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Dopamine—the classic Feel Good chemical—is responsible for much more than pleasure. In the brain, dopamine fires during times of stress, loss, and pain in addition to pleasure. It also figures largely into motivation.

In a recent study, behavioral neuroscientist John Salamone found that rats with higher levels of dopamine were more likely to overcome physical obstacles in pursuit of food. A team of scientists at Vanderbilt also demonstrated the link between dopamine and motivation when they mapped the brains of people with different degrees of motivation. They found that subjects who were willing to work harder for rewards had higher levels of dopamine in the reward and motivation portions of the brain. On the other hand, those who weren’t willing to work had higher levels of dopamine in the emotion and risk portions of the brain. Our individual brain chemistry is largely the result of genetics, but that doesn’t mean that our motivation levels are left entirely to chance. To increase the amount of dopamine in the parts of the brain responsible for motivation, try the following:

Set incremental goals

Instead of setting out to accomplish one difficult goal—like writing an entire paper or dropping fifty pounds—break your aspirations into smaller, more manageable portions. Every time you meet a smaller goal, your brain will release dopamine. This trains your brain to associate the dopamine response with what you’re trying to accomplish, and makes it easier to continue. For example, if you are trying to lose 50 pounds, making goals to lose five pounds at a time will make it much easier to accomplish the 50 because rewards come more frequently.

Keep a schedule

A recent study at Columbia University suggests that human beings face something called “decision fatigue,” or struggling to make decisions after a long period of decision-making. This happens because willpower is a finite resource, and motivating yourself to make decisions or complete tasks becomes more and more difficult as your reserves dry up. Use these reserves sparingly, and schedule your workouts or other tasks for the time of day that you feel best, whether it’s the morning, afternoon, or evening. Let your brain chemistry determine your schedule, instead of forcing your brain to accommodate a schedule that doesn’t suit your chemical needs.

Don’t stop once you’ve started

While there are many ways to maximize our motivation potential, its impossible to entirely eliminate the necessity of perseverance. So long as your reserves are up, your motivation will increase as you move from incremental task to incremental task. This is why it is generally easier to finish something than it is to begin. How do you motivate yourself to do difficult things? Tell us in the comments!
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