Motivation has long felt like a slippery concept for me. But over the past few years, I’ve heard more and more people talk on the concept and am starting to get a feel for the different ways that we may have some control over our motivation. In this post, I extract a few ideas from a podcast by Dr Andrew Huberman that relate to dopamine dynamics. Enjoy.
The topic of motivation comes up a lot in my work. People have lost motivation, can’t sustain motivation, want to know how to increase motivation. For them, I am trying to work out ways they might get and stay motivated.
I also see the opposite, people who are highly motivated and driven. For them, I am curious about how they do it and what can be learned from them to help those struggling with motivation.
I’ve encountered many useful perspectives on motivation, which actually is a good reminder for me to share more of them here on the blog. For example, I am building a behaviour change program with Tamina Levy from the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and in that program we draw on the PRIME theory of motivation.
But someone whose thoughts on motivation I’ve followed for a while is Andrew Huberman, ‘a neuroscientist and tenured professor in the department of neurobiology and by courtesy, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford School of Medicine’.
If you’ve seen me speak, you’ll know I have a lot of respect for Huberman and refer to his podcasts and work frequently. He’s very good at digging deep into the science of different wellbeing and productivity strategies but keeping it accessible at the same time. He’s built a strong following and an amazing body of work in the fitness, wellbeing, productivity, mental health fields and he speaks to fantastic and knowledgeable people on his podcast, which allows him to explore many areas that are of interest to me.
As a neuroscientist, Huberman’s perspective on motivation involves a lot of neurobiology and neurochemistry, with a particular focus on dopamine, a critical neuromodulator.
On my morning walk, I’ve been listening to Huberman’s latest episode on optimising dopamine for motivation and tackling procrastination.
There is a lot covered in the episode and so I encourage you to give it a listen if the subject matter interests you. But I thought I’d share the 3 key takeaway ideas for me.
1️⃣ Whilst incredible feats of cognitive and physical performance may involve spikes or peaks of dopamine, our baseline level of motivation is influenced by our baseline levels of dopamine. Baseline levels of dopamine are optimised by healthy daily practices – regular high-quality sleep, good nutrition (including sources of tyrosine), regular physical activity, morning light exposure – as well as the controlled use of mild boosters such as caffeine. For me, this is the holy grail of motivation, sustained consistent motivation over time, rather than seeking out peak motivation experiences. I want to be able to get things done consistently each day without fatiguing myself or burning out. As such, sleep and regular movement have been core parts of my daily routine for the last couple of years.
2️⃣ For activities where you already have good motivation to engage with them, resist the urge to stack or layer too many additional dopamine triggers (e.g. workout drinks, music, friends, nootropics etc) with them. I’ve done this before. I wake up, keen to get on with my work, but then seek to amplify that even further with cups of tea, some dark chocolate, some heavy music etc. I feel positive and motivated but want to amplify that feeling even more. Now in the short-term it can feel and work great – you have a great buzz and can get a lot done. But the stacking of all those dopamine hacks leads to bigger dopamine (and hence motivation) crashes and can end up undermining your longer-term motivation for that activity. Basically, if you are already keen to engage in an activity, limit and vary the additional motivators you add to the situation.
3️⃣ When you are feeling particularly unmotivated to do something you should be doing (e.g. an assignment), you might be in a dopamine trough. Bounce yourself out of that trough more readily by doing something safe but uncomfortable/frustrating – e.g. cold shower, listening to a frustrating guided meditation, engaging in a brief burst of high intensity exercise. This can speed up the ascent out of a dopamine trough. Of course, you have to try to convince yourself to do something that is uncomfortable, but in the case of something like a cold shower, that might literally be only a couple of minutes.
These are just the three main ideas I took from this most recent episode. There are many more things to learn about dopamine dynamics. You can explore these further with Huberman himself via his Dopamine tools page. Also remember to search his catalogue of podcasts for other dopamine and motivation focused episodes. Finally, if you are looking for another expert in dopamine, one that he mentions frequently is Anna Lembke.