The Science Of Motivation: Why We Lose It And Where To Find it (17 Tricks To Motivate Yourself)

What happens in your brain when you are motivated? Why do you lose motivation? How can you become more motivated? Learn about motivation and how to motivate yourself in this post.

Have you ever felt unmotivated to do a certain task? I think I can safely say that most of us go through days where we have to get something done, but we just don’t feel like doing it for some reason.

Often times I’d start working on a project and then halfway through I don’t feel like working on it anymore. Sometimes writing these blog posts becomes a heavy task that I dread doing. Even though I love my blog and I chose to create it and I had a plan in mind when I did.

So why does this happen? Why do we sometimes stop feeling motivated to do certain things despite knowing that they need to be done, and sometimes even despite being motivated to do them when we first started?

I found a lot of answers to these questions and also a lot of tips that can help you overcome this feeling of being unmotivated.


Jump to:


What is the science behind motivation?

Neuroscientists and psychologists have established that we generally experience motivation when dopamine is released and travels to the nucleus accumbens.

The nucleus accumbens is an area of the brain that mediates reward behavior. So when dopamine reaches the nucleus accumbens, it is asking for feedback on whether a good thing or a bad thing is about to happen. 

For example, if you get an email from your manager with a new assignment, dopamine hits the nucleus accumbens to form a prediction of what will happen if you do the assignment or not, or if you do it well or poorly.

With that prediction in place, you’ll either act to increase the probability of reward, such as payment, praise, or sense of accomplishment, or decrease the probability of punishment, such as demotion, yelling, or sense of failure.

So we are motivated by the promise of reward or punishment. But zoom in a bit, and we can separate motivation into two more categories: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation, according to psychologists Stefano Domenico and Richard Ryan, is the spontaneous tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn, even in the absence of operationally separable rewards.

In other words, intrinsic motivation comes from within, no outside prompting involved.

Extrinsic motivation is the opposite. It occurs when we’re prompted to act by external stimuli.

Reward vs. punishment, intrinsic vs. extrinsic—these are the broad strokes of motivation.

Extrinsic motivation VS Intrinsic motivation

In 1960, Sam Glucksberg, a psychology professor, conducted an experiment called the candle problem (originally conducted by Karl Duncker in 1945)

He brought a number of participants and divided them into two groups.

Each group was asked to find a way to stick the candle to the wall in a way that the melting wax wouldn’t drip on the desk, using only a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks.

the candle problem. motivation
Candle problem.
  • Team number 1 was told that whoever solves this problem the fastest will get $20.
  • Team number 2 was told that they were making this experiment because they needed to see how long it can take someone to solve this problem.

Which do you think was the quickest team to solve the problem?

Team number 2.

candle problem solution. what is motivation
Candle problem solution.

He then conducted the same experiment again, however this time, he changed the problem by emptying the box of thumbtacks as shown below.

adjusted candle problem. what is motivation
Adjusted candle problem.

Which team do you think won this time?

Team number 1

That is because in the 2nd experiment the answer was too easy and did not require much thought.

In the first experiment, the box of the thumbtacks was not seen as a functioning tool on its own. And by emptying the box, it was clearly then seen as a third tool, beside the matches and the thumbtacks. And solving the problem became more mechanical than it was cognitive.

This experiment has been conducted several times along the years and while changing the rewards and the nature of the activity, it was usually the same result.

The team with the high reward wins when it’s a mechanical activity and loses when the experiment requires any amount of cognitive thinking.

Why does this happen?

Because when there is a high reward as a motivator, part of your attention shifts to the motivator and this distracts you and reduces the overall performance.

But when you are doing something for a higher purpose, something larger than yourself, in other words, when the motivator is from within you not an outside stimuli, this gives you more motivation to do it and do it better and more efficiently.

Another way to explain the failure for the team offered the reward is that the process of turning the task into a competition can create mild levels of stress, which can lead to a sympathetic nervous system response known as fight-or-flight.

