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A Practical Guide To Motivation

The Science of Motivation: Turning Challenge into a Reward

Some days, it’s really hard to get motivated to do all the tasks we need to do in a day. This can be because we feel tired, overwhelmed or we just don’t feel like it.

Another possibility is that we’ve set up bad habits over a period of time, and these can be hard to break. There have been decades of scientific research into the motivation behind human and animal behaviour, and it all comes down to a very simple concept.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-2-27-09-pmThis is the result of a biological process that occurs in both humans and animals.

There is a naturally-produced chemical in our body called dopamine which is often referred to as the ‘feel good’ chemical, as it is released when we achieve or attain something and that makes us ‘feel good’.

This explains why we feel good when we buy something new, receive a gift or if our work is praised – it is actually a chemical reaction in our brains.

However, dopamine does much more than make us feel good. Recent studies have shown that dopamine acts in the brain before we make our move, and is responsible for motivating us to act – either to attain something we want, or to avoid pain or danger.


So How Can We Use This Science to Improve Our Own Motivation and Break our of Bad Habits?

It is actually easier than you might think. Dopamine is made in our bodies using the amino acids from proteins, tyrosine, phenylalanine, along with vitamin B6. In a balanced diet, we receive these nutrients every day, but if the diet is not providing enough of these, then supplementation can help.

We can also help to generate dopamine in our brains by setting up small rewards when we approach a task. Any task can be broken down into small parts or goals, and each time you achieve a small goal, dopamine will be generated which will motivate you to continue.

This can be as simple as deciding to spend just 10 minutes on a task, whether it’s a household task or a work project. Let’s face it, that is an achievable goal. You’ll likely find that at the end of those 10 minutes and having achieved your goal, that you will feel more motivated to continue the task further.

It makes sense to break larger tasks or projects down into smaller goals and actually write these down so that you can cross them off when they are done. You can then see your progress and that will generate dopamine to make you feel good.


Unmotivated or Mentally Fatigued?

It can be difficult to work out whether you’re unmotivated or mentally fatigued.

Mental fatigue occurs when you have been spending a lot of time doing mentally demanding tasks, such as studying or learning a lot of new information, taking on large workloads, or doing home-based activities such as balancing the family budget.

These types of tasks can leave you feeling drained of energy. This links back to your dopamine levels, as they can be depleted during these times and, therefore, impact on the way you feel. This can lead to feeling unmotivated and can also affect memory function which is not ideal when you’re trying to learn new information.

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-2-33-47-pmThere are some actions you can take to support your motivation and energy levels, and this is particularly important when you are experiencing increased demands in your life.



Diet plays a huge part in generating your energy level. It can e that you’re simply not consuming enough calories or not eating the right mix of nutrients every day, and therefore deficiencies may be present that need to be corrected.

If you think your diet is inadequate, you should discuss this with your healthcare professional.

As you’ve learnt, there are certain nutrients that support dopamine production, and if motivation is an issue for you, then it may help to incorporate these foods into your diet.

Foods such as almonds, eggs, fish, meats, avocado, pumpkin seeds, soy beans and bananas are great sources of tyrosine, phenylalanine and vitamin B6 which are necessary for dopamine to be made in your body.

Magnesium and Zinc are also needed to produce dopamine and you can find both of these minerals in whole grains, eggs, brewer’s yeast, beef, lamb and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Additional sources of Magnesium include leafy greens, almonds, soy beans and legumes, and you can also find Zinc in oysters, capsicum, seafood and ginger.



Exercise has been shown to improve energy levels and motivation.
It does not matter what type of exercise you do, whether it’s aerobic exercise (such as jogging), resistance training (lifting weights) or yoga, these all release natural chemicals and hormones in your body which improve mood, motivation and energy levels.

All it takes is to actually get started, and that can be the hardest part.

You can make it easier to get motivated to exercise by using the 10-minute rule described in the Science of Motivation. Commit to going for a walk or doing whatever exercise you have available to you for just 10 minutes.

You’ll most likely find that once you’re doing it, you’ll feel like continuing past the 10-minute mark and if not, don’t worry. Just plan to do this every day and it’ll become a good habit. Soon you’ll begin to extend the time you want to do it.



Sleep plays a significant role in regaining energy in your body which in turn, impacts on your motivation.

As well as the obvious benefits of sleep in relieving tiredness, sleep is also a regenerating time for your body.

Having even one night of poor sleep can impact your mood the next day, as well as the quality of your sleep the next night, and this can become a cycle if it isn’t addressed.



Stress is part of everyday life and we can learn to manage this, however it is during times of increased stress that motivation and energy levels can really be impacted.

When we are under pressure, increased stress hormones are released to help us cope, and some people find that they operate really well under pressure because of this.

