It All Begins with Dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain. It plays a role as a “rewards center” and in many bodily functions, including memory, movement, motivation, mood, attention, and more.
I’m going to explain how dopamine works in the brain, how it can affect motivation positively and/or negatively, and how you, through a better understanding of this endogenous neurotransmitter, can harness it to achieve healthier, longer-term goals, and maintain more motivation and drive on a day to day basis.
Think of Dopamine Pulses Like a Wave Pool
Dopamine is released in the brain in anticipation of a reward. It comes in peaks, and also in troughs.
Dr. Kyle Gillett, a board-certified physician in family and obesity medicine, describes dopamine pulses like a wave pool.
If you get a moderate pulse, or wave, of dopamine, the wave will crash in the “wave pool”, and the pool level will return to normal, or baseline in the case of your dopamine reserves.
Now, if the waves keep coming and coming, some of them being very large, water will spill and splash out of the pool, and when the pool returns to normal, its water levels will be lower than baseline.
This would be a trough, and this is what we ultimately want to avoid.
When and Why Do We Pulse Dopamine
As mentioned above, we pulse dopamine in anticipation of a reward.
Let’s say you’re going to eat at one of your favorite restaurants, and you’re hungry. After you place your order for a dish you’ve had before, and know you like, (and remember, you’re hungry!) the anticipation builds, and dopamine is released.
Let’s say you get the dish, and it doesn’t absolutely blow you away, but it’s as good as you remember it, there’s then another pulse of dopamine, and thus, your anticipation is essentially rewarded. Most likely, this isn’t such an intense set of waves in the dopamine wave pool that when your dopamine comes back down, it will return to baseline.
Important to note, is that there is a gap between the initial pulse of dopamine in anticipation, and the dopamine pulse in response to the reward. We’ll call this the duration between desire and effect. More on this later.
Let’s now use an example of someone using and abusing cocaine. Upon first use, it pulses a release of dopamine that skyrockets the user’s dopamine levels, which then causes a very sharp crash in the wave pool.
So the individual takes another hit of cocaine, once again skyrocketing their dopamine, only to have yet another sharp crash in the dopamine wave pool. You can see how this repeated use can very quickly deplete your dopamine reserves, leaving the individual well below baseline.
If these analogies are making some sense to you, you have a solid enough understanding of how dopamine works in the body, and it will make sense how this can be applied to understanding and maintaining motivation, and achieving healthier, longer term goals.
Dopamine and Motivation
Let’s now apply what we’ve learned about dopamine, and when and why your body pulses it, to our everyday lives, so we can better leverage dopamine to help us maintain drive and motivation, resulting in us being better versions of ourselves, and to those around us.
Picture yourself getting excited about setting a goal. Let’s choose something that requires some dedication to health and fitness, like losing 10-20lbs, or running a marathon in a year after not running more than a mile in the last five years.
Upon the most initial of inspiration, and commitment to your goal, you get a “wave” of dopamine.
But, unlike that quick reward you got when you went out to dinner and your meal was as good as you had hoped and expected, your big reward at the end is far off. We’ll go deeper on this in a bit.
Now, let’s also say that on a day-to-day basis, you’re working long hours on your career or business, maybe also balancing a busier and busier family life, maybe some other factors, all while also trying to achieve your aforementioned long term health & fitness goal.
There are two issues here with respect to drive and motivation, and their relationship to dopamine:
- Your long-term health & fitness goal has a big gap in the duration of desire and effect, meaning, there is no immediate reward after the initial wave of dopamine, making it easy to lose motivation.
- Your daily life is very demanding of your dopamine reserves, making it difficult to keep them higher, and replenished day after day.
Dopamine is your “rewards center”, and the release of it keeps you moving, and keeps you motivated. So, the key to motivation is to ensure you’re getting wins (rewards) along the way with your long-term goal, to keep yourself motivated, and to ensure you’re doing the necessary things to keep your reserves high and replenished on a day-to-day basis.
The Psychology of Motivation
“90% of success in life is showing up.”
When trying to achieve a long-term goal, your motivation is going to wane. It’s inevitable. Heck, we’ve just learned that it’s physiological.
That initial hit of dopamine you initially had when you were inspired, and committed to your goal, can probably only be matched (or exceeded) by achieving it.
But achieving it is a long way away, and there’s a lot of time in between.
So it’s inevitable that your motivation will ebb & flow.
All along the way, from the initial inception of your goal, your brain is also learning, taking in cues, which it then uses to train your behavior.
For example, let’s say you had three weeks of tremendous discipline, which meant you were getting victories along the way, and your brain was taking in positive cues that then kept you motivated.
However, after a few hard-charging weeks, your dopamine reserves are depleted, and you’re feeling like you’re now in a funk, and lacking motivation.