This stress response effectively shuts down the creative thinking and problem solving areas of the brain in the prefrontal cortex.

This tells you that incentive and big rewards or creating a competing environment are not always the answer to motivation and good results. And that sometimes having that intrinsic motivation is all you need to accomplish the best results.

Why do you lose motivation?

Self-motivation is our way of pushing ourselves to get things done. But why do we lose that sometimes? Why does it seem so hard to motivate ourselves to do certain tasks?

The reason is that we perceive motivation to be a feeling that we get, but it shouldn’t be a feeling, it should be taken as a step-by-step process. We shouldn’t expect motivation to just magically appear or stay with us forever, we have to nurture it.

When you first start out on a new project, you are very motivated and excited to work on it every single minute of the day.

And then little by little, you start feeling like things are not going where you really wanted them, you’re not losing as much weight as you thought you would be by now, or you’re not making as much money from your business as you though you would.

And so you start giving yourself a space to let things slip, thinking, “I don’t need to work on this today, this can wait. It wouldn’t make a difference if I do it today or tomorrow.”

This is when you start the first step into losing the motivation of doing the thing that you initially wanted to do. You gradually start giving up.

What you need to know and accept is that you will not remain as excited and motivated as you were when you first started working on your idea.

With time, it will just become normal, something you do on the list of things that you need to do. And you need to accept that and do it anyway. Because this is how you will achieve things. 

Otherwise, you will find yourself falling out from one unfinished idea to another and from one unachieved goal to the next. (One thing I learned through my many unachieved goals and It is not a very pleasant realization)

In his podcast Join Up The Dots, David Ralph explained this and compared your feelings towards your goals to when you meet someone you like for the first time.

How you are all nervous and excited to be around them,  to be able to talk them and learn all about each other. But then a few years being married to them, it no longer feels this way.

You still love them and want them with you, but that feeling of excitement and anticipation and nervousness is not there anymore.

Does that mean you should leave them and find someone else?

Absolutely not.

These are just different stages of a relationship, and just because you are in this stage in the process, doesn’t mean you should stop there, it’s simply just how our feelings work.

How can you become more motivated?

Now that we agree that just because you don’t feel motivated enough to do something, doesn’t mean you should give up on it or assume that you shouldn’t pursue that goal anymore.

Let’s see how we can revive that feeling of motivation again and push through this apathy we get sometimes to be able to achieve our goals.

Here is a list of 17 things (plus 5 more from Twitter) on how to become more motivated and work on tasks even if you don’t feel like it.

1. Make your goal part of your routine

The first to do to be motivated to do an important task towards your goal is to not allow your feelings to tell you but your calendar to tell you whether you should do it today or not.

Don’t let your emotions drive you, instead take control and list everything that needs to be done in a to-do list and work on them every day without putting too much thought into it. Make it a routine.

2. Start with just 5 minutes

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to get started. If you take just 5 minutes to focus, it will mostly be enough to get you in the mood of working on whatever it is you need to work on and before you know it, hours would pass and you will have made great progress.

3. Use your body to trick your brain

Sit up straight, smile, stretch, walk around, by changing your physiological state, it will help your brain focus and will make you feel more energized and open to work.

4. Chase the flow

There are often moments where you’d catch yourself very indulged in the process of working on a certain task and your flow doesn’t stop, you just keep going.

This is often happens when the task you are dealing with and your skills and your interests all meet in one perfect point.

If you can figure out which part of the project you work on matches your skills and your interest to the point where you just start working non-stop, you can use that point to get your way into tackling the project.

For example, I enjoy working on Pinterest Pins for my blog posts, so sometimes when I don’t feel like getting started with the blog itself, I start woking on the Pins first, as a way to get myself into the mood of working on it, and then when I’m focused on the project, I go from there to working on the actual post.

5. Plan tomorrow tonight

One of the best ways to get things done is if you have a clear idea what needs to be done beforehand.

