Goal-crushing hacks, straight from science
Motivation, that mysterious force that's crucial for achieving your goals, can be frustratingly elusive just when you need it most. You try as hard as you can to summon it up, and. . . nothing. But researchers have finally cracked motivation's code and identified the tools that will help you unleash it.
Motivation is regulated by a part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, according to the latest studies. This small region, and the neurotransmitters that filter in and out of it, strongly influence whether or not you do things like go to the gym, eat healthfully, or lose weight, experts say. A key neurotransmitter in this process is dopamine. When it's released in the nucleus accumbens, dopamine triggers motivation so that you're primed to do whatever it takes to achieve an objective, no matter what hurdles stand in your way, says John Salamone, Ph.D., the head of the Behavioral Neuroscience Division at the University of Connecticut. "Dopamine helps bridge what scientists call psychological distance," Salamone explains. "Say you're sitting at home on your couch in your pajamas, thinking you really should exercise, for example. Dopamine is what enables you to make the decision to be active."
Scientists have also made key discoveries about the emotional aspects of motivation, which are just as important as the hormonal factors, says Peter Gröpel, Ph.D., the chair of sport psychology at the Technical University of Munich. His research shows that one of the strongest predictors of whether you'll meet a goal are your "implicit motives"—things that are so pleasurable and rewarding to you that they subconsciously drive your behavior.
Three of the most common implicit motives are power, affiliation, and achievement, says Hugo Kehr, Ph.D., a member of Gröpel's research team. Each of us is driven by all three to some extent, but most people identify with one more than the others. Those who are motivated by power get gratification from being in leadership positions; people who are propelled by affiliation feel happiest being with friends and family; and those who are motivated by achievement enjoy competing and overcoming challenges.
Your implicit motives are what compel you to complete a goal, even when the going gets tough, Kehr says. "If you don't use them, your progress will be slower or you may not reach the goal at all; even if you do, you won't feel as accomplished or as happy about it," he explains. For instance, imagine that you have plans to meet a friend at the gym during your lunch hour. If you're an affiliation seeker, you'll have an easier time getting there because you know hanging out together will feel great. If you're driven by power or achievement, however, the chance to socialize probably won't have the same pull, and you may have a much tougher time tearing yourself away from your desk.
To harness the true power of motivation, experts say, you need to tap into both its physiological and mental components. These science-backed strategies will help you do just that.
First, determine where your heart lies
Power, affiliation, or achievement? You might think you know which one most speaks to you, but Kehr says it's more complicated than making an educated guess. "Your thoughts and perceptions don't provide a good guideline to what really motivates your behavior," he explains. "They're too rational. To really understand your implicit motives, you need to tune in to your emotions."
Visualization is the best way to do this. "Think about a situation in which you're at the center of attention, such as when you're giving a presentation," Kehr suggests. Focus on the details—what you're wearing, what the room looks like, and how many people are there.
Then ask yourself how you feel. "If you have a positive emotional reaction to the situation—you feel strong and confident, say—that's a sign that you're driven by power," Kehr explains. If you feel anxious or neutral, you're motivated either by affiliation or achievement. To determine if you're achievement oriented, picture yourself taking a challenging exercise class or working hard to meet a last-minute deadline. Does that make you feel energized? If not, envision yourself meeting new people at a party or a networking event to find out if you're motivated by affiliation instead.
Once you know what's driving you, brainstorm ways to use that quality to help you reach your goals. If you want to cut back on sweets and your implicit motive is affiliation, for example, enlist a friend to join you in a sugar detox. If you identify with power, start a "sugar-free" group on a community food-tracking site like MyFitnessPal.com, and make yourself the team leader. And if you're driven by achievement, challenge yourself to go a certain number of days without candy. Once you meet that goal, try to break your record. (Psst...Here's How to Cut Back On Sugar.)
Using your implicit motives this way makes the journey feel worthwhile, research shows. And as a result, you'll be more likely to stick with it.
Next, exceed your expectations
Dopamine, your brain's neurotransmitter, spikes whenever something goes better than you anticipated or you receive an unexpected reward, says Michael T. Treadway, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at Emory University. "When something feels better than expected, dopamine sends a signal to your brain that says, 'You need to figure out how to make it happen again,'" Treadway explains.
Let's say you go to your first Spinning class and get the biggest post workout high you've ever experienced. You would naturally be psyched to go again. That's dopamine at work; it tells your brain to pay attention so you can enjoy a repeat performance.
The trouble is, you get used to that good feeling quickly, Treadway says. After a few sessions, you'll come to expect the adrenaline rush. Your dopamine levels will no longer spike quite so high in response, and you'll feel a little less excited every time you think about hopping back in the saddle.
In order to stay motivated then, you sometimes have to raise the bar for yourself, says Robb Rutledge, Ph.D., a senior research associate at the MaxPlanck Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research at University College London. So turn up your bike's resistance in the next Spinning class or book a session with a tougher instructor. Switch up your routine when your workouts are getting easy. That way, you'll be guaranteed to keep your motivation high.
Finally, turn setbacks around
"You're going to go off track sometime—everyone does. But that can provide valuable information on how to change what you're doing so you'll be successful next time around,"says Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
If a stressful week at work derails your plans to go to the gym, rather than beating yourself up, Dimidjian recommends trying the TRAC method. "Ask yourself: What was the trigger? What was my response? And what was the consequence?" she says. So perhaps a crazed workweek (trigger) had you heading straight for your couch, a glass of wine in hand, when you got home (response), which left you feeling bloated and sluggish (consequence).
Then determine what you can do differently next time, Dimidjian suggests. If your gym routine goes by the wayside when you're stressed, prepare ahead for busy weeks. Acknowledge that you might feel like skipping your workouts, but remind yourself of how tired you felt the last time you did that, and vow to do at least a 20 minute exercise DVD if you can't make it to the gym. Figuring out how to circumvent failure strengthens motivation and gets you that much closer to achieving your goal.
Instant Motivation Boosters
Three ways to get a quick hit.
Sip java: "Caffeine amplifies the effect of dopamine, immediately pumping up your energy and drive," says neuroscientist John Salamone, Ph.D. (We have 10 Creative Ways to Enjoy Coffee.)
Try the two-minute rule: The hardest part of any task is starting it. To get over the initial hump, James Clear, the author of Transform Your Habits, suggests committing just two minutes to it. Want to make it to the gym more often? Pull out some cute workout clothes. Trying to clean up your diet? Look up healthy recipes. The momentum you get from doing that one simple thing will propel you forward.
Delay, don't deny: Tell yourself you'll eat that cupcake later. A study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that this technique takes away temptation in the moment. You'll forget about the cupcake or lose your craving for it, and "later" will never come.