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How to Increase Your Motivation and Change Bad Habits

We are naturally drawn to the things that cause us pleasure.

We are naturally drawn to the things that cause us pleasure and try to avoid things that evoke pain. You can blame the reward and pain centres deep within your mammal brain. These reward centres secrete a neurotransmitter called dopamine, which creates a feeling of pleasure and motivation in an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). Other centres of the brain such as the rational prefrontal cortex (PFC), the memory-holding hippocampus and the emotional amygdala are also connected to the NAcc and can increase or decrease the levels of pleasure we experience with the judgments they make.

Imagine you are eating a delicious dinner and loads of dopamine molecules are ‘tickling’ your NAcc as you bite into an amazing Florentine steak. Suddenly, you get a call to tell you that somebody in your family is ill, or your boss calls to give you some bad news on the project you were working on. How is your dinner now? The PFC has made a calculation about what this news means, using some facts taken from the hippocampus’s library of memories and triggering relevant emotions in the amygdala. Anxiety, fear, stress, and shock can completely block the satisfaction of even the greatest pleasures.

The opposite can happen too, the PFC’s positive expectations can boost the sensation of pleasure. Imagine that you are in a Michelin-starred restaurant. You have been waiting for this day. Finally, it is here. And what is this? Waiters dressed in white tuxedos bring huge plates with small blobs of red mash. You have no idea what the food is, but you take a bite of it on the end of the spoon and you expect nothing but total deliciousness. And it is indeed delicious, partly because of all the amazing combinations of flavours, and partly because your PFC has been expecting it and has amplified the pleasure even more.

Emotional pain and fear centres are another part of the story. The main area for these is the amygdala, which keeps track of all the things that might have caused you damage in the past. However, the amygdala, being part of the mammal brain, is relatively primitive and often looks at immediate consequences rather than long-term effects. The same applies to the reward centres of the brain, namely the areas called nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which create a feeling of pleasure.

For example, the delicious creamy pastry you might have for afternoon tea today will definitely give you a big dopamine kick, causing pleasure and a desire to have it again. A few hours later you might feel sluggish and have difficulty focusing on the task at hand, but the mammal brain centres might not have linked it to the coffee and sugary snack you had before. As a daily habit, long term this can cause weight gain, loss of productivity and type II diabetes, with the gruesome possibility of losing your toes, as well as brain and body inflammation – loads of unpleasant, health-threatening consequences. Doesn’t sound good, does it? But does your mammal brain want to think about that? Of course not. And that’s why we need to use our powerful rational PFC.

First, we have to come up with a list of as many benefits of changing that habit as we can and another list of negative consequences now and in the long term if we don’t change it. Let’s take replacing sugary snacks with healthier options as a desired change. We are aiming to write down around 50 benefits of the new behaviour and 50 drawbacks of being stuck in the old pattern to reinforce our motivation to change. To come up with such a large number of benefits and drawbacks for the new and the old behaviour, think of eight main areas of your life such as work, family, romantic relationship, social life, hobbies, physical health, mental health, and personal growth or spiritual practices. Now go through each of these areas one by one and come up with as many benefits of the new behaviours and as many drawbacks of the old as you can for each of them. It might be helpful to take an A4 piece of paper, draw one vertical line in the middle and three equally spaced horizontal lines crossing it. That would divide the paper into eight equal squares. Dedicate each square to a different area of your life and label the squares. Draw a ‘+’ on the left of each square and write as many benefits as you can think of for replacing sugary snacks with healthier options.

For example, in the area of work, reducing sugar intake would mean:

  1. a sharper focus on work
  2. fewer breaks for snacks
  3. looking better in a smart outfit
  4. feeling more confident in your own looks when meeting new clients
  5. maybe fewer migraines
  6. less brain fog.

Draw a ‘–’ sign on the right part of the square and write down all the drawbacks of eating two to three sugary snacks a day at work

  1. feeling sluggish after a while, then drinking too much coffee, which makes you jittery and it gets hard to focus on the task
  2. constantly craving more sugary snacks, taking your attention away from the task
  3. gaining weight and so needing to buy larger clothes for work, which is costly
  4. feeling a bit embarrassed around colleagues due to your unhealthy diet
  5. snacking this much causes you to skip main meals, which sometimes triggers a migraine
  6. feeling that it contributes negatively to productivity overall and makes you procrastinate more.

Now if you extend this to the other seven areas, you will end up with around 50 benefits and 50 drawbacks.

We need to retrain our mammal brain’s pleasure and pain centres in what habits actually mean long term – will they get us where we want to go or will they get in the way? It is important to remember that your mammal brain will forget these associations and will seek immediate gratification, so it’s best to keep these lists somewhere visible, reminding your mammal brain of the long-term consequences.

The other option is to have an even stronger long-term reward to motivate you to overcome the immediate gratifications or to make short-term rewards harder to access. You may have come across the marshmallow test (Michel et al., 1989). A bunch of 4-year-olds were asked to sit in a room with a marshmallow on the table. They were told that if they waited until the researcher came back and resisted eating the treat, they would get two marshmallows afterwards. Not surprisingly, many 4-year-olds couldn’t wait and chose one marshmallow now instead of two later. However, some of them managed to resist the temptation and were rewarded with a bigger treat. When researchers followed the performance of these kids, the second group had higher test scores at school and ended up in better jobs earning significantly larger salaries.

What does this experiment tell us? Some of us have more impulsive natures and lean towards short-term gratification rather than long-term gain. This group might have beautiful dreams for the future but when faced with the temptation of sugary snacks, online shopping, and easy access to social media, future dreams will be temporarily pushed aside and will carry little weight in the decision-making process. If you are one of these people, you might consider making quick rewards harder: cancel Amazon Prime, keep your phone in a desk drawer or in another room, cancel your credit cards, create an automatic transfer to your savings account, get rid of all your junk food.

Evgeniyaporechenskaya Shutterstock
Source: Evgeniyaporechenskaya Shutterstock

But no matter how good we are at impulse control, having a lack of clarity in terms of long-term direction can still get us lost in short-term temptations. If you are particularly prone to impulsive behaviour, try to be as clear as possible about how you would like your life to be in five or ten years. What would you like to do? What would you like to look like and feel like? How much money would you like to earn and have in your savings account? What kind of relationship or family would you like to have? What experiences would you like to have and who would you like to share them with? The more vividly we can imagine the future we are trying to build, the more it stimulates our reward centres and the easier it is to resist the habits that get in the way.

References

MacLean, P. D. (1990). The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. Plenum Press.

Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. I. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933–938. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.2658056

Schultz, W. (2015). Neuronal reward and decision signals: From theories to data. Physiological Reviews, 95(3), 853–951. https://doi.org/10.1152/physrev.00023.2014

Toleikyte, G. (2021). “Why The F*ck Can’t I Change?: Insights from a neuroscientist to show that you can”. Thread

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