When you wake up knowing you have this list of things to do, and maybe even listed in order, it will reduce the effort it takes you to talk yourself into doing them and you will just do it.

6. Look for inspiration

Sometimes, those cheesy inspirational quotes actually work. If you find yourself unmotivated, you may turn to some uplifting music, reading some inspirational quotes, watching some of those motivational TED talks or just search for motivational videos on Youtube.

There are plenty of them and they can be quite effective in giving you this rush it takes to get you started.

7. Help others

Sharing your skills and taking the time out of your day to help someone else will give you a boost of confidence and make you feel more energized and more capable to tackle whatever tasks that you need to finish.

8. Reevaluate your process

Motivation is not always the problem. If you find yourself always dreading the same task or getting stuck at the same point, ask yourself if maybe you can do things differently.

9. Remember your successes

Think about a recent win or a task you did that got great results and remember how that felt like. This will release a dose of dopamine into your brain which is the substance associated with motivation in the brain.

10. Celebrate the small achievements

At the end of each day or each week, look at all the things you have managed to accomplish so far that is part of your goal and celebrate that.

It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the things that are ahead of you that sometimes you forget how much work and effort it took to actually get where you are now.

11. Write your long-term goals

As a way to remind yourself of why you’re doing what you’re doing and why it is important to you to proceed and get it done.

Getting your mind off the current step you’re stuck in through your plan and instead focusing on your end result will give you the push you need to start tackling those tasks.

12. Make a list of what drains your motivation

When you’re feeling unmotivated, try to write down a list of things that cause you to feel this way.

It could be your colleagues, an unrealistic goal, an overwhelming workload, etc. And when you write them down, develop a plan and list the ways where you can deal with these things and fix them.

13. Push away negative thoughts

When you are working on a certain task, try to think less of the negative side of it and focus more on the positive feeling of accomplishment you will get when you complete it.

This actually works a lot when I’m working on a very long blog post and things start to get overwhelming, I shift my focus from the post to the feeling I will get when I’m finished with it.

14. Surround yourself with positive people

Negative people are like negative thoughts, they will always have a bad influence on you and your overall mindset. They will often hold you back.

When you’re surrounded with positive people, the opposite happens. It will help you have a positive mindset which will make you more motivated to work.

15. Break your goal into smaller goals

By breaking your goal into smaller set of goals, you will get a greater sense of achievement on a regular basis as you finish one task after the other, which gets you closer to your bigger goal.

And this doesn’t need to be a huge goal. You can break any goal into smaller ones.

If I need to clean the bathroom and I don’t feel like it, I break that into smaller goals. First I will spray the toilet cleaner and let it sit, second, I will clean the sink, third, I will clean the tub, and so on.

By finishing each part, I feel I am getting closer to the end result and that gives me the push to keep going.

16. Start your day with the hardest task

If you have a list of things that you need to finish every day or every week, tackle the worst or the hardest or the most boring task first.

This way you will feel like you achieved a great accomplishment by getting this hard task out of the way, and you will feel more motivated because now every thing on the list seems easy and achievable.

I usually do this with workouts and house work, because these are usually the activities that I feel like can be the hardest or most mundane.

So first thing I do when I wake up is workout, then do whatever chores I need to do in the house for that day, and once these two are done, I feel like I can do anything.

17. Manage distractions and try to Pomodoro

App notifications, calls, emails, etc.. All these things are distractions that keep stoping you from finishing the task at hand, which results in your tasks piling up, which in turn causes you to lose motivation because your list never seems to get any smaller and you always have a lot to do and not enough time. (That’s me!)

So when you sit down to work on something, make sure to turn all these things off, so they don’t distract you away from the big goal you are working on.

Try the Pomodoro Technique of working in 25-minute blocks at a time, without being interrupted or distracted by anything, giving the task at hand your undivided attention.

Click to Pin It on Pinterest.

Suggestions from the Twitter-verse

I asked some friends on Twitter about how they motivate themselves when they don’t feel like doing what they have to do, and here are some of their suggestions.

