I don’t care how much grit you think you have, doing hard things sucks sometimes.
It takes an extraordinarily motivated Gary Vaynerchuk-type person to consistently pursue their goals on a daily basis. Expecting to maintain that level of motivation is simply unrealistic. You get tired, you burn out, and you desperately try to get your spark back by listening to motivational podcasts.
This is the wrong approach.
The truth is that you don’t need motivation to get things done. All you need is a rudimentary understanding of neurobiology and a strategy to help you hack it.
The Neurological Basis of Motivation
At the neurological level, we are motivated by the prospect of pleasure and reward by the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine gets released when our brains are anticipating a reward. This anticipation motivates us to perform pleasure-seeking behaviors like eating food, having sex, doing drugs, online shopping, scrolling through TikTok, and constantly refreshing our stats on Medium. We get pleasure from all of these things, albeit fleetingly.
But how does this reward loop relate to the pursuit of our long-term goals and objectives?
The Dopamine Reward System
Essentially, what the dopamine reward pathway shows us is that any stimulus that manages the release of dopamine is deemed “rewarding” and produces the motivation to seek it in the future. In this sense, dopamine is simply the carrot on the stick designed to make us pursue pleasurable activities over hard or mundane tasks.
Unfortunately for us, pleasure from achieving many of our major goals comes in the form of delayed gratification. This means that we don’t get to tap into our dopamine reward system as a source of motivation when pursuing long-term ambitions.
When the reward for hard work is weeks, months, or years away, we don’t get the same rise in dopamine because our anticipation of reward is far in the future.
Long-term Rewards and the Dopamine System
If we’re wired to be motivated by that surge of dopamine, how do we satisfy our pleasure and reward pathway, while also working towards our long-term goals?
The answer is infuriatingly simple.
We have to find a way to make the process of achieving our long-term goals enjoyable. Enjoyment of the process is what will ultimately negate the need to be motivated all the time in order to accomplish things.
As James Clear aptly puts it in his productivity best-seller, Atomic Habits, “It’s your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.”
Essentially, enjoying the process is a crucial part of your capacity to be productive. Of course, this is easier said than done because not all tasks are inherently enjoyable, but there are a few things you can do to up their pleasure-factor.
How to Use Your Reward Pathway to Increase Motivation
What raises dopamine levels for one person will be different for another, but basically, you’re trying to create conditions that activate your reward pathway whenever you don’t feel motivated to do work.
For example, if my motivation is lacking, I try to make work as enjoyable as possible by sprinkling a couple of dopamine-releasing activities into my routine. If I’m studying in the evening, I’ll put on a good playlist, light a scented candle, and make myself a tasty beverage (or several) to sip on.
This helps me enjoy the process of studying by creating a pleasurable experience which intern motivates me because I feel like I’m treating myself every time I sit down to study. If the content is especially dry, I might even reward myself with UberEats and use the time I would have spent cooking to review my notes.
This strategy works well for me, but other people might find that visually tracking their progress with a habit tracker or visualizing receiving the reward for their work to be more motivating.
The bottom line is that associating ‘rewards’ with the process of working is the best way to get things done, even when you’re feeling unmotivated, because it produces a sense of enjoyment. If you can’t increase your enjoyment of the task itself, try creating an environment and reward system that’s conducive to dopamine release.
It’s all about making the process of working towards your goals fun and pleasurable again. Being productive doesn’t have to be a grind if you focus on things that help you enjoy putting in the work.
The Main Take-Away
If you can find ways to make the hard tasks more fun then you’ll automatically wake up feeling motivated to work because you’ll associate working hard with other pleasurable activities.
Allowing yourself to have fun elements in your routine can help keep you motivated to cross a couple more things off your to-do list each day because you’re enjoying the process of getting to that big, long-term reward.