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How to stay motivated when you’re in a rut, according to science

This article appears in: Study tips
Unmotivated Pug laying on the floor

It seems there’s been a lot of research on how to stay motivated. Here are some of the most interesting and effective ways to push through the malaise and get things done.

Dopamine is your friend

According to Psychology Today, studies show that you can trick your brain into increasing dopamine levels by setting and reaching micro-goals. What’s a micro-goal and what does dopamine have to do with it?

Dopamine is sometimes called the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter because our brain releases it when we get something we want—that could be a great mark on a paper, some new clothes, or succumbing to those French fries.

It’s possible to manipulate your dopamine levels by setting small goals—or micro-goals—and seeing them through. For example, you could get a dopamine boost if you promise yourself you’re going to reorganise your room, and then you do.

That’s one of the  benefits of to-do lists. When you complete a small task, you get a hit of dopamine. In each instance that your brain gets some of this rewarding neurotransmitter, it will want you to repeat the behaviour.

Micro-goals are the thin end of the wedge

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so the saying goes. Call it a mini-milestone, a sub-goal, or micro-progress, there’s power in just getting started. Because micro goals are about now and not the distant future, they force you to start doing something in the present moment.

Let’s say you need to write a paper but you just can’t get motivated. Try slicing the task up into the smallest possible units of progress.

Open the word processor. Start a new file. Give the file a name. Type your name on the first page. Add page numbers. See? You’re on a roll. Don’t stop now.

Person standing by keyboard and desk

Be good to yourself, you deserve it

Everyone has off days. If you’re having a bad day, just accept it and do the best you can. Don’t beat yourself up. Studies have shown that self-criticism can lead to thoughts that interfere with your motivation and productivity. Just keep going and you’ll get through it.

Give yourself a break

Take planned—and well-earned—breaks to stay refreshed and motivated. Regular breaks are especially important if you’re feeling off.

A study published in Nature Neuroscience found that taking a short nap of between 20 and 30 minutes can help boost your performance—an hour-long nap even more so.

Just walking around can also help get you back into your motivated groove. Standing up and moving around improves blood flow to the brain, and who wouldn’t want that?

Lady with coffee on bed

Keep a secret—with yourself

A 2009 study found that another good way to stay motivated is to avoid telling other people about your goals, because letting someone else know what you’re doing can give you a premature sense of completeness. In fact, there’s research stretching as far back as the 1930s to show why people who talk about their ambitions may be less likely to achieve them.

In a focus group, participants who kept their goal to themselves had far more motivation and drive. People who told others of their plans took longer or were much less likely to reach their goal.

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