  • I have visual motivators posted for what I’m working towards and when it’s something I have to physically do and don’t want to do it I set a timer. Breaking things up into 5 or 20 minute segments helps me get more accomplished. —Sarah
  • 1. Just get up and start. Tell myself even just 5 mins. That usually gets me in a groove. 2. Loud music and make it a happy environment. 3. Take something I’m looking forward to like a show, reading book, going out and use that to start. “Once I’m done I’ll get to…” —MamaRobbins
  • I walk around for a while feeling grumpy then I write a list of the things I’ve got to do, pick one and start doing it. Then I tell myself that I will be able to stop when I have finished doing X, so I keep doing them so then when I stop I feel that I’ve been productive. —Mummyofasquarepeg – A voice for Autism
  • If it’s not the biggest thing in the world I let it slide and let myself be a bit lazy. But that means I REALLY have to do it later. If it’s important and time sensitive I remind myself why it matters, unplug from everything, stretch a bit to get juices flowing and power through. —MentalHealthMemo
  • Play a TUNE, loudly. Dance round the room like a loon, and remind myself we all have our own fights to crack on and win. We’ve all got this. Failing that, I open wine. No ones perfect. —Parenting Fails and Pigtails

Have you tried any of those ways to motivate yourself before? Do you have other methods through which you motivate yourself? If so, share them in the comments below!


Till next week, happy days!



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Author: Ray

Because a goal is a dream with a deadline, I started my one-year journey to achieving financial freedom. On those rare hours of day when I'm not working on that goal, I'm writing fiction, watching a film, or feeding birds.

20 thoughts on “The Science Of Motivation: Why We Lose It And Where To Find it (17 Tricks To Motivate Yourself)”

  1. Really good information, and tips here. I struggle sometimes, I try to look at things from an outside perspective, and sometimes that helps. I will try some of these too.

  2. This is such an amazing post, something that I know will help a lot of people and inform them more on ways to get out of being so unmotivated. I well and truly enjoyed reading through this post!

  3. I needed this, Ray. I have to say, I have lost a bit of motivation with my blogging lately, but also I have picked up a couple of projects that need my time right now during this summer. These projects need a lot of self-motivation for completion. I will be using your suggestions and be acutely aware to this: “…it shouldn’t be a feeling, it should be taken as a step-by-step process. We shouldn’t expect motivation to just magically appear or stay with us forever, we have to nurture it.”

    Thanks for your great post as always.

    1. Oh I know I get such moments too when I’m not very motivated to work on the blog.. but I’m glad this post came in time to give you a motivational boost. Good luck with those summer projects! I’m sure you’ll smash it!! 😄

  4. Great post, Ray! I particularly like the 5 minute tip and Pomodoro technique. It’s much easier to break down a task into smaller chunks than to face a monstrous project all at once!

  5. I absolutely loved this post, Ray! It made me think about where my motivation has generally come from and my guess is that it’s been primarily intrinsic. In school, a good grade was never enough to motivate me; I had to be interested in the subject. Same thing with career; money never motivated my choices.

    I’m curious, based on the studies you mentioned, how blog monetization impacts outcomes versus blogs that aren’t concerned with monetizing.

    Thank you!

    Roger

    1. I actually love how you looked at this from a blogging prospective. There’s definitely something to reflect on in this topic! Hmm.. Maybe you can blog about that! I’d definitely read it. xD

  6. I found this article to be incredibly fascinating and insightful! Love the topic; love the analysis; great writing!

  7. Very interesting learning that internal motivations can be stronger than those from external stimuli. I had not heard of the Pomodoro technique before and so will definitely try it!

    1. I hadn’t heard of that technique before preparing for this post either, but I tried it then and it is indeed quite helpful.

  8. I struggle with motivation some days, great tips to get back on the wagon. Thank you 🥰 and thank you so much for including my TUNE solution, it really does work you know 😘

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