Kick Starts

How to Increase Your Motivation and Drive

February 19, 2024 Sylvia Flanagan, LMFT, Motivational & Behavioral Coach Episode 42
Kick Starts
How to Increase Your Motivation and Drive
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

In this episode, I discuss the science behind motivation, drive, and focus and take a look at factors influencing our motivation including patters of behavior and genetics.

Using a relatable example, I illustrate the efficacy of breaking tasks into smaller steps to boost dopamine levels and enhance motivation, paving the way for a more sustainable model of success.

The discussion also touches on the link between addiction and dopamine fluctuations, underscoring the importance of managing dopamine levels to mitigate addictive behaviors.

I explore the significance of a healthy lifestyle in maintaining optimal neurotransmitter balance, and I advocate for a growth mindset, encouraging listeners to view challenges as steps toward reward and success. This shift in perspective is presented as a powerful tool to elevate overall dopamine levels and improve motivation, drive, and focus.

In summary, this episode offers a concise and science-based exploration of neurotransmitters, behavior, and lifestyle choices. You'll gain practical strategies for optimizing motivation and focus, laying the groundwork for sustained success.

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Speaker 1:

Hi and welcome to Kick Starts. I'm Sylvia Flanagan, your host, and today I'm going to talk about motivation, and this is one of my favorite topics, I think, because it's a bit personal, but the point of this episode is to help you learn more about what's behind motivation and focus and how you can set yourself up to have more of both. That's going to lead to more success in whatever areas that are important to you. Now, anything that's important we usually learn about to a certain degree. We learn about how the body works and what it needs and how it uses certain vitamins and minerals so that we can eat better. We learn about at least the bare-bone basics of a car so we can know how and when to maintain it, and the same should go for the brain. So many of us are pushed around by our feelings and beliefs about our self, so we might avoid or find ourselves repeatedly not getting the results we want. We get stuck in the same patterns, but maybe not really making much progress, and at the end of this episode, you're going to have a lot more tools and a lot more influence on your levels of motivation, aside from just willpower that may or may have not gotten you very far in the past. There's obviously a lot to know about the brain, but the average person can learn plenty to make the changes, to make the most out of their abilities and effort and have more wins and more success. But there aren't hacks, but there's knowledge, application and hard work to put the understanding to good use. Let me give a little foundation of how the brain works in relation to motivation and focus, and then I'll bring it around to some practical steps so you can use this stuff in everyday life.

Speaker 1:

So motivation, drive and focus primarily involve three chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain Epinephrine, which is adrenaline. Acetylcholine, which helps us focus and pay attention, and dopamine, which drives us and keeps us motivated. Broadly speaking, epinephrine, or adrenaline it wakes us up, it gives us energy. It often, though, feels uncomfortable and can feel a bit like anxiety. Maybe we're edgy, we're kind of torn about what we're stepping into, we're distracted, but we're alert and we're awake. Acetylcholine helps us narrow in focus and pay attention to whatever it is we're trying to get through. We move into whatever it is we're working with and engaging with. Dopamine is responsible for drive and pushing us towards a reward. Opinion is about wanting, craving and pursuing, Ideally with all three neurotransmitters or chemicals working together, we should be in that sweet spot of being alert but also having goal directed attention and behavior. If we had the adrenaline or the epinephrine, without the dopamine we would just feel anxious, but with enough dopamine we step into the challenge and instead of anxiety, dopamine helps us feel more excitement or anticipation, because we're motivated to take on and pursue whatever the reward the challenge has to offer.

