Motivation–Don’t Rely On It

This time of year, the gym I go to is filled to capacity. It happens every year and somewhere around late February or early March, the “new-year crowd,” as we affectionately call them, disappears again. This is a time of year when motivation is high as goals are set for both the personal and professional year ahead.

Coincidentally, I spoke with a friend last week who told me she attended an amazing Leadership Workshop for several days last September where the post-session to-do list was very conveniently scheduled and structured. She was so sure that this time around she would follow through. But she still has not. So I thought I would talk about Motivation from a neuroscience perspective and share with you why I think it is the weakest and least desirable of all five of the EQ dimensions.

What exactly is Motivation? Is it an emotion or a behavior? Everyone knows when they are motivated. They feel energized, fearless, creative, and anxious to attempt something new and different. Physiologically speaking–and as observed through body and brain mapping–when a human being is highly motivated, it is not so much what kind of hormones or endorphins are present in your body, as much as it is the absence of cortisol–the fear and stress hormone. This is because a chronic release of cortisol impairs brain function.

This means that when we are not fearful is in fact when the highest states of motivation can exist. This is hard to do because a primary function of our brain in response to any stimuli is to assign it (via the prefrontal cortex) a “fear rating.” For example, if you are having lunch with your best friend, the fear rating would be “safe” (or as I call it, green, in the traffic light metaphor). Conversely, if you having lunch with your boss who you do not get along with, the fear rating might be a yellow or even red.

In a red state, physiologically, cortisol levels are very high. What determines this cortisol release? Well, it’s the context of your negative experiences, which are stored in the back of your brain. We are wired to store and recollect negative experiences faster. It’s imperative we do so as a living organism. If you had 10 experiences yesterday and 9 were great but one involved your burning your hand as you touched a hot stove, it is highly likely that today you will talk more about the one negative experience as opposed to the 9 positive ones.

What’s important to note is that this one negative experience is stored in the place that the prefrontal cortex accesses first and you to recall this experience the next time you see a stove. We’re designed this way. So what are we to do when we need a low level of fear to perform at high levels, yet our first response to everything is to check our fears and past traumas?

This is why motivation almost always has a very short shelf life. Motivation is great but it should be used for exactly what it is. It is nothing more than a caffeine buzz, and it’s a perfect solution just minutes or seconds before you have to perform at a high level. This is what good athletic coaches do very well. A good story or video or speech can significantly lower cortisol levels and the duration of this low level varies with each person, but make no mistake, it is very short lived.

Motivation therefore, is not something we should rely on for long-term high performance. As an example, motivation would not be the area of focus as a sustainable way to increase the performance of an endurance athlete. The other dimensions of EQ, self-awareness and self-regulation, are much better for longer term sustainability of high performance.

This week, take a measure of times in the day or week that you feel very motivated. Do a quick self assessment/scan of your thoughts and body. Gauge how long this state lasts for you, and what caused it. Next week, I’ll discuss more and share some tips.


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