourage my clients to take a step back and break their aspirations into bite-sized chunks of only 30-60 minute tasks (or sometimes even shorter!).

3. Boost your mood.

The things we tell ourselves and the ways we think about things have a tremendous impact on our mood and motivation. Take a look at how you are thinking about yourself, your skillset, your ability to complete a task, the difficulty of the task, and the barriers you might come up against. If you aren’t feeling particularly motivated, chances are, you are telling yourself that the task will be unenjoyable, effortful, or difficult. Being in a bad mood is a true deterrent for motivation. Instead, imagine what it will be like (in the most detail possible) to complete this activity. How will it feel to get your project turned in? What will you do right afterwards? Consider using music to boost your mood while you get started.

4. Rely on routines.

Routines decrease the demand on initiation (getting started). Once you get the first part of a routine started, your brain goes into autopilot for the other activities/behaviors in the chain. If you are looking to add a new behavior to your life, put it at the end of a routine you already do. For example, if you want to work on getting started with your homework, pair the behavior of pulling out your homework to something you already do like eating a snack when you get home.

5. Take a look at your environment.

Distractions can be a huge deterrent for motivation and momentum. Make sure you are in a distraction-free environment with a clear workspace and all notifications turned off. Having a cluttered workspace or a messy home can clutter your mind and slow you down. Do your best to keep things tidy or go somewhere outside of your home where that is guaranteed.

6. Reduce the friction.

Friction is anything that pushes back on your movement. Look for simple ways to ease the friction on what you are trying to be motivated to do. For example, if you want to start going to the gym, try setting out all of your gym clothes the night before. If you get too tired after work to exercise, have your gym bag in the car or do it beforehand when you have more energy. Consider your energy and attention levels and plan to do the activity when they are optimal.

7. Use rewards to get started.

It is okay (if not encouraged!) to give yourself a reward for doing something initially, while you are still building a new habit. Some individuals get stuck on the idea that it undermines motivation but if you have to wait around for intrinsic motivation, you might never reach our goal.

I would much rather get some momentum, decrease reliance on rewards, and build intrinsic motivation later. Learning to play an instrument, for example, is exciting at first but then the newness wears off and many students quit. If students continue past this little lull, they have enough skills to play songs that they know and like, which brings back enjoyment and invites intrinsic motivation.

It may even be a good idea to enjoy the reward while you are working on your goal. Temptation bundling is a strategy for combining an activity that you should do but find difficult or unappealing (like studying or exercising) with an activity that you already enjoy (like listening to music or watching a favorite TV show). The idea is that by bundling the two activities together, you can use the enjoyment of the second activity as a motivator to engage in the first activity (an it tricks your brain into associating the unpleasant activity with a nice pleasurable dopamine reward!). When I gave myself the rule that I could only listen to a specific audiobook that I was really excited about when I was walking, my step-count skyrocketed.

8. Make social motivation work in your favor.

You can use social interaction in lots of ways to work on motivation. Working with others with similar goals can be a great way to overcome barriers and boost motivation. Simply seeing others working, such as in a library or coffee shop, can help you get into working mode. And don’t forget to rally your resources! Ask for help from friends, family, teachers, or community members. Sometimes even strangers can help motivate us. Remember you don’t have to do it alone. Create a supportive environment to help you meet your basic psychological needs of relatedness and competence. Surround yourself with supportive people and resources to provide you with the motivation and encouragement you need to achieve your goals.

Conclusion

Motivation is a key ingredient to success in all areas of life. It drives and directs our behavior towards achieving our goals and is closely linked to our emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. Neuropsychology reveals that motivation is driven by the brain’s reward system which activates in response to rewarding stimuli. However, imbalances in neurotransmitters and deficits in executive functioning can negatively impact motivation levels. Rewards can be an effective tool for promoting extrinsic motivation which can help you gain the momentum you need to make progress toward your goals.

Stop waiting around to be motivated, reduce overwhelm by starting with something small, and celebrate your successes. By understanding motivation better, you can enhance their motivation and achieve your goals. Take charge of your motivation and start working towards your goals today.