Speaker 1:

Bear with me for just a couple minutes so I can lay some basic groundwork of how the system works, because it's not something you hear much about and this info can change the way that you go about your day to day in a major and really significant way. We all have a baseline level of dopamine in our system and this changes from person to person. It's different in everybody and it's largely a consequence of our genetics, but it's also dependent on how we live our lives and also what you just did yesterday or even a few minutes ago. Believe it or not, and I'll get to that later the baseline of dopamine that varies from person to person is going to influence how driven and how motivated a person is. Someone who's super driven and goes after for what they want probably has a high level of baseline dopamine. We all know these types of people, people who are more apathetic and just seem to go in circles and don't have much drive. They have a low level of baseline dopamine. But the good news is that we can raise our baseline dopamine levels, but probably in a different way than you might think. So all of us have this baseline level of dopamine available and circulating in our system at any time, and we also have a certain amount of dopamine storage and cells that are available and and it's released when we're involved in a rewarding activity Maybe finishing a project, exercising, if you enjoy exercise, having someone on a dating app like you back when you're interested in them, or eating your favorite food, or even sitting down and enjoying a beer. But that stored dopamine is also being released when you're anticipating and planning those things, because, remember, dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for motivating us to go after something.

Speaker 1:

Every time we're involved in, or going after or thinking about something we want, that the brain perceives as rewarding, some of our stored dopamine gets released. Our dopamine levels go up and that creates a dopamine peak. It feels good, but then the peak level falls back down, and sometimes pretty quickly, depending on what the peak was from. And here's what happens if we engage in a high reward activity or we have an intense when An intense rush or big experience will have a really high peak of dopamine because a ton of the dopamine in storage gets released, but then the levels fall below our normal baseline because there's not enough dopamine left in storage to get us back to our normal baseline. So we have a crash and it takes a while to get back to our regular baseline While the system is trying to make more dopamine to get the reserves back. And it's here that we're going to feel depleted, a little down, maybe even depressed, agitated and probably not very hopeful and driven. It's these high reward situations where we get a big peak and then we get a crash, and that's where we can run into trouble. And this is actually what happens in addiction.

Speaker 1:

For example, chocolate on average increases the dopamine in our system by about 50 percent. The dopamine peak doesn't stick around long, but with only a 50 percent or so increase most people can control the amount they eat because it's not a huge peak and they don't go too far under the baseline, if at all. But it's also why the anticipation of the chocolate seems to be sometimes more rewarding than when you're actually eating it, because often the peak ends while you're still eating. Remember, dopamine is the driver for reward and pleasure. It's not so responsible for the pleasure itself, it's more about I want, I want, I want and the good feeling that we have when we're working towards that thing that we intrinsically want. Serotonin and other chemicals are more responsible for feeling satisfied. That's why gratitude practices that increase serotonin are so important. But that's another episode and I'm not suggesting you include chocolate in your gratitude practice, although that's not a bad idea now that I think about it. I'm super grateful for chocolate, milk chocolate in particular. But remember, dopamine motivates you and drives you to get pleasure and is less responsible for the pleasure itself.

Speaker 1:

So back to addiction. Let's take methamphetamines. Well, let's not take them, but take a look at them. Meth increases dopamine levels by 10 times the amount of a person's normal baseline. So there's this huge peak that's experienced as reward and then a crash way below baseline. And then the problem is that there's not enough dopamine to release from the storage cells to bring the levels back to baseline, and that leads to the brain craving more meth, because all it knows, is that meth led to a big dopamine release which was experienced as a huge reward. So a person does meth again, trying to reach that high dopamine state that the brain is seeking to replicate. But there's still not enough dopamine in reserve to produce the same peak or the same high. And then their dopamine levels again crash after they use meth and their baseline goes even lower. And the person keeps chasing what it can't get again and again as dopamine baselines continue to go lower and lower. And that's addiction. It's where the brain restricts and narrows down what it finds rewarding and pleasurable. And this process doesn't just happen with drugs. It can happen with gaming, porn, food, you name it. High, intense peaks, big crashes over and over, and we get progressively lower baselines of dopamine.

Speaker 1:

Hey, it's Sylvia and I've got a new opportunity for listeners, an opportunity to enhance your motivation and stay engaged by subscribing to my Kickstart's text message service. You'll get two short SMS text messages from me each week that are directly related to the week's episode, either a question to consider, a prompt or a reminder of sorts. And of course it's free. Just text the word JOIN to 870-263-2121 or go to the show notes for a link to JOIN and you can opt out at any time if you change your mind. Only available in the US and Canada. Naturally, dopamine is there to help us seek out a bunch of different activities and challenges to bring about well-being, variation, success and balance in life. But with addiction the drive gets tunnel-visioned and everything else becomes ignored. Except that one thing that the brain wants. Everything else comes crashing down.

