I recently watched an interview with Dr. Andrew Huberman, neurobiologist at Stanford University, where he discussed the neuroscience behind motivation and quitting. He described what happens in our brains as we get motivated to act, then get drained and want to quit, and eventually build our resilience and focus to keep going. It was fascinating to hear that we can influence the neurochemicals in our brains using a simple technique around controlling our conscious thoughts.
On a neurobiological level, we are motivated by our unmet needs. The feeling of “lack” creates a sense of restless agitation as adrenaline* gets released, prompting us to do something. It can be anything from the anxiety of an approaching deadline, to the frustration of observing a mess in a room, or just thinking about a goal we want to achieve but haven’t moved on yet. Sometimes we just feel the agitation without having any idea what is driving it, but it leads to this restless sense of needing to do something.
At that point we may engage in some kind of behavior. It could be putting effort towards a goal, distracting ourselves by getting a snack, or any other action. As this action utilizes energy, our noradrenaline rises, and, at a certain point it reaches a “max” level where our brain then compensates by shutting down our ability to continue. This is what happens when we quit.
However, if we notice that the behavior we are engaging in gets us somewhere meaningful, dopamine is released, and we immediately perk up. In our brain, it reduces noradrenaline levels so we can keep going. What we consciously notice from this is clearer sharper focus and more energy to continue engaging in that particular behavior.
One key lesson that Dr. Huberman shared is that we will always feel a sense of agitation, stress and confusion as we are beginning an activity. He calls this a “gateway” that is necessary to experience before we get motivated to continue on with the behavior. As soon as we begin to put effort towards something, we will want to quit until we get that first hint of validation that we are on the right track.
The great news is that we can deliberately give ourselves this hit of dopamine by consciously recognizing a small milestone and telling ourselves that we are on the right track, that we are making progress. These little “internal rewards” for our effort are key to maintaining focus and mastering new skills, no matter what our age.
Recently I tried this while I was on a walk. My Apple watch displays a green circle to measure how many “active minutes” I get each day. The goal is to “close” my green circle each day, which should be achieved with a simple brisk walk. However, if you have an Apple watch, you know that the minutes tracked don’t always line up with your activity. Often I go on walks and end up frustrated that after forty minutes of brisk walking my watch only counted eight of those minutes as “active”.
On my walks, I can’t help but periodically check my watch to see how many green minutes I have, but this works against me. After walking really fast for 12 minutes and seeing that my watch only tracked 5 of them, I immediately want to quit. The voice in my head says “this isn’t getting me anywhere”, so the effort doesn’t seem worthwhile. No dopamine gets released, and my brain shuts down the action.
On this recent walk, I decided to try a new approach. As I walked, I caught the voice in my head muttering gloomily about my watch miscounting my minutes, and instead, consciously “noticed” how fast I was walking. I told myself that my brisk walking was helping my heart and helping me get into shape. I continued with this process throughout the walk. Every few minutes I would tell myself that I was doing something good for myself, and that I was on the right track. At some point, I couldn’t help but look at my watch. As usual, the minutes recorded weren’t wonderful, but then I also noticed that my mile time was three minutes faster that it is on my usual walks. I told myself, “wow, this walk is starting to feel more like a workout – in fact, if I keep working at it like this, at some point I’ll be going fast enough to think of it as a slow run!” That felt like real progress, and I noticed how energetic, focused and happy I felt as I continued to briskly walk home.
My walking experiment was so visceral that I actually felt each phase of the process. First, agitation when I believed that I had been sitting for too long in front of the computer and needed to move, then the beginning of the walk when I felt moody and not wanting to go fast, and finally that perk up as soon as I consciously told myself my effort was paying off and getting me somewhere.
Here, in a few steps, is the brain training technique that will help you stay motivated when you begin to feel like quitting:
- Notice the agitation, confusion and stress you feel as you are beginning an activity that takes effort. Remind yourself that this is “the gateway”, that it’s perfectly normal, and it won’t last for long once you get started.
- As soon as you start, immediately acknowledge yourself for starting. Tell yourself you are moving in the right direction and look for the next milestone. It should feel easy to get to.
- Continue the process of noticing your effort and telling yourself that you are making progress, that you are on the right track, that you are moving in the right direction.
- As you tell yourself these things, notice that little bit of a good feeling, along with the increased focus on what you are doing in the moment.
- Keep it up! You are on the right track!
Below is the full interview with Dr. Huberman. It’s a 2-hour video, but here are a couple of places you can go to right away to hear the lessons from him that I applied above:
- Go to minute 54 to hear directly about what happens related to quitting and staying motivated.
- You can start a bit earlier, around minute 40, if you’d like to learn more about neuroplasticity, and how to keep your brain primed for learning and improvement, no matter how old you are.
If you’d like to discuss this further or share your own experience putting this into action, contact Nahid directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 714-931-2133.
*Watching this video, I was not clear on the difference between adrenaline and noradrenaline, as it appears that the terms were used somewhat interchangeably, so in my description they are both referenced as I heard them.