The Science Of Motivation
What’s one thing you could start doing right now that you know would improve your life, at least in some small way?
We all have a list in our minds of the things we should do...
I should eat less pizza.
I should go for a run every day.
I should start writing that book.
We know that doing these things today would make tomorrow better.
We know that any one of these things would be a gift to our future selves.
But we don’t do them. Why is that?
Well, my dog Moo leaves gifts for her future self all around the house every day.
When she gets a fresh bowl of food, before she eats, she takes four or five pieces of kibble in her mouth and carries them to the couch or the bed or her favorite hiding spot, which is in the guest bedroom upstairs.
She drops them—always in a spot she likes to hang out—and then heads back to the bowl.
She’ll repeat this two or three times before she starts eating.
Pretty much every single night, when I get in bed, I’ll reach under my pillow and find some kibble there.
I drop it in front of Moo, and she has a bedtime snack.
The most interesting part of this ritual is that she’s wagging her tail the whole time she’s carrying the kibble around the house.
She actually enjoys giving these gifts to her future self.
I watch her do this, and I think...
“This makes no sense.
She’s got a brain the size of a kiwi fruit.
And I’ve got a good sized cantaloupe.
But she’s wired to enjoy doing what’s good for future Moo, and I’m wired to tell myself...
...that pizza is really not that bad...
...and running gives you shin splints.”
Well, here’s what it’s all about:
Over two million years ago, our ancestors—basically apes with tiny brains—began hunting for their food.
They’d climb up into a tree and sit there for hours, holding their spear, waiting for an antelope to wander by.
At the end of the day, if there was no antelope they’d climb down, go to bed hungry and do it again the next day.
(Kinda cool that they were doing the keto diet and intermittent fasting two million years before anyone made a YouTube video about it!)
Now check this out....
Humans kept doing this until 12,000 years ago, when we got smart and realized that some people could go do the hunting for the whole village while other people did stuff like making the spears to hunt with.
So our brains evolved for 2 million years to keep us sitting up in the tree waiting for the antelope, and then it evolved for another 12,000 years to do other stuff.
When we think about all the things we should do, 99.5% of our brain says:
“No! We should sit on our butt and wait for food to appear.”
Then, we need to rally all the strength of the other 0.5% to stand up and say,
“I will not sit on my butt and let life pass me by.”
But the 99.5% snaps back and says,
“Life is for us to enjoy.
And the best place to enjoy it is sitting here on our butts...
...with a slice of pizza in our hands.”
And that is why they say the mind is a battlefield.
Not only are we at war with ourselves, we’re fighting two million years of evolution.
How can we possibly win that war?
Well, I’m gonna tell you how.
By taking control of our cantaloupe.
Because we aren’t apes with tiny brains.
We’ve got 85 billion neurons—as many brain cells as there are stars in our galaxy.
Each one of them shoots out synapses (tiny little threads that conduct electrical impulses) to thousands of other neurons.
More than 100 trillion connections!
Far from what the ape in the tree had between his ears.
It’s a supercomputer.
Or a really powerful gaming console, like a PlayStation 5.
And I’m about to give you the big three cheat codes for motivating yourself.
All three are based on pretty recent research findings in neuroscience.
I’ll start with the most important one:
1. Use the power of language to get leverage on yourself
It’s all about how we answer this question:
“What value will I get from doing this?”
If you can answer that for yourself with language that makes you excited, you’re way more likely to follow through.
So, let’s say we want to start exercising more.
We could say to ourselves,
“I gotta burn off this flab so I don’t look like a fat slob anymore.”
Or we could say,
“I’m going to get back the abs of steel I had as a teenager, so I feel proud every time I look in the mirror with my shirt off.”
Which one of those is more likely to get you excited?
Here’s the key thing:
It has to tap into something that’s deeply important to you—inside.
Not some external reward.
If you want to get yourself to sit down and write that book, you ain’t gonna do it by thinking about how much money it’ll make you.
But you will if you focus on how good it’ll feel—inside—for you to share your insights with the world.
2. Take control of your dopamine
Dopamine is your brain’s currency for motivation.
It is the reason we do everything we do.
If you master dopamine, you will have mastered the art of motivating yourself.
Here are the basics. (For a much deeper dive, check out Chapters 25 and 27, which are entirely dedicated to dopamine.)
Deep inside your brain, there’s a cluster of neurons called the nucleus accumbens. This is your reward center.
When you anticipate something good coming your way, the cells in here squirt dopamine all over themselves (and it spills out to other areas as well).
The sooner you expect to get the reward, the more they squirt.
So here’s the hack:
In addition to thinking about the long term value—how good it’ll feel when your book hits The New York Times bestseller list—you’ve got to give yourself a way to get daily rewards from doing the work.
Like putting a star on your calendar every day you write 500 words.
And make that star mean something for you—inside.
Say to yourself:
“Each of these stars is another day that I kept a promise to myself.”
Then, every time you stick a star up there, your nucleus accumbens gets a good squirt of dopamine, and that will keep you doing it every day.
3. “First, I take action. Then, I feel motivated.”
This is something everyone gets backwards.
We all think:
“First, I feel motivated. Then, I take action.”
Here’s the problem with that: Motivation comes from momentum.
When you’re at a standstill, it’s hard to fire up the reward center.
But, if you put yourself in motion towards your goal, even if it’s far away, that builds motivation.
So you must take action before you feel motivated.
Now, you hear that and you think,
“I’m not going to get myself to run 10 miles a day without a ton of motivation.
So I’m not so sure about this ‘action before motivation’ idea...”
Well, you definitely do need loads of motivation to run 10 miles a day.
Which is why...
You tell yourself you’re going to run to the stop sign and back every morning for the next week.
And here’s what’s so cool about that:
When you get to day 7 of running to the stop sign, you’re gonna feel way more motivated than you did on day 1.
And that’s going to make you go further next week.
Pretty soon, you’ll be running 10 miles a day.
DO YOU HAVE THE WILL TO WIN THE WAR?
These three techniques can create a profound change in your level of motivation, but they don’t make it easy.
They just make it doable.
So the big question for you to answer is this:
Are you going to do what it takes to win the war, or are you going to give in to evolution and sit on your butt?
It only takes an instant to make this choice, and you can make it right now, before you finish reading this blog.
You can tell yourself,
“I will take action today and again tomorrow and again the next day.
And, if I keep doing that, the motivation will come.
Motivation that is the rocket fuel to propel my life to a level beyond my dreams.”
Right now, in this moment, you are making a choice.
You’re either committing to yourself to take action, starting today...
...or you’re not.
Which one’s it gonna be?
This article is an excerpt of the forthcoming book, Your Best Life: Tactics, Tools and Insights to Create a Life of Fulfillment, Joy and Abundance, by Mike X — to be released on March 14, 2023.
Originally published on Illumination.