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Has your 'get up and go' got up and left?

Personal · Mar 29, 2021

By Dr. Diane McIntosh, Chief Neuroscience Officer at TELUS


With winter and COVID-19 restrictions dragging on, and as we mark one year of the global pandemic, many of us have felt more sluggish, tired and seriously lacking in the 'joie de vivre' department.

If you’ve noticed your motivation is in your boots; if you’re searching for an app for your apathy; if you’re usually a bon vivant but now you’re living on bonbons because you can’t get organized to make a healthy meal; then it’s time to set a new course!

Before I suggest the how, I’d like to share a little science about motivation. I believe that understanding the science underlying a challenge is empowering – almost like I’m being handed the reigns of my own brain – and helps me to take the necessary steps to create real, lasting change.

The science of motivation

Motivation is powered by the neurotransmitter dopamine and the interplay between our reptile brain and our executive brain. The reptile brain, known as the limbic system, is the seat of our emotions. It takes over when we’re afraid and keeps us safe by provoking our fight or flight response. Our executive brain is the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It helps us organize, plan, think ahead and critically consider our actions.

Dopamine is a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) that’s essential for many cognitive activities, including motivation, attention and planning, and it plays a critical role in our experience of pleasure. It’s abundant in both the reptile and executive brain areas when we’re highly motivated and feel driven to perform. However, during times of high, chronic stress, (like say, during a year-long worldwide pandemic!), the reptile brain may be bathed in much more dopamine than the executive brain, where the dopamine tank may be running on empty. During this time, the reptile brain can overpower the executive brain, provoking anxiety.

Additionally, rather than helping us organize, plan and deliver on our goals, low dopamine in the PFC causes us to feel unmotivated, apathetic and emotionally blunted or just plain blah (unable to feel really happy or really down).

Another important brain area that impacts motivation is the pleasure or reward centre, which has a less exciting scientific name, the nucleus accumbens. When we think something is going to be pleasurable, that provokes an increase in dopamine, which encourages us to act. If we think we’ll be rewarded, we’re more likely to actually do something because dopamine’s job is to encourage us to act, sometimes to get a reward and sometimes to avoid a negative experience.

If we believe a task or activity will be difficult, or that the reward for completing it won’t be worth the effort, our motivation to power through it will be low. Likewise, if there’s a sudden increase in the effort needed to complete the activity, especially when our motivation is already low, that can make our motivation drop even further. However, it’s possible to override your reptile brain and improve your motivation.

So how do you find your get up and go, when it feels like it got up and left? Or, for the more science-oriented among us, how do you get your dopamine flowing again?

Keys to success

Your brain loves the burst of dopamine associated with the anticipation of rewarding experiences. It’s possible to put yourself in the right environment to provoke dopamine, which can get you moving again and improve your productivity.

You create rewarding experiences by planning for them, especially by setting small, incremental, but achievable goals. Every time you succeed in fulfilling a goal, dopamine is released as positive reinforcement of your success. Essentially, the more you succeed, the more your brain motivates you to succeed.

New research shows us that results-driven focus (focusing on how great you’ll feel when the task is completed) has a real impact on amping up your motivation.

Create a hierarchy: Write out a list of what you’d like to achieve and then decide what’s at the top of your list. For your top goal, break down the journey necessary to achieve that goal into small, achievable steps. Create a 'micro-timeline' setting out a goal you can achieve every day.

For example, an initial list might include:

  • Planning nutritious meals that increase energy and lift your spirits

  • Decluttering your house – a tidy space can improve sleep, boost productivity and reduce stress

  • Planning a family trip – no matter how far in advance, planning your dream post-pandemic holiday can brighten your mood

If my first priority is to incorporate more healthy foods into my diet, I might start this with these small steps:

  • Day 1: Ask for professional support. I could ask my family doctor to refer me to a dietitian, seek nutrition support via virtual care services or get free nutrition counselling through an Employee and Family Assistance Program

  • Day 2 and 3: Read about healthy eating plans and learn more about nutrition on reputable websites

  • Day 4: From what I’ve learned, I can lay out the recommended steps that make sense to me, which I can share with the dietitian to be sure they’re aligned with a healthy, well-rounded diet

  • Days 5 to 11: Keep a food diary, writing down everything I’m eating every day for a week so I can share it with the dietitian

  • Day 12: Dietitian appointment

There’s a value to sprinkling in a little more physical activity, which will also increase your dopamine level and help improve your motivation. A brisk 30-minute walk, five days a week, is all that’s needed to have a real, positive brain impact. Even if you haven’t done much (or anything at all) for the last few months, that doesn’t matter. Start by committing to a daily 10-minute walk and once you’ve mastered that, push it up to 20 minutes.

With rare exceptions, no one ever regrets a short, brisk walk, but the hardest part is actually getting out the door. Again, approach it in little steps – I’m just going to put my sneakers on, I’m just going to go outside but I can go back inside, I’ll just walk for five minutes... Before you know it, you have your first walk under your belt! Congratulations!

We will get through this together

It’s important to celebrate your successes, big and small – whether at work or home. Feeling like you’re making headway and creating positive change increases dopamine and increases the likelihood of more action and success. Every success results in greater dopamine effects, which supports your future ability to succeed and meet your goals.

Share your successes with workmates or loved ones – this drives positive feedback, a reward that further stimulates dopamine. While you’re at it, support and praise the successes of your teammates, family members and friends because supporting others also has a positive impact on dopamine.

And, remember – it’s ok to not be ok. In a recent TELUS Talks with Tamara Taggart podcast, I shared some common symptoms of depression and the best steps to take to get help. If you’re worried something’s not right, please talk to a healthcare professional.

Here’s to brighter days ahead (hello, Daylight Savings!) and getting our collective mojo back.

Diane