Speaker 1:

I brought up how the dopaminergic system works in relation to addiction, because the same principles are going to apply in a less severe way with all of us in a day-to-day fashion, but I'll make that more clear in a minute. First I want to bring this back to everyday motivation and focus. The two biggest points I want to stress is first, recognize that initial feeling of agitation, restlessness or discomfort when confronted with pursuing a challenge. That's essentially the energy when the epinephrine or the adrenaline kicks in before a challenge. If you start to welcome the agitation and restlessness in a different way that's always there at the beginning of an endeavor and if you start to view it as part of the reward and attainment process, it's going to help you step into the things you want to get done without procrastinating or avoiding. It's going to help you welcome that feeling of discomfort and not look at it as a bad thing. And second, don't make a habit of going for the big highs, the big rewards, because it sets you up for crashes and it lowers your level of baseline dopamine, just like in addiction, just not as intense. Limiting big dopamine peaks is going to help you maintain your dopamine levels and help you raise your baseline, so you'll feel more enlivened, motivated and driven on an everyday basis.

Speaker 1:

So let's use a real life example to put this into context. Say, you've had an idea to set up an Etsy shop to sell something that you make, but you find yourself avoiding it because when you think about it it seems a bit overwhelming, it's just uncomfortable and you're a bit anxious and unsettled. Sure, part of that avoidance might have to do with thinking that not enough people are going to want to buy what you make. But what's also going on is that epinephrine or the adrenaline is being released. That's the wake-up phase of the dopamine and reward cycle. It's just going to feel uncomfortable. You can't get around it. That's where you might feel a little edgy, restless, scattered and ungrounded. It has to feel that way. But when you know what it is, you can use it. It's here you got to push yourself, but it's a lot easier to push yourself through it if you know what's going on and what you're pushing yourself towards Now. You can help yourself get through this part of dis-ease and restlessness a bit easier.

Speaker 1:

This is where it's so important to break down a big task into smaller steps so you can approach one thing at a time. You won't feel as anxious. The brain won't look at it as being too difficult. If you break down the Etsy challenge into several small steps, you can then just focus on the first step, only the first step. Maybe that's making a list of inventory of all the things that you want to put out for sale on the site. Maybe you haven't even broken down the challenge into steps yet. The first goal is to write a list of all the steps needed to even set up the store. Then start at the first one. Start at the beginning. Wherever you are in the process, it's normal that you're going to get edgy, restless and a bit anxious when starting Whatever step you're on. Again, that's mobilizing your energy. It's a good thing.

Speaker 1:

Next, let's say you push through the restlessness and sit down to work on one of the smaller steps. You sit down and then the acetylcholine starts to kick in. It's here. You're going to find yourself focusing more on the task. Sometimes we don't focus really well and we might need to do it a few times, but it'll happen. Stay with it. Stay with the process, be patient and recognize it for what it is. But you sit down, you stay with it and you complete the step. And guess what? That's a reward. You get a dopamine release and you're going to be more motivated to sit down the next day and work on the next step from the list you put together. But also and this is so important in accomplishing that step you had to release a dopamine, but it didn't create a huge spike or peak, so you won't get the crash and it'll have felt rewarding and over time, of accomplishing these small steps like that, your baseline of dopamine will actually rise and you'll be more naturally motivated in general in all things in your day-to-day activities. It'll change your plasticity and you'll have more confidence to pursue challenges of all sorts. From that point forward, your confidence will generalize to other situations.

Speaker 1:

So, when you're pursuing a goal, reframe the effort, reframe the tough parts, look differently and welcome the edge and that agitation that's there at the beginning, at the start, reframe the parts that you don't really like, because you're going to get small dopamine releases all along the way as you knock out the steps and work towards completion. This is where you can raise your baseline of dopamine and this is where our prefrontal cortex can assign meaning and value to things and where all the steps along the way can have purpose. Have a vision of what you're doing, envision the outcome and know why you're doing it, and make sure it really matters to you. You'll fall into something more effortlessly and you'll be more naturally pulled into something because it really matters. If it matters, make the tough parts be part of a bigger picture and engage with them with an attitude that references that bigger picture and not just the task at hand. It's important to have what you're going after be intrinsically motivating. If you're following someone else's script, you're working against your own motivation and reward system and related to that, this stuff is so fascinating.

