The Science Behind Motivation I Oxford Open Learning


    The Science Behind Motivation

    Have you ever said to yourself that you’ll start that assignment, apply for that internship or go for that run… once you feel you have the motivation? The problem with this is that – like willpower – each of us has a finite source of motivation and we tend to experience it in different ways. Have you ever met someone who seems to find locating their motivation effortless? Perhaps they finish their revision a week in advance, have a myriad of extra-curricular hobbies and are still motivated to keep fit. Such people feel like enigmas, but the truth is, the way we respond to motivation is influenced by many things – from our values to our brains!

    Motivation and Dopamine

    Dopamine, the neurotransmitter, is largely responsible for our motivation. But motivation is not one-size-fits-all. Imagine you’re writing a personal statement for university. You could feel motivated to do your best to write a unique and compelling personal statement, that will make your tutor proud and help you get into your first-choice university. On the other hand, you could also be motivated in a completely different way. You could instead become motivated by fear; you could be compelled to write your personal statement to avoid your parents’ disappointment. In other words, you’re writing it not because of the benefits it could bring you, but to try and avoid the negative consequences.

    Doing something because we must isn’t necessarily bad. People are motivated to do lots of things because they have to — getting up at 6 a.m. to go to work, attending team meetings, or applying for jobs. Whilst there is nothing wrong with this, if you want to fully commit to a project, you might want to try and uncover the positive benefits, rather than just trying to avoid negative consequences.

    Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

    Motivation is complicated. It might not be surprising for you to find out that the words “emotion” and “motivation” both come from the Latin word “motere”, meaning to “move.” Aside from the scientific explanations behind motivation, motivation can also be influenced by something highly unscientific: our emotions. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are different types of motivation that are frequently emotion-based. As the name suggests, extrinsic motivation is about the influence of outside forces. Let’s return to our previous example. Say you want to get into a good university. Why do you want to do that? If you want to do so to impress friends, get a well-paid job and be admired, this is extrinsic motivation at play. If you want to study hard to begin a career in a field that aligns with your values and makes you feel fulfilled regardless of the pay or kudos from others, that is an example of intrinsic motivation.

    That’s not to say that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation don’t cross over. You could get a well-paid job that people admire you for which also aligns with your values and beliefs. Equally, someone may want to work for an altruistic organisation, as an example, not purely because they believe in its ethos, but because others will view them as generous and compassionate.

    Is There A Science Behind Motivation?

    Before getting too caught up in the role your subconscious desires play in your motivation, we need to return to the connection between science and motivation. Is there even a science behind motivation? The answer is yes and no. Dopamine undoubtedly plays a very significant role in our motivation levels – and indeed our happiness – but this is somewhat limited by the way each individual’s brain uses dopamine and even where the dopamine is most active. The good news is that science doesn’t need to dictate our motivation – there are other ways of ensuring you achieve your potential, whilst feeling positive about your goals.

    Eat That Frog

    This is much more appetising than it sounds! To “Eat that Frog” simply means to get your most dreaded task, or part of your project, out of the way first thing. This phrase was devised by American-Canadian author Brian Tracey, whose book of the same name went on to become a best-seller. Tracey’s theory goes that by getting the task you have the most resistance to out of the way in the morning, you’ll feel mentally clearer and able to approach the rest of your day with enthusiasm and determination.

    Develop Good Study Habits

    Did you know that our habits and environment can shape our success beyond all else? We can’t rely on always feeling motivated -if you wait until you feel motivated to start an essay, it may never happen! Habits, on the other hand, are reliable and foolproof.

    But how do we go about developing good study habits? Well, you could start with something as simple as planning your study goals each day at 9 a.m. If you’re studying multiple subjects, you could form a habit such as “Read English set text and take notes for twenty minutes at 1 p.m.,” or, “Complete Human Biology flashcards for thirty minutes each day at 10 a.m.” The great thing about habits, unlike motivation or willpower, is that the more you practice them, the more ingrained they become in your routine. Eventually, completing them will feel completely natural. You’ll reach a stage where not completing the habit feels more unnatural than getting it done.

    If you want to explore the impact incremental changes can have on our lives, James Clear’s fascinating book, Atomic Habits, is a fantastic guide to habit-making and breaking.

    Develop Long-Term Thinking

    We all love a quick success – that amazing grade in a one-page essay or the praise from your tutor after a challenging assignment. Quick wins can also give us a boost to our motivation – albeit a temporary one. Whilst it’s great to celebrate every single success and achievement, adopting “big picture thinking” can help you maintain momentum in the long-term. To develop long-term thinking and goals, you might want to ask yourself some clarifying questions: what do I want my life to be like? What kind of people can help me cultivate my ultimate goals? What is my personal view of success and what actions can I take to make this happen?

    By realising that there’s more to academic success than motivation or willpower, you’ll take the first step to uncover your untold potential.

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    Jessica is a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Richmond-Upon-Thames. With a degree in English Literature from University College London, she has experience as a private tutor for 14-18 years olds and adult learners. She has also worked in Widening Participation as a Mentor, Student Ambassador, and Student Leader. As someone who achieved A-Levels through distance-learning, Jessica has first-hand experience of the unique challenges and rewards that distance-learning offers. She regularly contributes content to educational websites including eNotes and Tutorful.