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Artie’s Place

Is focusing on the experience rather than the end product the key to motivation?

Nobody ever regrets great work once they’ve finished, so why does getting started often require such formidable effort? It’s as though my special skill in life is to build everything on my to-do list into this overwhelming, impossible to accomplish monster, and that starting tomorrow (or preferably never) would be best.

Motivation versus procrastination. Discipline versus distraction.

Image: author

But how do I magic a little motivation and discipline out of thin air?

I was hoping someone would have discovered a brain hack or two by now, preferably involving as little effort as possible and implementable from under a duvet, but it would seem not.

In fact, I am finding ‘motivation’ to be a slippery concept at best. Are we talking about reward pathways and dopamine surges in the brain or building habits and routines to get us started on all the things we have been putting off?

The two are inextricably linked and understanding how has certainly helped me to figure out what I need to do to (and everyone is different) to get myself into action. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (chemical messenger) with a role to play in movement, sleep, mood, learning, pain processing, blood flow and regulating heart rate, just to name a few. Crucially though, it underpins the reward pathways in our brains.

When we anticipate a reward, we experience a dopamine surge that ‘motivates’ us to chase that reward, and if we are successful more dopamine is released — we feel alert, focused, happy. This increased dopamine signalling strengthens reward-related memories and helps create the emotional associations we have with the reward. If we are not successful dopamine signalling is decreased and we feel disappointment and sadness, we find it difficult to concentrate and generally just feel a bit useless.

Rewards are highly subjective, they come in many guises. We might be talking about indulging in a favourite food or the abundance of comments and likes we get on a social media post. It might even be that smug satisfaction we get from acing a study assignment or getting some revision done for a test or cracking a maths problem.

But that is not the end of the story. Daily feedback on whether these rewards fail to materialise or are more generous than anticipated influences our brains to update our goals and associated motivations via another dopamine-driven pathway known as ‘reward prediction error’.

And this is the bit that might just be hackable.

By focusing ourselves on the experience rather than the end product we will come to associate the reward (and its accompanying motivational dopamine surge) with the work itself, with everything that is involved in overcoming a challenge or a job well done, rather than with the external validation of a test score or final grade or the number of likes on an Instagram post.

How we talk to ourselves is vitally important here. For the experience of getting stuff done to be positive and rewarding so that it is simply easier to get into that motivational mindset every day, we need to be realistic. If we continually underestimate the actual challenges of a task, even just how long it will take to do well, then we are setting ourselves up for a series of dopamine crashes which inevitably ends in frustration and disillusionment.

So down to the practicalities of getting ourselves motivated to actually get that stuff done …

Perhaps it’s not about motivation or inspiration per se, but about building the habit of sitting down and getting on with it. According to James Clear, the trick is to develop a mindless ritual that slides us into the right headspace for getting the job done with minimal effort, so that eventually we never have to make a conscious decision about how to get started. The idea that great work won’t happen for lack of motivation or inspiration simply isn’t an excuse not to start anymore.

Image: author

I find that I need to be crystal clear about what I’m working on that day before I begin — my mindless ritual is opening my journal, dividing a new page into two and heading one column work and the other personal. That’s it. I’ve started. From there I’ll bullet what I want to achieve that day, broken down into mini-tasks I can tick off (I do like to see the progress I’m making, however small in the grand scheme of things!). And then invariably I’ll mind-map ideas onto the list and off I go, the creative juices are flowing.

Photo: author

But the actual starter is simply dividing the page into two and heading the columns. So easy and so mindless that even when I’m in the most procrastinating of headspaces, I will get to work — then I can rely on my dopamine reward pathway to kick in to motivate me to keep going.

And if all else fails, there’s always coffee!

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Sarah Parkes

Sarah Parkes

Teacher, writer, gardener. Fascinated by humans, chemistry, the gut microbiome, brain health, great food, dogs and chickens. In no particular order.

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