Motivation – How Does It Work?

by Exercise, Health, Psychology

It’s a tricky word ‘motivation’. Sometimes you have an abundance of it, sometimes you have zero.

But does ‘motivation’ as we know it even really exist and what can you do to improve your focus?

Everyone knows that people vary substantially in how hard they are willing to work, but the origin of these differences remains a real mystery – until now. A new brain imaging study that has found an individual’s willingness to work hard to earn money is strongly influenced by the chemistry in three specific areas of the brain. In addition to shedding new light on how the brain works, the research could have important implications for the treatment of things like depression, attention-deficit disorder, schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness where decreased motivation occurs.

Using a brain mapping technique, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that “go-getters” who are willing to work hard for rewards had a higher release of the dopamine neurotransmitter in areas of the brain known to play an important role in reward and motivation. On the other hand, “slackers” who are less willing to work hard for a reward, had high dopamine levels in another area of the brain that plays a role in both risk perception and emotion.

This result shows that raising dopamine levels overall isn’t going to change people’s motivation. Brain scientists have to understand how to target dopamine production in the right areas of the brain in order to help people overcome depression, low energy, and other medical issues associated with this neurotransmitter. And this can be done without the need for big pharma companies to get involved!

When you need to do a task, how you actually think about it has a lot to do with how you complete it – or whether you even do it at all!

(Yep, we’ve all been there). 

Psychologists have identified three primary sources of resistance to getting things done. Once you can identify these factors in your own thought processes, you can change how you think in order to get yourself motivated and complete whatever it is you’re looking to achieve.


Motivation Resistance #1

Thinking “I have to.” Very few things create resistance as much as being forced to do something. Sometimes, you may not even want to do things you usually enjoy, just because you feel you have to! This particular type of resistance keeps many people from taking an entrepreneurial step in their lives, as they don’t want their formerly fun activities to become ‘have to’ tasks.


Instead think “I choose to.” To combat the above, change how you think. Realise that nothing in life is actually a ‘have to.’ You don’t have to get up and you don’t have to go to work – you choose to because you enjoy the benefits those actions create. When you focus on the benefits of your actions rather than what you will lose, even if it’s temporary, resistance melts away.

Motivation Resistance #2

Thinking “I don’t feel right about this.” When you’re approaching a task that’s opposed to your values or beliefs, you’ll likely find that you don’t have a lot of motivation to get it done. As an example, suppose you’re asked to work overtime when you value your family life over your potential promotion. In this situation, you’re not likely to have a good attitude since the task conflicts with your beliefs.


Realign those tasks. There are two ways to better align a task with your values. The first is to change the task, if you can. Following the example above, you could see if you could trade extra hours this week with time off next week, so that you’re not actually losing time with your family. Another option is to add value to the task you’re doing. In this instance, you could think about how your extra overtime will allow you to get away with your family this summer on a nice holiday.

Motivation Resistance #3

Thinking “I can’t do this.” When you feel unequal to a task, it can be very difficult to get started. The feeling that you’ll certainly fail, or that you don’t know how to begin, will make any distraction seem infinitely more interesting than the task itself.


Realize that effort creates excellence. Everyone knows the saying “practice makes perfect,” but they rarely apply it to themselves. When you put effort into a task, you’ll get better at doing it. If you need help, ask for it, but don’t let your lack of knowledge stop you. Next time, you won’t have so much resistance to doing that particular task.

The process of getting things done represents the junction between motivation and willpower; the place where you not only want to take action but where you have the ability to do it. Which leads us nicely to ‘willpower’ i.e our ability to get things done.

How Willpower Works

One of the most interesting discoveries (well, I think so!) of the last decade has been the realization that willpower is a finite resource. Yes folks, you only get a certain amount of willpower on any given day, and once you’ve exhausted that supply, you’ll find yourself feeling much less able to do the right things and act on the motivation that you may feel.

Now there is a science behind this, a study by researchers at Columbia University found that judges tend to make more rulings in favor of prisoners at the start of each of their three decision-making sessions. Rulings made later in the sessions were far more likely to favor the judges’ interests which is a result the researchers put down to “decision fatigue.”  Gutted if you’re the last one of the day!

Basically the more decisions we make, the more likely we are going to become ‘fatigued’ by all those choices. As time goes on, our willpower diminishes and our ability to follow through on our motivations declines. 

So that’s why at the end of the day you’re thinking “I just can’t decide what to have for dinner!”.

How Dopamine Affects Motivation

The widespread belief that dopamine only regulates pleasure could be proved false with the latest research results on the role of this neurotransmitter. Researchers have shown that it regulates motivation, causing people to both start and then persevere to obtain something either positive or negative (John D. Salamone, Mercè Correa. The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. 2012). 

“It was believed that dopamine regulated pleasure and reward and that we release it when we obtain something that satisfies us, but in fact the latest scientific evidence shows that this neurotransmitter acts before that, it actually encourages us to act. In other words, dopamine is released in order to achieve something good or to avoid something evil,” explains researcher Mercè Correa.

Wow, that makes total sense, right? If you want something good to happen, you’ll take the necessary action. Or if you want to avoid jail time for spray painting your annoying neighbour’s car you should hopefully think about what you’re doing before you take that action.

So how can you ensure you keep motivated throughout the day?

It’s all about re-framing it.

Try these tips below.

Willpower Issue #1

How many things have you said “yes” to doing, even though you can’t really spare the time? Each of these commitments puts a drag on your available willpower, while shortchanging other, more important areas of your life. 


Get in the habit of saying “no”. It’s a difficult skill to master, but one that’s critically important for your overall productivity. You will initially feel really bad but then realise you get so much more done. Obviously if it’s important and someone needs your help then that’s different.

Willpower Issue #2

From the moment we wake up, we’re overwhelmed with potential choices, like whether to wear the red shirt or the blue, or whether to eat cereal or toast for breakfast. 


Sticking to regular routines minimizes the number of decisions that must be made, allowing us to save this energy for more important uses. Get up at a similar time, eat at a similar time and go to bed at a similar time (yes, this is a recurring theme at Ojay Health!)

Willpower Issue #3

No matter how good your routines are, you’ll likely still experience some degree of fatigue by the end of the day. 


Tackle important priorities first. Making sure that you address your most important work priorities first thing in the morning will ensure that these tasks receive your highest possible level of focus.

So although you may have low dopamine levels, you can still improve your motivation using the above techniques.

If you want to know more on how we can improve your health (including raising dopamine levels!) then reach out to us here, we’d love to answer your questions.