So, you skip a workout, citing a need for recovery, (which, I do want to note, can be necessary and called for) which then turns into a week off, as your brain is taking cues from you that you desire a quicker reward, and with no motivation, and the goal off in the distance, it’s easier to give in, and stray from it.
Now, think back to a time when you really didn’t want to do something. Let’s use a workout as an example. You have no desire to workout, motivation to train, but you still do…you show up.
And guess what!?
When you’re done it feels AMAZING!
In fact, even better because you know you showed up and did the work, even when you didn’t have the motivation to do so.
You got a victory…a reward…a cue to your brain to keep you motivated to keep working towards your goal.
When it comes to the psychology of motivation, oftentimes, showing up when you’re the least motivated is exactly what you need to do to keep stringing those smaller victories together along the way, to keep you motivated for the long haul.
The Neurobiology of Motivation
The second issue with goal setting & achieving, and staying driven and motivated is keeping your dopamine reserves high and replenished so that you actually have dopamine to pulse on a day-to-day basis to keep you moving, and keep you motivated,
Ultimately, it comes down to situational self-awareness and accountability, as do most things when it comes to taking care of yourself.
Situational self-awareness means understanding how dopamine works inside your body, and when you’re in situations, or living in a way that is demanding on your dopamine reserves, which is a situation I’m sure many of us face in our daily lives.
Accountability requires you to then apply the above knowledge and self-awareness to take measures, sometimes extra measures, to ensure you are doing what you can to keep your dopamine reserves high.
Here are some tips and things to be cognizant of, to keep replenishing those dopamine reserves:
- Quality sleep. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that like so many other things in our body, we replenish our dopamine reserves while sleeping. As I’ve mentioned before, quality sleep matters, meaning as much time in Deep and REM cycles is key to restorative sleep.
- Be cognizant of over-stimulation. This can include stacking multiple stimulants on top of each other, combining them with lots of stimulating (dopamine-inducing) activity, and so on. This is where self-awareness comes into play. The ability to recognize that you may be taxing your dopamine reserves more than usual, or more than you should, is critical in keeping them high. If you recognize this, you can take extra measures to do what you can to replenish them (like utilizing these tactics). Furthermore, it’s also important to know that a natural byproduct of dipping deeper into the dopamine reserves is that you may not have enough for a day or two, and may lack some “get up and go” in your step, and that’s normal. The key to these days is to recognize this, and not try to force motivation through continued over-stimulation. This will only compound the lack of motivation over time, and is what leads to “burnout”.
- Natural light exposure in the AM. Dopamine is an endogenous neurotransmitter, and all endogenous (produced within the body) chemicals and hormones work on a Circadian Rhythm. Your Circadian Rhythm is a 24 hour internal clock that your microbiome, organs (including your brain), I mean, pretty much everything, runs on. After a quality night’s sleep, the most important thing you can do to properly set your Circadian Rhythm, is to get your butt outside and get as much natural light exposure. Go for a walk ideally. Make a habit of this, as soon as possible after you wake. However, a good goal is 30 total minutes of natural light exposure before noon. On super sunny days, it does require a bit less time, if it’s sunny, and you are short on time.
- Exercise regularly. As mentioned above, exercise is a positive reward system, as it’s healthy for you and you feel good after you do it, even if you don’t want to prior to doing it. Consistent exercise induces a positive, healthy, signal/cue cycle in your brain, and over time, will actually help increase your baseline levels of dopamine.
- Non Sleep Deep Rest (NSDR) or Yoga Nidra. This is probably your best “hack” for dopamine from a biohacking perspective. NSDR is a practice that isn’t quite meditation, and isn’t quite breathwork, and is unique to itself. In an NSDR session, you will enter an Alpha brain wave state. This is a state where your conscious and subconscious connect, and is a state in between awake and sleeping. In this state, serotonin is released, and dopamine levels are actively replenished. 30-60 minutes of NSDR is ideal for a demanding lifestyle, however, along with a demanding lifestyle,is less and less free time. Research has shown that as little as 10 minutes of NSDR can have dramatic effects on replenishing dopamine. Making a habit of carving out 10 minutes a day for NSDR can have profound long term benefits in avoiding burnout, and keeping drive and motivation Hugh on a daily basis. Here’s a 10 minute NADR script I use from Dr. Andrew Huberman. Any YouTube search of NADR, or search of “Yoga Nidra” in your App Store, will yield plenty of results.
“Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those doing it.”
I found this quote to be highly relevant in a week dedicated to motivation.
You’ll never find a hater working harder than you.
As you begin to understand more on the science and psychology of motivation, and you find yourself accomplishing more, don’t concern yourself with those who doubt you, who bring negative energy, and tell you you cannot do something.
It is their own insecurity exposing itself and nothing more.
You keep doing your thing, and don’t let the haters interrupt you.