Motivation and How to Make it Stick

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    Motivation and How to Make it Stick

    One of my resolutions this year is to share more of what's being uncovered in the fields of neuroscience and neurobiology and how that affects us. One of the key areas that fMRI technology is helping uncover is how motivation works. I will try to keep this as light as possible and paint a big picture approach; so in the comments let me know if you have any questions or need links to the heavier aspects of the research.

    To start, motivation is a neurochemical response that activates the reward system in the brain. It is guided by three hormones (neurochemicals) called noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. They activate the reward system in the brain which then makes us feel good. Think of the feeling you get when you eat a piece of your favorite cake. That is the reward system kicking in and those neurochemicals being activated. What leads to the activation of the reward system, always, is an emotional state: disatisfaction. The moment we are dissatisfied with something and that dissatisfaction builds up it creates a cognitive dissonance in our heads. At a neurobiological level cognitive dissonance creates negatively charged ion environment that increases the action potential that makes our synapses fire. At that point we take action. The action takes us from a level of dissatisfaction to a new level of either less dissatisfaction or satisfaction. Again, think about your motivation to eat when you're hungry and how you feel after a good meal and you have a pretty clear understanding of how all this works.

    It gets a little trickier when it comes to fitness, health and training however. Logically we all know what to do: eat healthy foods and exercise regularly. Yet we don't. Just knowing something is not enough. We can force ourselves to do it for a while but because there is no emotional pressure to do so the neurochemical mechanisms in our brain work against us so we give up at the slightest excuse (too cold, not sunny enough, haven't got the right clothes, I'm not in the mood, it's too dark, I will do it tomorrow, etc). Having given up we then feel guilty (and wrongly accuse ourselves of being 'weak', not having willpower etc) and this makes getting back into training and fitness that much harder. Now in our minds it appears like a bigger task than ever. It creates cognitive dissonance and (you know what happens) our brain acts to get rid of it by taking from a state of dissatisfaction (and anxiety) to one that is less so and we end up finding ever more creative reasons to not exercise (therefore avoiding it).

    Knowing how the brain works can also help us do things which are right for us. The way forward is to feel and visualize the reason we exercise. By switching values like "fitness", "health", "weightloss" that are uniquely self-centered to ones that are more social like "being capable", "effective", "member of an amazing group" etc we change the way handles its neurochemistry. A classic example of this is when you're running and you suddenly get tired and have maybe 1km or so to go before you finish (or 10-15mins of a workout, etc). The temptation to just cut it short is huge. After all you have exercised and you are tired so what does it matter if this one day you stop before you should?

    The way around it is to think differently. I, in such cases, think of zombies chasing me. There is simply no way I am going to stop and give them an easy meal. I have friends who go even further, they tell me they think they're being chased by ninja assassins, no way do you want them getting even close. It sounds silly but it works and here's why: first it changes the brain's value system from "fitness" to "survival" - while getting fit is logically good and we know we should do it surviving is a strong emotional response we are wired to perform at any cost. Suddenly an extra 10-15mins of a workout or an extra 1km - 2km don't seem such a big thing. Second it switches the brain's attention. The neural circuits that tell us what to notice have limited resources and bandwidth (which is why we can get tired and stop understanding something complex we have being studying; no matter how important it is to us).

    The brain can only truly keep track of a few things at a time. When it focuses on how tired we are, feeling tired becomes a primary thing in the brain's leader board. Because it is a state of dissatisfaction (i.e. discomfort) the brain is disposed to act to negate it which means that really what it wants us to do is stop exercising/running etc, so we can stop feeling tired. But when the brain is focused on survival it doesn't have the same resources and bandwidth to devote to feeling tired. Our attention is diverted to surviving which means that we barely notice how tired we might be.

    This is also why listening to music, talking with a friend, while running makes the time pass faster and we barely notice the effort involved. It helps explain why making ourselves accountable here, training with a group helps make everything feel less tiring and intensive. Our brain focuses on the social aspect of The Hive and the community we have (we don't want to let people down, etc) and, in a group setting, the fact that others are also going through the same difficult exercise as we are helps us focus away from the exercise and on the value of working out with a group.

