Motivation is a concept that we have been trying to understand for quite some time as we experience surges of motivation in some instances and lack it in others. We aim to understand motivation so we can better ourselves and avoid being disappointed. Before we can identify and implement the necessary changes that will allow us to stay motivated for longer or reignite our motivation, we need to understand what motivation is beyond the definition and what negatively influences motivation.

What is motivation?

The simplified answer is that motivation is the experience of our desire for something or wanting to avoid something. We are either interested in something because there is a need or want for it or we disregard it because it doesn’t capture our attention. There are two ways we can be motivated namely extrinsically through physical rewards or punishments and intrinsically through curiosity, interests, or goals.

The psychology and neurobiology of motivation

Dopamine, focus and satisfaction are key factors that influence motivation. The body has baseline dopamine that circulates in body all the time responsible for how we generally feel and then there are peaks in dopamine above the baseline, tonic (baseline) and phasic (peaks) release of dopamine. When we engage with something that we find very exciting or desirable our baseline level of dopamine drops after resulting in our drive to do something decreasing.

Dopamine is a neuromodulator unlike neurotransmitters that are responsible for mediating local communication, dopamine influences communication of many neurons and changes the likelihood of certain neural circuits to be activated resulting in other neural circuits being inactive, which is why it is so powerful. This also relates to dopamine’s ability to be released locally through synaptic connections as well as volumetric release. Dopamine is able to influence desire, drive and motivation, it is responsible for movement and it has the ability to control our perception of time.

Self-motivation or empowerment can be a very powerful intrinsic tool and we tend to be more self-motivated or empowered when we feel competent. When we perceive that we have a choice we perceive motivation and when we feel like we have autonomy we feel self-motivated. In order to set ourselves up for success we can ask ourselves the following three things;

  1. Can you do it?
  2. Will it work?
  3. Is it worth it?

If your answer is yes to all three of these questions, it is very likely that you will stay motivated until you reach your goal.

Motivation can also come from extrinsic factors such as physical rewards or even from factors such as boundaries, deadlines and a supervisor. Physical rewards can increase dopamine whereas having boundaries, deadlines or a supervisor requesting progress can apply some pressure and act as a stressor that will increase norepinephrine that can facilitate focus. As humans we do need some stressors in order for us to remain focused which can be achieved through consequences and accountability.

Social incentives tend to be a powerful motivator as we tend to comply with group think and a sense of community makes us feel more motivated and happier. An intervention, that was done in a hospital, to encourage staff to wash their hands when entering and leaving a patient’s room by positively framing how many of their colleagues washed their hands upon entering and leaving a patient’s room showcased that highlighting what others do well or positively is a strong incentive. It also brought to light that the intervention was more successful when staff received an immediate reward for something that will benefit them in the future.

As a society we strongly prefer instant gratification as our brains struggle to infer how actions now can benefit us in the future. Our perception of time coupled by not immediately receiving a reward can cause us to defer an action.

Factors that negatively impact motivation

In order for us to fully understand what motivation is we need to investigate the negative impact certain factors can have on motivation. Some factors have a direct influence, where others have an indirect influence on motivation and some factors are intrinsic in nature, whereas others are extrinsic.

Certain lifestyle choices and habits such as eating unhealthily, drug and alcohol abuse and a sedentary lifestyle can have a negative impact on our motivation. The reason being that these harmful habits cause a decrease in dopamine. Some drugs and supplements that increase dopamine can also decrease the ability to sustain dopamine release over a long period of time as it decreases the difference between the dopamine baseline and peak resulting in the dopamine peak being less effective.

Social psychology studies have shown that we are social creatures rely on and learn from our community and environment. We tend to want a sense of community as it is biologically engrained in us that this is how we thrive, thus complete independence can have a severe negative impact on our mood and motivation as many studies on loneliness have shown. Equally, if we are in a toxic environment or surrounded by individuals who lack motivation and ambition this can also negatively impact our motivation.

Some internal factors that can have a negative effect on our motivation is our mind-set, if we constantly view things through a negative lens we are bound to get demotivated and miss opportunities, as it will affect our focus and alertness. We can easily fall into the trap of functional fixedness, which can prevent us from ‘seeing the bigger picture’ and looking past the functionality of something. Imposter syndrome is a psychological experience where someone feels like a fake which usually leads to self-doubt and it is something a lot of people struggle with. It affects our confidence and self-worth and as a result will decrease dopamine, which will dampen our motivation.

It happens quite frequently that imposter syndrome does not happen as an isolated event but is coupled with procrastination. This can be due to the fact that fear causes an intrinsic response to shut down, as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine rises and dopamine decreases, which is also why, fear and punishment are not good motivators. This cycle can lead to depression and learned helplessness, a state of being when a person decides to give up due to circumstances they believe is out of their control. As we know dopamine and serotonin decreases when we are depressed leading to lack of focus as well as motivation.

Benefits of being self-motivated

Although it’s important to have a support structure and not be completely independent, there are some benefits to being self-motivated. When we are not too reliant on extrinsic motivation, we are more likely to stay motivated, as we will identify ways we can stay motivated. When we are self-motivated, we are completely invested and will go the extra mile in order to reach our goals.

Tips to stay motivated

There are a couple of ways we can increase dopamine and its effectiveness to stay motivated;

  1. Determine the ‘why?’ If you know why you are doing something, it’s easier to stay focused.
  2. Pay attention to how you communicate with yourself and others. Speak positively about yourself.
  3. Surround yourself with the right people. There is some truth to the phrase ‘you are the company you keep'.
  4. Set small goals. Setting big goals can often leave us feeling overwhelmed, so setting smaller, more frequent goals will help keep you moving forward.
  5. Find a balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation; don’t rely solely on extrinsic or intrinsic motivation, as it can make you reliant on them.
  6. Monitor progress and celebrate small victories. it will make you aware that you have made progress and will boost your confidence.
  7. Change your perspective. Growth can’t happen if you aren’t willing to change, so try looking at your goals from a different perspective to avoid functional fixedness.
  8. Cold plunges: it has been shown that they are great for reducing inflammation, which will decrease cortisol and allow for serotonin and dopamine to increase.
  9. Move your body; being physically active will help increase dopamine and put you in a more focused and positive state of mind.
  10. Be creative; creativity is beneficial when it comes to problem solving.


To conclude motivation is highly dependent on dopamine, but there are also various other internal and external factors that can have an effect on motivation. Something to note is that with the correct amount of accountability, not only to others but to ourselves, staying active and setting goals for ourselves so we have a purpose we are bound to stay motivated. There is a reason they say when there’s a will there’s away!


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