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  • Writer's pictureRobert Lynch


What motives people? How do they stay motivated?

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Creating a writing career, or for that matter any self-employed business, requires motivation and dedication. A single project might be small enough that simple enthusiasm is enough to get you through, but dedication has to replace it when enthusiasm runs out.

All human actions require motivation. Hunger motivates us to eat, but it also motivates us to get the food. There are other kinds of hunger that drive us. Humans hunger for warmth. We hunger for safety. We hunger for love and affection. We hunger for status and respect. And we hunger to be self-fulfilled. That last one is a hunger only we can give ourselves. Love and status can only be given by others. Food, warmth, and safety can come from any source, even luck. Humans are also terrible at recognising the more complex hungers. Often we try to fill a lack of one by overindulging something more achievable. Aren't getting respect from others? Have a fancy meal, a drink, play a computer game, or buy a telescope. Maybe that isn't enough? More risky behaviour gives a higher dopamine rush. There are far riskier activities to try.

As discussed in previous posts, my plan is to have three workdays at crappy night job, two days writing, and two days for the weekend. Since I started this plan in April, I have struggled to see the writing days as anything other than more weekend days. And to be honest, after three and a half years of working nights, I'm still not completely recovered. There is a tiredness that seeped into my bones over those years, and it is still leaching out. It's remarkably similar to being drunk: when I'm tired I'm much more prone to making short term decisions. Take out, alcohol, and computer games have all taken much higher preference than they should.

Simply deciding to change my behaviour has had little effect. My rational brain wants to get some work done. But hunger doesn't come from the rational part of the brain. My unconscious is trying to fill its needs, but it doesn't understand why it's hungry.

When suffering hypothermia, the body ceases blood flow to the extremities to protect the internal organs. Under threat, the body prioritises keeping the important stuff safe, even if it means losing fingers or toes. It stands to reason, and there are FMRI studies to back this up, that it isn't just the blood flow that changes when the body is under threat. The prefrontal cortex (the rational part of the brain) shows less activity during stress conditions. The amygdala (fear response) and basal ganglia (motor control and executive functions) become more active.

When a lion jumps out of the bushes, we do not need to contemplate what to do; we need to run like buggery. The brain reduces input to the "contemplate" parts of the brain and increases the "leg movement" parts of the brain. For short periods of time, it is important to use the body's resources efficiently to survive. The keyword is short. The 'fight or flight' response to stress isn't supposed to be the brain's default position. Studies into PTSD show that the brain begins to grow more connections in the amygdala and basal ganglia under extreme stress and begins to atrophy connections in the prefrontal cortex. People living with PTSD entrench the fight or flight system as the default position.

While PTSD is the extreme example, the brain's process to optimise efficiency and recycle parts that it doesn't use is going on all the time. Our brains are streamlining common practices and breaking down 'unneeded' parts. The takeaway is that while there are some common practices we can't control, there are some we can.

This streamlining process is what causes muscle memory. When motor actions are repeated often enough, it stimulates growth in the unconscious part of our brains to the point where movements can be repeated without our conscious brain. We don't associate muscle memory with more complex tasks, but we should. Fast reflexes are one type of muscle memory, but so is driving. When we start out, every action is taken by the conscious part of our brains, and as we get more practice, the unconscious brain takes over more and more functions.

We can load more than just actions into our subconscious. Juggling, playing an instrument, and driving progressively use more and more complex data input and decision making, but we can go even further. Brain states like stress can become the default, but the opposite is true too. However, there is a disclaimer: the unconscious brain is a computer. It can do complex repetitional tasks that have pre-set outcomes with incredible efficiency. It is the part of our brain that recognises patterns and outcomes.

Intuition comes from our unconscious seeing a pattern and predicting an outcome. This is really helpful for patterns that have limited variables that we have encountered before. Juggling has only a few variables: gravity, motion detection, three-dimensional spatial awareness. Driving has hundreds of variables, but we incrementally expose ourselves to new conditions as we learn: day driving with no cars, day driving on the road, night driving, driving in the wet, and so on.

Our unconscious handles intuition and pattern recognition, and our conscious handles counter-intuitive situations. Ever notice how you seem more alert if something unexpected happens when you are driving? When we encounter a new situation, the unconscious re-engages the conscious to react.

The bottom rungs of Maslow's needs are dependent on the unconscious. We cannot survive without shelter, food, and water; therefore, the brain will always prefer them. However, Love, Respect, and Self-fulfilment require the conscious mind. You can live without them, for a while at least, but you cannot thrive.

Shelter, food, and water are immediate needs, so we are constantly motivated to find them. Love, respect, and self-fulfilment are not immediate, so the brain will never preference them. We need to cover our physiological needs, but we are pre-set by evolution to focus on them above all else. It makes sense; in the chaos of pre-civilisation a hunter-gather couldn't have the abundance that we have in the modern world. It's also true that acquiring abundant resources was the path to achieving satiation of our psychological needs for most of history. Providing for others allowed for the division of labour, which provided greater security, and was the path to love, respect, and self-fulfilment.

It's common for people to think that they will be happy if they have enough money, get that promotion at work, or some other goal which is a proxy for providing abundance in our basic needs. Studies show that after the physiological needs are met, an increased abundance of resources does not impact happiness. Money can buy some happiness, but after that, you're on your own.

Happiness doesn't just mean spending time doing something that you enjoy. If I play video games all day, I am getting those microdoses of dopamine the whole day long, so why do I feel hollow afterwards? Why do I feel more fulfilled after a day where I wrote, even if it was for only half an hour? It's because I keep getting that dopamine hit after I finish writing, whereas the juice stops flowing from video games as soon as I hit exit.

Why it's writing for me and could be video games for another person is a discussion for another time, but I've found the thing that works for me. The underlying question of this blog is: Why is it so hard to do the thing that makes me feel fulfilled?

Spending energy on the conscious mind is taxing. The unconscious is always running to keep the lights on; when the conscious is on, it uses extra energy. The body doesn't want to spend any energy wastefully.

It's hard to learn how to drive. It's scary, and there's so much to learn, and there's the threat of failure, even death. It is not as true where there is plenty of public transport, but growing up in the country there is only driving to get around. If you want to go further than your bike will take you, and you'll need to be able to travel those distances to function as an adult, then you have to learn to drive or be dependent on others. Learning how to drive, at least in rural areas, is essential.

Love, respect, and self-fulfilment are essential. They require the conscious part of the brain. Learning how to drive a brain is much harder than driving a car. For a start, the unconscious is the overbearing instructor that will take over at the slightest bump. Also, there are no controls we can recognise, limited signposts, and we have no idea where the destination is.

The only consolation is that we aren't alone. Nobody knows what they are doing, and it's hard to recognise who's going in the right direction and how they are doing it.

What we do know is that we need both the conscious driver and the unconscious instructor to get there. And we know that practice helps both of them to grow stronger and more efficient. But it has to be regular practice. Trying to learn to juggle once a year isn't going to get the job done. You have to try every day. The brain will streamline common practices.

What motives people? How do they stay motivated?

Practice. And when you fail, start again tomorrow. It will get easier.

My plan to push my week's writing into two days is flawed. I need to do something every day. From now on, come rain, hail, or shine, I'm going to get some writing done every day. What seems obvious to me now is that my most productive periods in the past were where I was writing every day. As I get practice starting writing regularly, it will make it easier to get into writing mode on my writing days. When my work schedule changed, I made a bad plan, and it hasn't worked. So now I have to get back to basics.


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