OH-Blog Logo
Older couple dancing and holding hands

The Neuroscience Behind Motivation

Logo and bar that reads Mind

It’s a new year. How can you get motivated to set goals, complete them and achieve more this year?

When you’re living with a degenerative neurological condition or overcoming a stroke, your brain and your body are exhausted at times. We hear that finding the motivation to even get out of bed can be a challenge, let alone do a load of laundry, or make it the gym for a workout. “Some of what our patients experience is apathy, which is a lack of interest or concern in doing things in their daily life,” says Angela Hardwick, MD, OhioHealth movement disorders neurologist.

While apathy or symptoms of your condition may have you feeling unmotivated, adjusting the way you think about goals can help you be more successful in not just setting them, but achieving them, too.

The neuroscience behind motivation

Let’s look at the neuroscience behind motivation. The reality is that 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail1. We want you to be part of the 20 percent that succeeds! Our brain has neurotransmitters that send chemical messages (like text messages) to our brain and body. These brain texts impact our motor skills, behaviors, memory, learning, sleep, mood, and more.

Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation. “It sends signals between neurons and plays a role in our brain’s reward system, telling us to take action, achieve something good, or avoid something bad,” says Dr. Hardwick.

But when you have low levels of dopamine, or even just apathy, you are less likely to feel motivated to achieve something. If you can tap into your dopamine domain and spark a message of positivity to the body, you can make incremental progress toward your goal.

The impact of dopamine and Parkinson’s disease

Dr. Hardwick explains that in patients with Parkinson’s disease, the neurotransmitters that make dopamine are dying off, resulting in motor symptoms like achiness, tremors, and muscle cramping, and non-motor symptoms like mood, sleep and digestive issues. “The medicine we prescribe for these patients is to make the living neurons work more efficiently,” she says.

Infographic with tips for motivation momentum

Tips for motivation momentum

Set goals in one-month increments.

Ask yourself or your care partner: what is your top goal for this month? By breaking your big goal into smaller increments, you have a more modest goal and a shorter timeframe to achieve it. Once you achieve one goal, you can build upon it. For example, if you want to exercise more, how much per day? How many days per week? You may start with getting 15 minutes of exercise, three days of the week, for one month. The following month, you may increase the number of minutes or the number of days of the week. As you achieve your goals, your brain and body will crave more achievement.

Record small accomplishments.

Find a way to track and record your accomplishments daily. Tracking what you’ve accomplished will help motivate you to continue to work towards your goals.

Find an accountability partner.

Share your goal and small accomplishments with an accountability partner. It may be a spouse, a co-worker, a friend, or just another person seeking accountability. They can help check-in and be that person to help you overcome the challenges or ruts you might face.

Increase your dopamine levels.

There are also some ways that you can increase your dopamine levels naturally to help feed your motivation meter. “Exercise is a great way to increase dopamine levels,” says Dr. Hardwick, “You just have to find the strength and motivation to get started.” Other experts suggest taking a 10-minute nap or eating whole foods may help as well.

Pay attention to your mood

If you can’t find the motivation to work towards a goal, pay attention to your mood, and talk to a friend or your physician about what could be going on. “This time of year, the weather can have a large impact on motivation,” says Dr. Hardwick. “It’s important to pay attention to if it’s just the winter blues or something more severe such as depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD),” says Dr. Hardwick. Check out our blog on winter blues to learn more.


related articles