    Consider that all this complexity inside our head takes place for all of us, all the time. There is no easy 'fix'. We might have a particular target like losing a few kilograms or getting our time down in a run but after we reach that goal or get near it we are inclined to stop because the motivation for training has now gone. This is the reason extreme training can only be maintained for a while (think of boxers in training camp preparing for a fight) and why we need constant reinforcing of our motivation with posters, songs, films, comments here and so on. In order for something to be sustainable it has to be part of our identity and who we are. Then we are emotionally tied in it.

    As an example think of how in The Hive we have a community of equals. It suddenly feels safe to open up, to express frustration with our progress, to ask questions, to admit ignorance and to open ourselves up to learning. This happens on a screen and for most of us it is far removed from where we are, the culture we experience and the very real pressures we face daily. Yet, logged on, it feels like we enter another world. We interact with people we have never met without having to watch our back. We encourage others and receive encouragement when we need it in return. Those words on the screen translate into understanding inside our head that activates the same neural circuits as if we had a person standing there, beside us. The Hive culture of acceptance, sharing and encouragement becomes part of who we are. We know that we can all fail at some point but we never give up. We know that we all try, regardless. And we know that our journey is a true journey with no stop because there is no destination. These things tie into how we think about ourselves and then how we feel about ourselves which means they really affect how we behave, how hard we train and so on.

    To sum up. When we fail to stick at something or when we feel demotivated it is because we focus on the wrong values and reasons for doing something. It takes a little introspection to arrive at something else and a little imagination but once you do the obstacle you face of exercising in a sustainable way simply disappears. And we all need help in terms of a support network to keep on doing all this.

    I've glossed over a heck of a lot of science and terminology in putting this together. I hope it helps.

    #2
    That is interesting and funny about the zombies. I never thought of doing that.

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      #3
      You imagine zombies, I imagine that my mum is watching or that I have to tell her I didn't follow through.
      Mum has gone to the gym (or engaged in some form of excise) pretty much every day for at least the last 20 years. Her force of will is epic.
      She has only ever been encouraging but it still does the trick.

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        #4
        CaptainCanuck the idea of becoming food for mindless creatures totally violates my sense of order in the universe. No way are they taking me as long as I breathe. Totally does it for me.

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          #5
          Hence the success of "zombies, run!" app!

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            #6
            Originally posted by PetiteSheWolf View Post
            Hence the success of "zombies, run!" app!
            Hmm, might just give that a go!

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              #7
              Very interesting and too true. Many thanks Damer

              I follow KISS method (Keep It Simple and Stupid) I put short-term goals and long-term goals. The former will keep me motivated and on the track. E.g. finishing a 30-day program is a short-term goal. Every training day will push to do next one until you finish the program.

              As you have mentioned, doing any activity within a group will also give you a huge boost.

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                #8
                Musical gym thank you for adding to this thread. Your approach is sound indeed. More than that, one of the ways we manage to maintain our motivation in a task is to actually believe that we can accomplish it, no matter how hard it may be. Consider how video games, for instance, provide a difficult set of skills to acquire, may even require that we acquire new knowledge in order to complete a game but irrespective of how hard a game is, we always feel that we can do it (and it is designed to make us feel capable of completing it), otherwise we'd just give up. Building that confidence is key. It requires us to be realistic in our goals but also ambitious enough to excite us. Your approach falls squarely into this.

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                  #9
                  Damer you're welcome! And than you on the further explanation

                  From my personal experience, I’d like to add an important point, is that we have to face our fears. I’ve always feared running and thought I’m not fit for it nor am I capable to do it. I started running/jogging just a few days ago, rarely done it in my entire life. Although I have a chronic/permanent injury in my left calf muscle, I was able to run 2k (one go - 5k in total) yesterday. I consider it a big achievement I’m working on a big goal, half marathon run

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                    #10
                    Musical gym and truly inspirational. Your approach to facing your fear has another deeply neurobiological logic. I need a fresh post to explain it so, until I do (and link to your comment here) thank you for being inspirational!

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                      #11
                      Originally posted by Damer View Post
                      Musical gym and truly inspirational. Your approach to facing your fear has another deeply neurobiological logic. I need a fresh post to explain it so, until I do (and link to your comment here) thank you for being inspirational!
                      Thank you so much for your kind words Please be assured that Darebee is the reason

                      I look forward to reading your future interesting posts

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