There are plenty of articles, books and blog posts on motivation that tell you how to become more motivated. Often, they give tips like ‘getting more sleep’ and ‘introducing new habits slowly’. These ideas are all useful to an extent but they ultimately fall short. If you struggle with motivation and can’t keep yourself focused on new tasks, then a tip like this isn’t going to transform your ability to focus overnight.
If you struggle to motivate yourself, how are you expected to keep up the changes that lead to greater motivation? It’s something of a vicious circle don’t you think? If you really want to see changes, then you need to look a little deeper. You need to focus on the actual neuroscience that underpins our ability to get and stay motivated. In this article, you’ll learn exactly how motivation actually works on a biologically level and more importantly, you’ll discover how you can manipulate that process to work in your favor.
INTRODUCING THE SALIENCE NETWORK
What we’re interested in here is what neuroscience and psychologists refer to as ‘attentional control’ or ‘executive attention’. This describes the ability we have to direct our attention and hold it – the control we have over what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore. So how does this work? It comes down to several frontal regions within the brain that control this function. Perhaps most notable is the anterior cingulate cortex which has been the result of a fair amount of research.
In fact, your attention is controlled by two separate networks of brain regions in the brain: areas that work together in order to get the desired result. Specifically, these networks are referred to as the ‘dorsal attention network’ which includes brain regions that run along the top of the brain. Dorsal means ‘top’ in biology – hence ‘dorsal fin’ and the ‘ventral attention network’ which runs along the bottom. Understanding these two different attention networks is key because they have different purposes that clue us in on how to get superior attention. The dorsal attention network is concerned with our intentional attention; in other words, when you decide that you want to focus on a book for a while, or you choose to check the time, you are using the dorsal network.
The ventral attention network meanwhile is used when our attention is directed beyond our control in a reflexive manner. In other words, when you hear a loud bang and you turn to look at it, that is your ventral attention network. But your ventral attention network can also be distracted by a range of other biological clues. If you are hungry for instance, then your ventral attention network will begin to direct your attention toward getting food and if you are tired, then your ventral attention network will direct your attention that way.
So, if you’re trying to get work done and things keep stealing your attention away, then it is going to be hard for you to maintain your attention! The next question we need to ask is how the brain knows what to pay attention to. The answer comes down to yet another neural network called the ‘salience network’. This network tells us what is important and what isn’t and it appears to be very closely connected to our ability to motivate ourselves. Those with the ability to tell their brain what is really important will be able to stay focused on work, they’ll be able to run longer distances and they’re be able to stay intensely focused during competition.
But if you weren’t born with a powerful salience network, then what can you do to fix the situation? How does the salience network work? What does it deem as important? The answer comes down to our evolutionary history. Every aspect of our psychology evolved the way it did in order to help us survive. Traits that proved conducive to our long-term survival would be passed on to our offspring and those that did not, would eventually die out.
The job of this network is to alert us to things that are important for our survival – which is based on biological signals from the body and our associations. If you see a lion, then your salience network will identify this as important, it will trigger the ventral attention network and this will direct your attention there. The result will be that your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and triggers a hormonal and neurochemical response: you’ll produce adrenaline, dopamine, cortisol and norepinephrine and these chemicals will raise the heart rate, contract your muscles, and narrow your attention to that one thing. However, to a lesser extent, this happens even if you’re hungry, too hot, too cold, or if you are stressed about something else whether that be debt, your relationship or anything else.
The first thing you need to do then to improve your ability to focus and stay motivated, is to ensure that you remove these distractions that can override your dorsal attention network. This means you need to create a working environment that will be free from distractions and that makes you as comfortable as possible. Any loud noise, any discomfort, any hunger or any lingering stress can potentially make it hard for you to maintain your focus.
One trick that you can use in order to encourage a more focused state of mind to this end, comes from WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg. He described to Tim Ferriss during a podcast interview, how he would listen to music he knew well. The music would play over and over again and he would become immensely familiar with it. As a result, the brain would then start to phase that music out. In other words, it would become desensitized to it, just as you eventually stop hearing the ticking of the clock. Only if you are listening to that music through headphones, it will drown out all other sound.
This effectively creates a kind of sensory deprivation. The only sound there is, is completely blocked out by the brain. You can achieve something similar by using white noise and this is something that many people will use in order to focus while working. Similar to white noise are other innocuous sounds, such as the rain or background chatter. Rainymood.com and coffitivity.com are both sites that provide these kinds of looping sounds for you to block out your surroundings. Similarly, using a widescreen monitor can help you to stay more focused on work. Studies show that widescreen monitors can increase productivity by up to 30%!
But the most important thing you can do is to try and remove all other stress from your mind. That means that you need to try and stop worrying about your debt and even about the other work you have to do that day. If you are worrying about those things, then your brain will keep being distracted away from what you need to do. So, try to learn to block out feelings of stress and anxiety and to just focus on the task that is in hand. This may take practice, but this works much like a muscle – the more you train your mind, the greater the control you will get over it.