Motivation is regulated in the brain, which releases dopamine when we anticipate something rewarding or pleasurable.
You can get motivated by setting realistic goals and seeking support, such as an accountability buddy.
You can stay motivated by celebrating milestones, which can encourage you to stay committed to your goals.
The beginning of the year is one of the most exciting times to make new goals. Perhaps you’re hoping to build better habits, like walking every day, reading more, or spending more time with family.
Regardless of your goal, you’ll need motivation to achieve it. Motivation is our drive to achieve something we want or need.
If you want to improve your habits, read on. We discuss how motivation works and why you may feel unmotivated at times. We also share how you can get motivated and stay motivated throughout the year.
When we expect to receive something rewarding or pleasurable — such as food or bonding with others — a collection of brain structures called the reward system gets activated. This activation causes the brain to release dopamine — a chemical messenger.
Dopamine sends signals to different parts of the brain that help regulate motivation. Some areas in the brain involved with motivation include:
The amygdala: Dopamine enhances how the amygdala processes emotions related to a particular reward.
The hippocampus: Dopamine strengthens the connections between brain cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for processing, learning, and memory.
The prefrontal cortex: Dopamine tells the prefrontal cortex at the front of your brain to create emotional associations with a reward. This area of the brain also helps you determine the value of a reward — such as the benefit of going after it versus the effort required.
Ultimately, the release of dopamine reinforces the behaviors that lead to rewards. This means you’re more likely to repeat the same action to obtain a particular reward again.
To overcome feeling unmotivated, it helps to know the cause — which can vary widely. Here are a few things that can cause a lack of motivation:
Self-doubt: If you believe you aren’t capable or deserving of receiving a certain reward, you may feel less motivated to go after it.
Setting unclear goals: It may feel difficult to get motivated if you’re unsure of what you’re aiming for in the first place.
Stress: When you’re dealing with a difficult or stressful situation — like a job loss or illness — your energy and efforts may focus on your immediate problem instead of your other goals.
Mental health conditions: Studies show an association between mental health conditions like schizophrenia and depression and feeling unmotivated. What’s more, studies find that low dopamine levels can cause a lack of motivation. And low dopamine levels may occur in people with certain mental health conditions.
Feeling unmotivated is usually a temporary feeling about a particular task or situation. On the other hand, clinical depression causes other symptoms in addition to feeling unmotivated.
Signs that you may have depression include:
Losing interest in your favorite activities
Overeating or undereating
Sleeping too much or not getting enough sleep
Feeling tired, irritable, anxious, or guilty
Having thoughts of death or suicide
Having a negative outlook on life
Having difficulty concentrating
Having decreased energy
Keep in mind that to have depression, these symptoms must happen on an almost daily basis for at least 2 weeks in a row.
If you believe you may be depressed, speak with your healthcare provider. They can refer you to a mental health professional who can treat depression. By treating your depression, you can get the motivation needed to achieve your goals.
Here are some tips to help you get motivated:
Set specific and realistic goals. It’s usually less overwhelming to work on reaching your goal by breaking it down into smaller mini-goals. For example, maybe you’d like to eat a healthier diet. You could focus on adding in one new type of food — like fruits or vegetables — every few weeks rather than trying to change your entire diet all at once.
Choose goals that interest you. This also means knowing the reason that you’d like to pursue specific goals. This may make it easier to stay committed to your goals when hurdles occur along the way.
Write your goals down. Writing down your goals can help you visualize what you’re hoping to achieve, which can increase your chances of reaching it. A 2020 study found that students who wrote about their personal goals had a 22% increase in academic performance. It is also easier to review and revise your goals when you have them in writing.
Create a plan with reminders. Reaching a particular goal is usually the result of a repeated habit. So if your goal is to run a marathon, you may want to set daily reminders to run for at least 30 minutes a day. Once you’ve kept up with that habit, you can work up to longer running times or more frequent runs until the big day.
Tell your friends, family, and other supporters. Sharing your goals with others can help keep you accountable. According to research, it’s even more helpful to share your goals with people you look up to. This can be a mentor who has obtained the same outcome you’re looking to achieve.
You may feel unsure about how to stay motivated once you’ve set your goals. The good news is that there are several ways to keep up your momentum:
Enroll in a class, join a support group, or get an accountability partner. All of these options can help keep you committed to finishing what you started. They can also provide a safe place to discuss challenges and achievements.
Work in manageable chunks. Breaking up a large goal into smaller goals can help you avoid feeling overwhelmed. For example, if you want to read 12 books by the end of the year, focus on reading one book a month.
Practice self-compassion. Reaching your goal can sometimes seem like a crooked path, filled with ups and downs. Being kind to yourself can help you develop the growth mindset needed to improve your life. One way to do this is by embracing positive and supportive self-talk. For example, instead of thinking, “This is too hard,” think, “This will be challenging, but I can do it with the right support and tools.”
Work with a therapist or counselor. Therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help you identify and change negative thought patterns that can affect how you feel and cause you to feel unmotivated.
Take note of your progress. Consider journaling to reflect on your thoughts and feelings regarding your progress. Journaling can remind you to celebrate small wins. It can also help you gain clarity on changes you need to make to overcome obstacles.
Reward yourself. Celebrating even small achievements can remind you that you are making progress. This can push you further to continue the journey toward your ultimate goal.
Motivation is your internal desire to achieve a want or need. It is activated in the brain’s reward system and is influenced by the neurotransmitter dopamine. There are different reasons that someone may feel unmotivated, including mental health conditions like depression.
To get motivated, you can start by setting clear and specific goals that are interesting to you. To stay motivated, it’s helpful to surround yourself with people who will support you. In addition, be sure to celebrate your victories along the way.
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