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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

How to Hack the Reward System in Your Brain And Stay Motivated

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How to Hack the Reward System in Your Brain And Stay Motivated

How do we achieve our biggest goals in life? Hard work, learning new skills, and staying focused are definitely important things, but one of the most important things we need is motivation. Losing motivation can stop us in our tracks. It can make us procrastinate, doubt our skills and abilities, and take us off the path to success. In the worst cases, a lack of motivation can destroy our goals and kill our dreams.

Where does motivation come from?

It starts with thoughts and chemicals in the reward systems in our brains. It continues to develop in our brains and is further shaped by our behaviors. This is why neuroscience, which is the study of the function of the brain, is so important.

When we understand the basics of neuroscience, we can hack the reward system in our brains so we can stay motivated to achieve our biggest goals.

The Neuroscience of Motivation

At the most basic level, humans want to avoid pain and experience pleasure. Our pleasure-seeking behavior is based on a mental reward system that’s controlled by our brains. This reward system is what keeps us motivated and helps us achieve our biggest goals and dreams.

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brains that help shape our thoughts and behaviors. One of the main neurotransmitters in our reward system is the “pleasure” chemical dopamine. Dopamine is produced mainly in the mid-brain and then moves to other areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, which plays a big role in our emotional development. It also moves to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking, feeling, planning, and taking action.[1]

When you do something pleasurable, your brain releases dopamine to make you feel good mentally and physically. This commonly happens when we eat our favorite foods, have sex, have a great conversation with someone, or do something else we really enjoy. Each time we feel pleasure from doing something, our brains remember what made us feel good. It actually assigns a reward value for everything we do.

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For example, eating a slice of our favorite pizza may have a higher reward value than drinking a smoothie. Being on that tropical vacation will have a higher reward value than watching that water fountain downtown.

Our brains even release dopamine before we engage in those things that make us happy. It’s the expectation of the reward rather than the reward itself that has the strongest influence on our emotional reactions and memories of what’s pleasurable.[2] Just planning that tropical vacation by checking out different locations on a travel site or looking at things we want to buy on Amazon stimulates our reward system by releasing dopamine.

Thinking about starting a project at work that we’re really passionate about also activates our reward system. This act of feeling the pleasure generated by our mental reward systems is what creates reward-seeking behavior and is a big part of motivation.

Vanderbilt University researchers discovered that “go-getters” who are more willing to work hard have greater dopamine activity in the striatum and prefrontal cortex, two areas of the brain that influence motivation and reward.[3]

Hacking Our Brain’s Reward System

Here are four ways to hack the reward system in your brain to stay motivated.

1. Keep Growing

When you do the same things over and over, that dopamine rush tends to get smaller and smaller. A great way to stay motivated is to keep growing by doing bigger and bigger things.

Take on bigger, more challenging projects at work. Once you’ve reached a running or fitness milestone, start working toward a bigger one. If you’re fluent in a foreign language, learn how to have more complex, philosophical conversations. If you have your own business, find ways to acquire more clients so you can generate more profit. Keep learning new skills that will push you to the edge of your comfort zone.

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Taking on greater challenges helps our brain’s reward system continue to assign high reward values to things we do. Start by accomplishing small goals. As you accumulate more and more small wins, work your way up to more challenging goals.

2. Use Visualization

“Visualization is daydreaming with a purpose.”—Bo Bennett

A great way to stay motivated is to visualize accomplishing a goal—even though you haven’t completed it yet. Visualization actually causes the brain to release dopamine. This makes us see our future rewards more clearly and go after them more fervently.

When our brains release dopamine and we feel that rush of euphoria, our hippocampus, which is part of our brain’s limbic system, records those pleasurable moments in our long-term memory. The more we visualize success, the more our brains associate this visualized success with pleasurable feelings.

When we can imagine a better future, we’re motivated to keep pushing forward and overcoming obstacles in our path. This is why people work hard to get raises and promotions, invest their money, put their kids thru college, and do other things that help them or others prosper later in life.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, and other famous and influential people have used visualization to achieve sky-high success.[4] It’s a great way to use the power of your imagination to keep you motivated to succeed.

3. Avoid Excessive Stress

High levels of stress are associated with chronic inflammation, which can cause our motivation to decrease. Researchers at Emory University have theorized that chronic inflammation from stress may cause a chemical reaction in the body that decreases dopamine supplies in the brain.[5]

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Low levels of stress can actually help us perform better by making us more alert. That adrenaline rush we get from stress can give us the energy and the edge to do our best. But when stress levels are high, stress can be damaging to our bodies, minds, and motivation.[6]

High-stress can lead to burnout. In the worse cases, it can cause people to quit projects or quit their jobs. It can cause mental problems such as anxiety or depression. It can lead to health problems like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other illnesses. Reduce stress by doing deep breathing exercises, meditating, running, or exercising regularly.

4. Reframe Challenges

If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.—Wayne Dyer

Another great way to hack your brain’s reward system is to change how you look at challenges in your life. A common problem is that many people see difficult work as an obstacle or simply something they don’t like doing.

