Most of us would probably like to lose a bit of weight, eat better, exercise more or get more sleep. Others may want to learn a new language or spend less at the mall. So how do we get started? In theory, the answer is simple. Just do it. Avoid junk food, eat brown rice instead of white, run 20 minutes daily and go to sleep an hour earlier instead of playing games on the phone at night. If the answer is so simple, why do many of us struggle with our goals? Why can’t we just do it? It all boils down to a lack of sufficient motivation. Motivation is an internal process where a person develops a strong reason for accomplishing something, or acting in a certain way, says Ms Michelle Tan, a Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH).

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What Drives Us

Everyone is motivated in different ways and by different things. According to researchers, people are motivated to do something because:

  • It is fun

  • It leads to rewards

  • They want approval from others

  • They want to achieve personal goals or standards

  • It fits with their personal beliefs

“Based on these, we know that motivation can be drawn internally — setting our minds on our goals or pursuing personal growth — or through external factors,” says Ms Tan.

“Examples of the latter include social influence, health concerns and incentives provided by employers.” Both types of motivation can be helpful in different situations. Looking around us, it is clear that some people, like Joseph Schooling, are motivated enough to train 10 hours a day, while others struggle to get out of bed in the morning.

Are some people genetically more motivated? “Although no recent studies have looked at how genetics and motivation are associated, psychologists know that personal traits are influenced by a strong genetic component. A link between genes and motivation level is plausible,” says Ms Tan. Having said that, motivation is not just confined to the inside of an individual, but also exists in an interpersonal or environmental context.

“A teenager might show little response to his mother who nags at him to exercise, but jumps at the suggestion by his girlfriend to join a gym class together — perhaps after she has shared about how an attractive male gym user had approached her while she was working out,” she says. “So yes, the world around us also influences our motivation and desire to change.”

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Mind Matters

Another way to understand motivation is to look at it through our biochemistry. Motivation and reward are biologically linked to specific chemicals in the brain. Dopamine is one such neurotransmitter that carries messages to areas of the brain, which then signal the rest of the body to respond. Using brain mapping, researchers have found high dopamine levels in the striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex — areas that affect motivation and reward in the brains of “go-getters”. In comparison, laid-back types showed high dopamine levels in a different area of the brain, the anterior insula, that impacts emotion and risk perception.

Dopamine can take varying pathways to trigger specific parts of the brain, such as the nucleaus accumbens, a hub for decision making and motivation. “Increased levels of dopamine in this area triggers feedback for predicting rewards, which encourages a person to act accordingly in pursuing something good or avoiding something bad,” says Ms Tan. We cannot direct dopamine to specific parts of our brain, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless to change our motivation levels — we can set goals to motivate ourselves. As Ms Tan says, “Goal-setting is an important strategy to change our own behaviour.”

These goals should be sufficiently challenging (but not unattainable), and specific. In promoting a diet change, for example, setting a goal of “I will eat less” is less specific and challenging than committing to “I will limit my food intake at dinner to one plate for the next two weeks.” Having a specific goal will help in making deliberate plans for reaching these goals.

Related: Mindful About Mindfulness

Keeping On Track

Most people start out strong and committed to achieving their goals. However, many of those resolutions fall by the wayside over time. As a consolation, it helps to know for most people, motivation waxes and wanes. “Changing a specific behaviour requires the individual to be intentional about the change he or she is making. Reminding ourselves of the reasons why we got started is one helpful way,” says Ms Tan. “It may also be beneficial to find inspiration from time to time. For example, people who initiated an exercise programme to improve fitness may put up inspirational pictures on their mirror, read interviews with top athletes, or get tips from a fitness trainer in order to motivate their exercise behaviours.”

Ms Tan notes that while high levels of motivation typically lead to better outcomes, overconfidence is something to be wary of. “Overconfidence leads to setting unrealistic goals, which then drastically lowers motivation when these are not achieved,” she explains.

Understanding motivation is also important for parents or employers. Nagging, shouting, or threatening is not a good way to get a child or subordinate to do something. A stick might be one way to get people to do things, but most people respond better to carrots.

Try to make things fun. Most people respond better to activities that are enjoyable or rewarding. But be cautious when using incentives. Parents often use rewards to target extrinsic motivation, such as token systems, money, or extra time for playing video games. However, Ms Tan says that if this is “offered in a controlling manner, [it] decreases intrinsic motivation”.

“For young people and employees, it is best if motivation can be internalised. If extrinsic motivators are offered in a way that promotes choice or increases the responsibility of decision-making, these external demands can be transformed into personal goals and values.”

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