Motivation isn’t just a mental game. “Research is showing that what you eat, how much you sleep, and other factors can directly impact your drive,” says Daniel Fulford, Ph.D., an assistant professor and a clinical psychologist at Boston University. These physical influences affect what’s known as perception of effort, or how much work you think an action will take, which in turn can determine whether you keep pushing forward, Fulford says.
Here’s how the process works: Your brain assesses the difficulty of a task or a goal based in large part on your physiological state. “It uses signals, including how hungry or how tired you are, to determine if a physical activity is worth the effort required,” Fulford says. For instance, if you’re exhausted, your brain might evaluate going to the gym now as requiring far more effort than it would after a full eight hours of sleep, and you’ll have a harder time persuading yourself to go.
To keep your motivation high, then, you need your perception of effort to be low. Shape worked with the experts to identify four strategies that have been scientifically proved to do just that, so you can conquer any goal.
A cup of coffee or black tea not only invigorates you but also makes your to-dos feel more manageable. “Caffeine reduces your brain’s level of adenosine, a neurotransmitter that makes you drowsy. As your mental fatigue is relieved, tasks feel less difficult,” says Walter Staiano, Ph.D., the head of research at Sswitch, a neuro-performance company. Certain sugary drinks may have a similar effect, according to research in the journal Psychology and Aging. Adults who consumed 25 grams of glucose 10 minutes before taking a memory-search test were more engaged than those who sipped a sugar-free drink. Researchers don’t yet know whether other forms of sugar, like the sucrose in table sugar and the fructose in fruit, deliver the same results. So for a sure thing, choose glucose gels, tablets, or drinks.
Exercising regularly and continually taking it up a notch can make everything else you work on feel less difficult, Staiano says. “We found that 30 minutes of demanding cognitive tasks that made most people mentally exhausted had no effect on elite cyclists,” he says. “We think it’s because when you train your body, you train your brain too, and it becomes more resistant to mental fatigue and wired to deal with things that take high levels of effort.” Any physically demanding activity will have this effect and reduce your perception of effort, Staiano says. Just keep pushing yourself to lift heavier, move farther, go faster, or stretch deeper.
Not getting enough rest can make everything seem harder, Fulford says. On a typical day, this isn’t a big deal—sleep soundly the next night, and your motivation will rebound. But research shows that if you toss and turn the night before a major event like a race, it can throw you off. “Lack of sleep impacts your focus on a goal and reduces the supply of energy to the brain,” Fulford notes. “Your mental stamina and effort decline, which reduces your performance.” The good news: Simply being aware that drowsiness affects your motivation but not your physical abilities is enough to help you bounce back, Fulford says. To power through, just remind yourself that you have the skills to be successful.
Being just a little on the hungry side is good for motivation. “It’s a physical sign to your brain that action must be taken [to find food], so it can make you more driven,” Fulford says. “Satiety, on the other hand, puts the body into rest mode.” To satisfy your appetite and boost your mojo, choose high-carb foods like bread and pasta. “They release glucose very quickly, which can give you more energy in the short term. Higher-fat foods like avocado require more energy to digest, which may direct energy away from the brain and lead to a higher perception of effort,” Fulford says.
Avoid eating a big or fat-filled meal right before you need to be productive. And if you find yourself crossing the line from hungry to hangry, grab a small carb-heavy snack like a banana to take the edge off.
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