How Does Motivation Work?

I have an insatiable appetite (no pun intended) to understand why and how motivation feels so different for the person trying to lose weight – versus some other goal that they may have and easily attain.

There is a way to understand and maximum your brain’s reward and planning system.  Dr. David Nowell, Ph.D. (a clinical neurophysiologist) writes about this in his recent article Intrinsic Motivation and Magical Unicorns.

Let me share with you some of the things he says about motivation and imagination:

The reward-and-planning system associates your brain-based motivational system with your imagination. Most good relationships, most cool inventions, and most academic degrees are the result of dreaming which turned into planning which turned into a certain amount of hard work carried out over a period of time.

Basically the reward-and-planning system comprises five cognitive elements.

From inception to brass ring, these elements are:
1.  Anticipate the end-goal
2.  Identify the tasks and sub-tasks
3.  Sequence and problem-solve around likely obstacles
4.  Block out distractions
5.  Get the reward

#1: Anticipate the end-goal
Dopamine (the neurotransmitter of motivation) is associated with bodily feelings unique to each of us. What motivates and rewards you might not work for me. The important thing is to know your end goal. What do you want to feel? Nobody wants a hunk of red metal. But some people do want what they think they will feel when they’re driving their very own bright red convertible. It’s that feeling which is referred to as the end goal.

#2:  Identify the tasks and sub-tasks
You want the feeling of ease and choice that comes with having enough money. So you want to increase your earnings. What could get you to that point? You’ve ruled out a bank robbery for lots of good reasons. A good friend is a nurse and his work sounds interesting to you – so getting a nursing degree is a strategy for increasing your earning potential. But that takes a long time and you don’t do it all at once. What are the sub-tasks? The phone calls or research or conversations you want to have first?  (as this relates to weight loss – can you see what tasks you would have?)

#3:  Sequence and problem-solve around likely obstacles
And what will be a likely second step? And third? What order of tasks makes sense? What if this doesn’t go smoothly? What are the probable roadblocks along the way? Do you have other commitments, like a job or parental responsibilities? Who are the key people in your life who are least likely to support your plan? And how will you navigate around these obstacles to get to your goal anyway? (can you see why answering these questions are imperative to help you be success with your weight loss goals)

#4:  Block out distractions
Once you’ve determined the sequence of tasks to get you to your endpoint, and you’ve figured out how to steer around the roadblocks, how will you persist with the day to day requirements of this goal? What if some parts of the nursing program are hard? Or dull? How will you do those parts of this sequence when there is always something fun and easy like TV or your phone? Lots of really smart people with really good goals get distracted en route – what exactly will you do differently?

#5:  Get the reward 
Once you’ve figured out what you want to feel, and determined a way to get there, and done the hard work, the final step is to savor the success. To go ahead and feel, in your body, that specific way that you register happiness.

Before you invest your valuable time and life energy, get crystal clear that this is the thing you really want. Then ask the question again, a little deeper this time, is this really what I want? And is the path I’ve sketched out for myself likely to get me to that?

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