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5 motivation secrets to use all year (backed by science)

29 Dec 2020

If pandemic stress has left you feeling unmotivated, you may need good advice to make your health goals stick. Here’s the science on how to stay motivated

Quick facts

  • Stress depletes your self-control, so managing it is key
  • Setting short and long-term rewards as you complete the steps toward your goal can help maintain motivation
  • Willpower can be built up like a muscle, say researchers

Life is uncertain at the best of times. But right now, there’s little certainty about anything. We can’t plan our lives like we used to, so it’s perfectly understandable if you’re feeling lost and unmotivated.

Yet, while this next year may be extra challenging in the wake of Covid-19, especially if you’re looking to motivate yourself to reach new wellness, health or personal goals, it’s important not to lose sight of your hopes and dreams.

That’s why we’re bringing you some of the science on motivation, with easy ways to work it into your 2021 plans.

Take it slow and work only what you can into your routine — after the year that’s just passed, being easy on yourself is most important.

What influences motivation?

Motivation is the reason behind why we do things. It’s the energising behaviour we adopt in pursuit of a goal.

Your environment, how you were brought up and your experiences all play a part in what motivates you.

But there are also two main types of motivation — knowing the difference between the two can help you reach your goals.

Extrinsic motivation comes from external factors, like a reward or punishment. For example, when you’re driven to complete a work project, because you want to get paid, or because you don’t want to attract criticism, lose out on an opportunity or feel like you’ve failed.

Intrinsic motivation on the other hand, comes from internal factors. It’s about doing something for the sheer satisfaction or enjoyment it brings you. This is not contingent on any external pressure or reward.

If you’re looking to get motivated to make some health and wellness, or personal goals in the new year, here are 5 ways to do it based on scientific research.

Motivating secret #1 — Learn to manage your stress

Stress may induce changes in your brain that can lower motivation. In a recent study it was shown that increasing stress levels can affect prefrontal cortical activity (this is the area of the brain that governs the integration of emotion, motivation and cognition) and decrease the motivation to pursue reward.

In fact, learning to manage stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your motivation and willpower, say researchers into these areas.

Being under stress puts you into the fight or flight response and encourages you to focus on short term goals and outcomes. But self-control requires you to keep the big picture in mind.

So, if you want to stay motivated, incorporate tools to help manage stress into your daily routine. Even if it’s just going for a daily walk, spending time in nature, doing some yoga stretches, breathing exercises or doing a daily 10-minute meditation.

Motivating secret #2 — Prioritise sleep — especially if you want to maintain a healthy weight

If one of your goals is to get food cravings under control or to maintain a healthy weight, not sleeping enough could sabotage your motivation.

A recent study shows that a reduction in sleep of 33% led to increased hunger and food cravings the next day in study participants. The researchers suggested that sleep deprivation activates food-related reward regions in the brain, leading to more hunger.

In another study it was found that not sleeping enough could suppress activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (this is the part of the brain to do with self-control).

Lack of sleep can also cause an increase in the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin and a decrease in the appetite-suppressing hormone, leptin.

Read more about simple lifestyle changes to help you sleep.

Motivating secret #3 — Connect with your intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is when you’re motivated to do something you enjoy. When you’re intrinsically motivated you engage in an activity because you find it interesting and inherently satisfying.

Here are some ways to increase your intrinsic motivation:

  • Workout to your favourite music. That way it won’t feel like such hard work
  • Listen to your heart and choose goals that resonate with what you love doing. Journaling can help you figure this out. If you’re not sure, think back to when you were small. Was there something you loved to do that you gave up as you got older?
  • Do sports you enjoy, not only those you think you should be doing. Then, set goals around them. For example, if you love running, set a goal to complete a virtual 10km by Easter
  • Make a list of activities you love, then figure out ways of working them into your goals. For example, if you love cooking but also want to get healthy, set up an online cooking group with friends you know already have a healthy lifestyle and steal their recipes

Motivating secret #4 — Create a reward system

Staying motivated is always much easier in the initial stages than it is a few months down the line. One way to keep up the momentum beyond January is to plan a reward system you can use over time, as you move closer to achieving your goals.

For example, if you aim to exercise three times a week, make a plan for what specific exercise you will be doing and how you’ll be doing it. Then, every fortnight that you have managed your goal, reward yourself with a massage. Once you have continued for three months, reward yourself with a new pair of sunglasses (just in time for summer).

Rewards are important in the short-term too though. If your goal is going for a walk five times a week or completing a work project, planning in immediate rewards after you have completed each step toward that goal (for example, after each walk or when you complete a presentation) will motivate you.

In fact, a recent study found that immediate rewards you give yourself (especially in the first stages of changing your behaviour while it’s becoming a habit) can boost intrinsic motivation more than delayed rewards. In the study, when people were asked to complete a task, there was a 20% increase in motivation amongst those participants who received an immediate bonus compared to those who received nothing.

Motivating secret #5 — Build up your willpower muscle

Willpower is the ability to delay gratification and resist temptations to reach a goal.

When faced with something tempting, the two parts of your prefrontal cortex (remember, that’s the part to do with regulating behaviour) are in competition.

The right part of the PFC (the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) is to do with analysing thoughts and self-control and the left (the orbitofrontal cortex) is associated with making decisions based on emotional information.

But willpower is like a muscle — you can train it to help you make choices that come from the right part, and get you closer to your goals more often. The more you use your willpower, the more your brain will follow healthy cues.

Here are some simple ways to build up your willpower muscle:

  • Reduce stress. If you’re in fight or flight mode, this activates the more primitive, emotional side of your brain so you’re less likely to have self-control
  • Break your goals into smaller ones to begin with and add to these gradually. For example, after a month of those daily walks, extend them from 30 to 45 minutes. After another month, switch to an hour
  • If you’re trying to improve your diet, don’t keep comfort foods in the house. That way your emotional brain won’t be tempted
  • Focus on one or two goals, rather than trying to change your life overnight
  • Try the 80/20 approach as this won’t make you feel deprived. 80% of the time, follow through with your goal or healthy choice. For the rest of the time, allow yourself a little leeway
  • Spin your goals into something positive. For example, instead of thinking ‘I can’t have chocolate’, focus on how much more energised and alive you feel after eating something healthy

Remember though, to take small steps. Don’t put any more undue pressure on your mind and body than feels right. Now in particular is a time for self-compassion, not just goal-setting.

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