Speaker 1:

Dopamine is largely responsible for our awareness of time as well. That's why, when you're in what we call the zone or that zen space, that's why we're not aware of time. It's a total feel good focus where we're locked into what we're doing and we're totally unaware of anything else. But obviously we can't always be doing stuff we love. Sometimes we have to do stuff in life just because we have to do it. We can't always be in that zone In fact we usually aren't in the zone and sometimes what we want requires steps that are difficult. But if you tell yourself you don't like part of a particular challenge and you're just waiting to the end to get the reward, you make it harder on your system and harder on yourself. You're not getting much dopamine during the process because the reward gets pushed out in time, so it doesn't feel engaging and rewarding along the way and the brain doesn't really want to pursue it that much. But you eventually get through it and when you do finish you get a bigger dopamine peak. That feels great in the moment, but again, that makes you susceptible to a crash below baseline, which brings you down and lowers your baseline of dopamine.

Speaker 1:

I don't have time in this episode, but I also want to point out some basics to help you maximize your motivation, focus and, of course, success. Sleep. Sleep is so important. Without good sleep you really can't expect to get much in any way in terms of performance. Simply put, it impairs your cognitive abilities and also negatively impacts the dopaminergic system. If you haven't slept well, you're probably going to be toast, so just be gentle with yourself during that day and don't push it. Also, basics like moving your body, socializing, eating well and getting in some healthy fun is all going to help your motivation and focus, because you're taking better care of different areas of your life and your body.

Speaker 1:

In addition, don't mix too many activities together. If you want to stay motivated with something and what I mean by that is if you're having trouble staying motivated about doing a particular activity don't get into the habit of pairing it with a bunch of other things that increase dopamine, like having your cell phone with messages and alerts coming in, eating food to keep you going, or energy drinks or God forbid any stimulants. This stacking artificially increases the dopamine peak associated with whatever you're trying to get into the habit of doing. So then, when you do it without those other things, your brain is not going to be very happy and it's not going to be motivated to keep at it without those things. You're also going to set yourself up for distractions and you're going to lose your focus and the opportunity to reframe the experience of the very thing you're wanting to incorporate as a habit or a pursuit. And, by the way, for you coffee lovers, caffeine in the form of coffee or tea doesn't raise dopamine levels much at all, so it doesn't set you up for a crash, and studies show that it actually increases the density of dopamine 2 and dopamine 3, receptors that help encourage us to move through obstacles. Sweet, but this is not the case for energy drinks.

Speaker 1:

My hope is that now you know more about how the dopaminergic system works and how you can help it to help you In some. Remember that the process of going after anything worthwhile involves number one, the agitation, restlessness or edge that I talked about because of epinephrine or adrenaline. Secondly, the focus that will come about with the seed of choline if you step into the challenge. And third, the reward and the good feelings associated with the dopamine release as you pursue that reward and know that if you're consistently only seeking big wins and big highs, you set yourself up for a crash that will actually lower your level of motivation over time and eventually you'll probably come to a place of burnout. Set your sights high and shoot for big success, but make all the steps along the way.

Speaker 1:

The reward. The prefrontal cortex is involved in the dopaminergic system and we can reframe the tough parts, flip the script on hard work and start to view effort and setbacks as opportunities and wins in themselves. This is referred to as the growth mindset. Make the challenge part of the reward. It not only brings about chemical changes and restructures some neural circuitry in the brain, but it gives meaning to your day to day efforts that might otherwise have felt like penance. The meaning you place to things and higher levels of baseline dopamine brought about by how you choose to move yourself through and towards goals will help you push through tough times, will help you get through challenges and setbacks and adversity. It all works together and acts as hope in motion. You got this and, as always, if you like this podcast, please leave me a rating, write a review if you have a couple seconds and pass it off to a friend.

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