The 1,000 li journey, according to science
Motivation really is all in your mind. It happens when your brain releases dopamine that gets to the “nucleas accumbens,” or reward center of the brain. Dopamine in the reward center triggers action in your brain: it forces your brain to assess a situation and decide whether what's about to happen it good or bad.
If it seems that a reward is coming your way, awesome! That prediction motivates you to maximize it. If your brain predicts that something bad is going to happen, it motivates you to minimize that predicted threat. Dopamine isn't just about feeling happy or “up”; it's about rewards, punishment, and motivation.
When Vanderbilt researchers compared dopamine levels in the brains of both “go-getters” and “slackers,” they discovered something fascinating. In slacker brains, dopamine gathers in regions associated with risk and emotion, but in go-getters dopamine hangs out in regions of the brain connected to rewards.
Fighting behavioral apathy and winning
But what about behavioral apathy—that thing that keeps you from waking up early to work out or clean out the refrigerator, even though you know that those tasks are beneficial and you're motivated to do them? According to University of Oxford researchers, behavioral apathy does have a biological basis in the brain—one that ties back into the slackers and go-getters research.
The behavioral apathy research shows that the ability to achieve more and stay motivated relies on three factors:
- Maintaining attention, keeping the goal consciously toward the front your mind, to avoid distraction;
- Visualization of the goal, which activates the brain's reflective capacity and forces it to consider preparing for the task's execution and the reward it will bring; and
- Taking the actual first step and starting the task produces the dopamine that signals the brain that a reward is coming; we may expect to feel motivated before we start, but the fire that dopamine lights under us only comes once we've started, keeping us going.
In fact, the researchers confirmed that the more effort you have to put into forcing yourself to act and making mental commitments—instead of just getting started—the less dopamine you'll receive in your reward center.
In other words, it feels exhausting to get motivated under those circumstances because it is literally tiring to your brain, which is expending more energy for less reward.
This was all true regardless of the size of the task undertaken, by the way.
The first action you take rewards your brain
So slackers exhaust their minds agonizing over getting motivated, and get less from the process. Go-getters just start doing something, and immediately feel the rewards of that action, which enables them to do more. So whether you're hoping to complete a journey of 1,000 li or just wanting to take a few laps around the neighborhood, forcing those first couple of steps is the wisest and most rewarding action to take.