How to Sustain Motivation

You've created a compelling goal, you were motivated to start, but you've lost your drive. What happened? How do you sustain your motivation?

In a previous post, I wrote about how there is a disconnect between how we develop our goals and the sustained effort we need to achieve them. We develop our goals based on the rewards we anticipate, and the higher the anticipated rewards, the more exciting the project. Exciting goals are important because they fuel our initial motivation to start. But once we start, sustaining the effort to continue is where many of us fail. That's because, when it comes down to the actual work, we're driven by the effort required.

A new study has found that stamina, or our ability to sustain effort, is related to the glutamine-to-glutamate ratio in the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is part of the basal ganglia, a set of structures located close to the bottom of the forebrain and forms part of the brain's reward circuit. When we do something rewarding, such as eat food, have sex, succeed on a task, dopamine is released by the ventral tegmental area and, through its projections to the nucleus accumbens, results in an increase in dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens.

Informed by experiments with rodents and findings that the neurotransmitter glutamate and its precursor glutamine are involved in memory and decision-making,  researchers from the University of Edinburgh wanted to see whether they predicted sustained effort.

Participants (27 men) performed a "monetary incentive force task" where they were asked to squeeze a hand grip to 50% of their maximum level of force to earn 0.2, 0.5, or 1 Swiss franc. There were 80 consecutive trials, so the task was demanding, requiring them to sustain their effort over quite a long period of time if they wished to receive the maximum payout. They completed the task alone, and also in a competitive setting.

High glutamine-to-glutamate ratio predicts the ability to sustain motivation

The researchers found that individuals with a higher glutamine-to-glutamate ratio had a higher success rate and a lower perception of effort. The glutamine-to-glutamate ratio also predicted endurance stamina - individuals with a high glutamine-to-glutamate ratio were able to maintain performance over a long period of time. 

Those with a lower glutamine-to-glutamate ratio had a lower success rate, a higher perception of effort, and experienced more fatigue, having difficulty maintaining their performance over time. However, competition boosted initial performance for those with low glutamine-to-glutamate ratios but their performance declined quickly. 

These results show that individuals with high glutamine-to-glutamate ratios are able to overcome fatigue and this may be due to perception of effort: When we perceive effort to be high, as for individuals with low-glutamine-to-glutamate ratios, it can lead to giving up on our goals.

What are some things you can do to sustain motivation?
  • Glutamine supplementation - there is some evidence that supplementing with glutamine can lower perception of effort in demanding tasks
  • Break down goals into small tasks you know you can accomplish. This reduces the perceived effort required for each task and increases dopamine and the likelihood of achieving success on the next task. Breaking down goals into small tasks doesn't mean that you're giving up on your goals: It just means that you're doing the same amount of work in smaller bites.
  • Base your goals on the effort required rather than anticipated reward. This will help ensure that you sustain the effort required to achieve them. 

Nava, R.C., Zuhl, M.N., Moriarty ,T.A., et al. (2019). The effect of acute glutamine supplementation on markers of Inflammation and fatigue during consecutive days of simulated wildland firefighting. J Occup Environ Med. 61(2):e33-e42. doi: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000001507.

Strasser, A., Luksys, G., Xin, L., Pessiglione, M., Gruetter, R., Sandi, C. (2020). Glutamine-to-glutamate ratio in the nucleus accumbens predicts effort-based motivated performance in humans. Neuropsychopharmacology

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