Tuesday, 01 February 2022
Motivation isn’t usually something entrepreneurs are short on – setting up and growing a business requires a powerful engine of vision and determination to stay the course. But even the most robust energy can dim in the face of challenging times; whether that’s conditions that demand agility around business structure, partnerships or workforce – or those that require a rethink on product, audience or even your continued viability. Having to downsize, pivot or even start over can feel like an overwhelming challenge, a reluctant path – or even a personal failure. So how do you charge up your motivation again when things get tough?
While circumstances might be unique to every individual and business, behavioural researchers agree that much around motivation – or lack of it – has a neurological basis, largely based around the role of neurotransmitters, the chemicals which carry messages in the brain and regulate our behaviour.
Vanderbilt University scientists1 have isolated dopamine, often dubbed the ‘pleasure molecule’ in particular as a key neurotransmitter involved in almost every aspect of motivation, including reward, memory and attention. And the good news is that even a few behavioural changes can influence levels of these and other helpful chemicals – firing up positive feedback loops and helping to get you back on track.
Things may be tough, but to stay the course you have to stay calm. Along with neurotransmitters, the brain’s amygdala is crucial for firing up and maintaining motivation. This almond-shaped structure, lying deep within the limbic system, directs incoming information to the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in order to be able to process it, allowing us then to either respond or to ignore it. Block this flow of information with high-stress emotional states such as frustration or fear and we make it harder to process information and ultimately to motivate ourselves to action.
So, although you may feel anything but Zen in the face of another fundraising round or tricky negotiation with a supplier, it’s both strategically and psychologically important to try and maintain your equilibrium. A calm nervous system means clearer thoughts and sharper responses to challenges – ultimately leading to better outcomes.
Checklist: Panic and fear are immobilising states of mind. Regular meditation, breathing and mindfulness practices can help train your brain into a calmer, more creative equilibrium.
Trying to back away from difficulties or sticking your head in the sand will only elevate your anxiety and put you in a less effective state to deal with things. You are the only one in your business that can ultimately shape and turn things around – so acknowledge the issues fully in order to start a positive cycle of motivation.
Happily, you don’t have to wait to feel inspired before taking action either – a common misconception around motivation is that it comes before starting something, when in fact the cause of motivation is often action itself. If you can get started, even making one or two small positive moves to address your challenges, chances are you will carry on, building on the dopamine feedback spikes that come with consistent and constructive forward movement.
Checklist: Getting started, even in a small way, can be the most powerful way to fire yourself up. Action produces momentum, which in turn ratchets up motivation further.
Whether you’re restructuring, downsizing or changing your entire product line, the challenges may seem overwhelming if you’re in a crisis situation. As an entrepreneur, you need to go back to basics – maintain your vision but set incremental goals to give yourself ‘lily pads’ to jump between as you build. ‘Many people think they lack motivation when what they really lack is clarity. It is not always obvious when and where to take action,’ says James Clear, author of Atomic Habits. This lack of clarity can lead to frustration that can raise the stress response, again depressing the amygdala’s ability to respond positively.
Researchers at the University of Michigan found that result-driven focus is a powerful motivation for people to complete their work 2. Keeping goals small and achievable helps to create the ‘dopamine environment’ through positive reinforcement in your brain every time you complete a step or meet a challenge – known as frequent recognition feedback.
Checklist: If your motivation is really low, then start with micro-deadlines to stay on track and focus on one task at a time in order to meet it fully and spark the dopamine boost.
A key part of staying motivated when the going gets tough is to remember why you're doing what you do. Perhaps you became a small business owner because you wanted to be your own boss, set your own schedule or spend more time with your family. Chances are you were energised and inspired by the creative and challenging business of…building a business, and even in difficult times these motivators still hold a potent place.
Tapping into gratitude as a feeling can also have a powerful effect on your brain chemistry and motivation, even if it seems disingenuous in hard times. In fact, scientific research has shown that when we express gratitude – whether for ourselves and our talents, our resilience and determination or for others around us – our brains release dopamine and serotonin, both of which enhance our mood immediately, and reduce anxiety.
Checklist: There is always something to be grateful for. Consciously practice daily gratitude to strengthen positive neural pathways to increase resilience and boost mood and motivation.
Author of Molecules of Emotion - Why You Feel the Way You Feel, neuroscientist Dr Candace Pert discovered the brain’s opiate receptor, and was the first to recognise that our emotions, or what we ‘feel’, release neurotransmitters that affect wellbeing, promote positive or negative mood and even impact our physical systems. And what we feel can be highly influenced by our self-talk – so it makes sense to back yourself up with careful language. Research suggests that starting sentences with ‘I am’ (such as ‘I am angry’ or ‘I'm frustrated’) in crisis is likely to perpetuate a heightened emotional response as it makes a statement about your identity and the permanence of the emotion.
Saying ‘I feel...’ is a better way to trigger positive responses in your neuropsychology – resulting in blood flow away from the fight/flight centre and toward the prefrontal cortex (PFC) allowing you to respond rather than freeze psychologically. However, paradoxically when you are not in a stress response, saying ‘I am motivated’ regularly, or repeating other positive affirmations, can in fact help to train your brain to accept it as a part of yourself, reinforcing the behaviour at the identity level.
Checklist: Stay mindful of the way you speak to yourself internally; our self-talk has a strong effect on our brain chemistry and in how we experience our capabilities and opportunities in the world.
6. Test yourself
Psychologist Gilbert Brim noted that, ‘One of the important sources of human happiness is working on tasks at a suitable level of difficulty, neither too hard nor too easy’. And it can be easy to become demotivated if we constantly feel we are working above our capabilities, especially if we are ‘reacting’ to challenge or crisis rather than ‘responding’ purposefully to it.
In contrast, challenges of optimal difficulty are not only deeply motivating to work on, but also known to boost happiness through the dopamine rush. While you may not have control over every aspect of the circumstances you might find yourself in, you do have control over how you frame and respond to them. Key entrepreneurial characteristics include the ability to take risks and push the boundaries so play to your strengths. Operating in the sweet spot where you are on the edge of your abilities is a key way to keep energised, motivated and focused both in positive and difficult times – taking advantage of a mental state of peak motivation that performers and athletes call ‘flow’, where you’re naturally driven to continue the task you are working on.
Checklist: Re-motivate yourself through a challenging period by being aware and pulling tasks back to the edge of your current abilities where you feel challenged, but capable.