A good strategy is to look at difficult situations and obstacles as opportunities that will help you and those around you grow. This will help us look at difficult things in a positive light and actually look forward to doing them instead of dreading them.

For example, if three employees on your team aren’t getting along with each other and two of them are thinking about quitting, don’t look at this as a very stressful, terrible problem. Instead, look at the situation as an opportunity to use your interpersonal skills to gather the angry employees together, let them voice their concerns, and then resolve the problem.

It will help them improve personally and professionally. It will also help you and your company prosper as well. You can also apply this same way of thinking to your personal life. If your friends or family members aren’t getting along, use the disagreement as a growth opportunity that will benefit them and you.

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When we can see difficult things as great opportunities, we’ll start to look forward to them. When we look forward to doing things, it makes the reward system in our brains reward us with more dopamine, and it increases the chances that we’ll look at future problems as opportunities to grow.

Conclusion

Motivation is a challenging part of personal and professional development. This is why motivational videos and motivational speeches are so popular. A central part of staying motivated, even during the most challenging times, is to understand how our brains work. Science has given us a good understanding of our brain’s reward system and the chemicals and pathways that allow it to shape our behavior.

Hack that reward system in your brain by taking on bigger challenges, visualizing success, avoiding excessive stress, and looking at difficult situations as opportunities to help others and help yourself grow.

When we begin to master our brains, we’ll be better able to master our lives and achieve those big goals.

More Tips on How to Stay Motivated

Featured photo credit: Giorgio Trovato via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Charles Amemiya

Speaker, life/business coach, social responsibility advocate and technical writer.

How to Hack the Reward System in Your Brain And Stay Motivated How to Stay Motivated at Work While Working From Home Top 10 Motivation Tips Learned From Highly Successful People What Is An Action Plan And Why Is it Important? How To Keep Pushing Forward And Overcome Any Obstacle

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Published on January 27, 2022

Losing Confidence in What You Do? 4 Steps to Regain Confidence

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Losing Confidence in What You Do? 4 Steps to Regain Confidence

Oh, those voices in our heads! You know the ones. They whisper words of judgment and doubt. They ask us, “Who do you think you are?” and “How could you possibly be so clueless?” They are masters at making us feel as if we’re just not good enough. And before we even realize it’s happening, slowly but surely, we start losing confidence in who we are, what we do, and pretty much everything we ever thought we knew.

Sound familiar?

You’re not alone. According to the online therapy platform BetterHealth, everyone lacks confidence occasionally.[1] It’s also not your fault. So many factors contribute to losing confidence. An article in Psychology Today points to everything from genetic makeup to life experiences to media messages as reasons why we may be losing confidence.[2]

So, what can we do when we’re losing confidence? The answer is “a lot.”

Below are four simple steps that have restored confidence quickly in the people I coach, and I know they’ll help you do the same.

Step 1: Figure Out the Root Cause

Knowing why you’re losing confidence is key to reversing that downward spiral and not only getting your confidence back but also strengthening it in the process.

So, take the time to become aware of your environment, your thoughts, your behaviors, and your relationships so that you can identify the negative influences that need to be addressed.

For example:

  • Are you comparing yourself to other people’s “highlight reels” on social media? Does doing that boost your confidence or does it do the very opposite?
  • Are you putting unrealistic expectations on yourself? Do you feel as if you have to be “perfect” or that you have to “know it all” from the word go? Are those “unattainables” part of the problem in your losing confidence?
  • Are you feeling your age? Whether you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, or beyond, every season of life brings with it new experiences, and sometimes, having to learn something new contributes to our losing confidence in who we thought we were.
  • Are the people in your life—your so-called “friends,” your bosses, colleagues, or even your significant others—disrespecting you to the point of beating you and your self-confidence down?

Asking yourself these questions and getting answers will help you to begin to break free from whoever and whatever is dragging you down.

Step 2: Remember Who You Are

I know. This sounds either too simple or a bit daunting and maybe even scary. But I promise you that all the people I have coached have found it to be empowering.

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This is, quite simply, taking inventory of yourself. So, take out a sheet of paper. Write down the years you’ve been alive.

You can start at any age and focus on individual years or group years in increments of five or ten years. It doesn’t matter how you go about doing this. It only matters that you get real with yourself when you do.

Humans tend to remember and reflect more on the negatives in life—past traumas, unfavorable experiences, perceived failures.[3] So, for this exercise, you want to force yourself to write down things you have done in your past that have gotten you to where you are today.

No moment is too small. No judgments and no cherry-picking. You simply write it all down.

For example, when you were 11 months old, did you take your first steps? What year did you speak your first word? When did you learn to ride your bicycle? Were you 16 when you got your driver’s license? Did you learn your computer skills on a PC or a Mac? When was your first crush or kiss? Were you ever responsible for a fur baby or feathered friend? When’s the first time you boarded an airplane? How old were you when you cashed your first paycheck? What’s one thing you did in your past that you never thought you’d ever be able to do?

You see how when we objectively review all the things we’ve done (and succeeded at)—many of which we had no clue how to do at the start—we begin to realize just how capable we are?