However, when this goes on for a prolonged period, other health issues can be triggered, such as fatigue, anxiety and mental health issues.

It’s best not to allow your body to get to this stage and to address what is causing the stress, or become better at managing your stress levels.

Using techniques such as exercise, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and a whole foods diet with quality protein have all been shown to improve stress management and increase energy and motivation.

You can also test your stress hormones cortisol and DHEA with an Adrenal Hormone Profile. Click here for more information.



Caffeine, energy drinks, energy bars, sugar and drugs are all substances tht are tempting to use for a pick-me-up during the day or night. Short term, you may feel a benefit, but they don’t address the longer term needs that your body may have.

Some of these substances can be harmful if overused, and some can create dependency issues when used frequently, as your body adapts and relies on having these substances regularly. This can also lead to tolerance, where your body will need more of them to get the same effect.

Your healthcare practitioner can assess your needs and advise you on safe, long term solutions to improve your energy and motivation.


Real World Strategies

Breaking Old Habits

Habits are built over time, and it can take time to change your behaviour and build new, more constructive habits. To change habits, be very clear on what you are wanting to achieve, and what this new habit or way of doing things is going to involve.

It helps to actually write this down so that you can see it. Once you have decided on this, set yourself up for success by making sure you have everything you need to make this work and be prepared to work at it for at least 6-8 weeks for it to become a new habit.

For example, if your new habit is to be more time efficient by only working on emails at certain times of the day, say for 30 minutes when you first start work, for 30 minutes prior to lunch and then 30 minutes towards the end of the day.

Set yourself up by turning off your email notifications so that this doesn’t tempt you, use a timer to make sure that you only spend your allocated time doing this task and schedule it in your diary. At the end of each day, reflect on the benefits of this new habit, or tweak it slightly to better meet your needs. Set a realistic time frame for it to become a habit for you.

There is no set time period as each person’s brain works differently, but expect it to take at least 6-8 weeks in order for your brain to assimilate it as your new habit.

This approach will work for pretty much any task, but it does require thought and commitment to see it through.


Planning Your Day For a Win 

How good would it be if every day felt satisfying and as though you’d achieved everything you wanted to accomplish? You can take steps to make this happen by starting off your day in the right mindset, and this can be supported by following a morning routine that sets you up for success.

When you read about some of the most successful people on the planet, one of the consistent things they talk about is the importance of a morning routine that they try to stick to wherever they are in the world. Usually this includes some form of exercise to raise energy levels.

This can be an early morning walk, a surf, a gym session or even some simple stretching exercises. For many of these successful people, a 20-30 minute meditation will also have priority in the morning.

A high-protein breakfast is essential for setting your day up for success as it keeps your blood glucose levels stable and provides essential nutrients for your brain. This can be very easy and quick to prepare, such as a healthy smoothie, eggs or granola.

It’s also important to prepare and eat this food mindfully, rather than having the distraction of emails and television, as this allows your digestive system to prepare itself for your meal and absorb your nutrients properly.

Another key point to plan your day for a win, is to be very specific about what you want to accomplish. Try setting mini-goals for the day. You’ll create a feeling of satisfaction as you work through your goals and achieve them, as you’ll give the brain a reason to release dopamine.

These goals can be as simple as a ‘To Do’ list or as complex as a Project Plan.


Constructive Rewards

Research shows that the prime motivator for humans and animals is reward. Rewarding yourself for achieving your goals is a great way to keep yourself on track, particularly when the goals are difficult or not particularly interesting to you.

Often people reward themselves with food, such as a sugary treat. While this is fun, it may not always be the best reward for your body. Rewards can be as simple as allowing yourself to relax in the outdoors for 10 minutes with no distraction, or going to a yoga class, having a massage or a catch up with a friend.

Simple pleasures that are really about self-care and giving yourself the gift of free time which you’’ll have when you are motivated and achieving your goals in an efficient way.




Good nutrition is a critical part of staying motivated and avoiding fatigue. Ironically, it’s sometimes really hard to get motivated to cook.

You can overcome this by planning ahead. It is actually pretty easy to plan a rough guide to what you’ll be eating on a weekly basis, and you can then shop for the ingredients so that they are available to you when you need them.

When you do cook, always make enough for an extra meal. This can then become your lunch for the next day, or frozen for dinner at another time.

Healthy, protein-filled snacks are also really important to keep your blood glucose levels stable and provide energy throughout the day.

This can be as simple as hummus with carrot, cucumber or celery sticks, wholegrain toast with cottage cheese and fresh tomato or home-made granola bars.

Planning and eating nutritious food will then actually keep you motivated as your energy levels will improve and, therefore, so will your motivation to continue this good habit.


Further Reading:


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