It’s not that we didn’t make mistakes or didn’t fall down while trying and learning. We most likely did. The point is that we progressed and that nothing—neither the good things nor the bad—lasted forever.

In doing this exercise, we begin to see ourselves more clearly and boost our self-confidence. We also start to gain perspective from hindsight, often having those lightbulb moments of how one event that didn’t go as planned actually turned into the catalyst for a moment that was bigger and better than you could have ever anticipated.

We then take this to the next level and go outside of ourselves. So, write a little social media post or craft a simple text message asking the other people in your life to share two or three qualities that come to mind when they think about you.

Don’t be shy about it, and don’t fear what they may say. I promise you that the responses you get will surprise you in a positive kind of way.

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We all are our own worst enemies, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to become friends with who we are (and who those voices of self-doubt and judgment in our heads have us convinced we may be).

Step 3: Strike a Pose

Madonna fans may have just uttered the word “Vogue” and, yes, that’s part of what I’m talking about here. If you’ve never actually read the lyrics from Madonna’s 1990 hit bearing that title, I encourage you to do so.

That song is all about getting on the dance floor when you don’t feel good enough inside yourself. The lyrics are speaking to anyone losing confidence, and they suggest how throughout history, icons with attitude just got out there and did their thing—and you can, too.

Don’t believe me? Don’t think it can be that simple? Don’t know or even like to dance?

I hear you. But before you dismiss this step, consider this example from what started me on the path to striking my pose whenever I felt as if I was losing confidence and needed a boost.

I was a young corporate executive struggling to keep my head above water during a particularly challenging time of merging with another team. My paths crossed with an older, wiser “been around the block” celebrity moments before I would be facing a boardroom filled with decision-makers of my fate.

This gracious lady shared with me her secret as to how she was able to exude confidence even in her most dreaded moments.

Ready for it?

In the elevator, hallway, or the bathroom you visit on your way to whatever it is that has shaken your faith in you and your abilities, you do what she told me was called “the Wonder Woman pose” (works no matter how you self-identify).

Simply put, you stand straight, take up some space, put one hand on each hip, chin tilted upward, breathe in, and be present. Hold this pose for a few minutes. It’s one of the power poses by social psychologist Amy Cuddy.

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This Harvard Professor, author of the bestselling book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, and TED Talk speaker galvanized millions with ways to access our power and elevate our confidence. If you try it, you’d be in good company.

Beyoncé does it. Christine Madeleine Odette Lagarde—the French politician, lawyer, and president of the European Central Bank—does it. And Cuddy’s study explains why it works.

Our attitudes often follow our behaviors, her research suggests, meaning that assuming the body language of a powerful person can make anyone who does it feel more confident.

Step 4: Just Say “No”

Losing confidence means you’ve given your power away. And one of the fastest ways to take back your power is to utter a tiny two-letter word: NO.

Now, this is going to take some practice. But guess what? So did you when you lost confidence in yourself. Revisit Step 1 in this article. Every one of those examples took time and, yes, practice to erode your self-confidence. So now, identify which ones are negatively contributing to how you’re feeling about yourself, and let’s start practicing rebuilding your self-esteem.

Start off small. Is scrolling through your social media doing some damage to your psyche? Then just say “no” to it. Take a break from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever is consuming you.

You get to choose whether or not you allow that noise into your life. Prioritizing yourself by saying “no” to paying attention to others’ posts is something that you control and that has a very powerful payoff.

What if you’ve determined that your losing confidence is directly related to you getting older? It’s no secret that there’s bias and ageism and a socially pervasive idea that you’re either too old to do certain activities or to learn new things.

But here’s the thing I’ve come to realize: At every age, we think the decade that came before was easier and that we were somehow better, smarter, faster. Some of that may be true, but most of it isn’t.

Say “no” to focusing on what you think you can’t do or you can no longer do as well as you used to. Put your energies into all that you do know, everything you have experienced, the wisdom you’ve gained, and the skills you’ve acquired. For every moment your inner voice criticizes you, tell it “No. Thanks, but no, you’re wrong, and here’s why…”

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Practice saying “no” at least once a day. It can be to your own judgy voices of doubt, or it can be to the external factors you’ve identified that have caused you to lose confidence. It, along with these other suggestions, are very powerful steps in restoring your confidence.

Final Thoughts

Losing confidence in ourselves happens. It’s happened to me on more than one occasion.

I bet if you asked the people closest to you in your life—the ones who outwardly seem to be so very confident—they’ll shrug and nod, letting you know that they’ve experienced self-doubt and a loss of confidence, too. It’s part of being human and living this thing we call life.

Remember, however, the famous quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady and wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

You get to choose. You always have the power. Remember who you are. Strike a pose, and just say “no” to whatever is dragging you down.

So, what do I want to know? What’s one tiny step you’ll take today to start back on the path of restoring your confidence?

More Tips on How to Restore Confidence

Featured photo credit: Thomas Mowe via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] BetterHealth: Self-esteem
[2] PsychologyToday: 5 Reasons People Have Low Self-Confidence
[3] verywellmind: What Is the Negativity Bias?

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