Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about motivation process

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Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about motivation process

December 10, 2021

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about motivation process

Motivation is one of the driving forces of human behavior and, at the same time, a key element in setting life and professional goals. Achieving any purpose is a process that you need to think through and care for. If you feel no motivation to work, ensure that you meet all aspects of the motivation process – from setting a goal, overcoming obstacles to maintaining the pace until the end of the action. 

Motivation at work 

The main psychological factors stimulating employees’ motivational behavior are the desire for recognition, teamwork, and, of course, decent earnings.

However, the American Psychological Association research shows that finding meaning in work has a much more significant impact on commitment, satisfaction, career advancement, and reduced absenteeism than any other factor. 

This text presents an integrated view of human motivation, based on many cognitive, social, and educational psychology disciplines, and finally, neuroscience. It discusses new neuroscience discoveries relating to the role of reward, learning, values, decision making, and cognitive control. 

Motivation – definition

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process - 1. What is motivation?

Motivation comes from the Latin term “motivus,” which means moving. So it is what pushes us towards achieving a goal or performing an action. 

To feel motivated, you must have a motive – usually coming form the need to do something for your own or someone else’s good. The possibilities are endless and case-specific, but the essence of the motivation remains the same in each case. 

  • motivation synonyms: catalyst, impulse, stimulus, inducement, incentive 
  • motivation antonyms: counterincentive, disincentive, block, detergent, discouragement 

Motivation vs. discipline 

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process - 2. Motivation vs. discipline

Motivation is sometimes mistakenly associated with discipline. Though, these are different terms, albeit complementary. We already know what motivation is – so what about discipline?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines self-discipline as “the ability to do things that you know you should do when you don’t want to.” Discipline is also the ability to manage one’s own behavior in a way that ensures improvement and goals achievement. This concept focuses on being consistent

So if the motivation is related to “why to do”, then (self) discipline to “what to do.” However, discipline and motivation are both essential to developing a habit. Motivation is a reinforcing factor at the beginning of an action, while discipline is needed to maintain concentration. 

Master your motivation and break free with self-discipline. Then use them together to unlock your potential for habit formation

Motivation vs. inspiration 

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process - 3. Motivation vs. inspiration

Those terms are also often wrongly used interchangeably. The key difference is that motivation is something “external” – the goal we pursue and the force that pushes us towards it.

Inspiration, on the other hand, is something “internal” – an outburst of creativity and productivity. It is initially triggered by something outside, which has merged with and resonated with our personality. 

Where does motivation process start? 

Motivation can come from many different sources, and there are many motives for engaging in a given task or activity. Generally speaking, people are motivated by stimuli

  • extrinsic, such as incentives to work for remuneration or other forms of redress; 
  • intrinsic, such as motivation to create works of art in your spare time. 

Extrinsic motivation 

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process - 4. External motivation

It’s the kind of action we perform for a particular outcome when we want to get something or avoid punishment. That’s some other reason why we commit ourselves to work – other than the joy of doing it. External motivators are, for example, any promises, the prospect of receiving a reward, or time pressure. 

According to research by psychologist Victor Vroom, an external motivator requires three elements to be successful: 

  1. expectancy – believing that more effort will lead to increased efficiency; 
  2. instrumentality – believing that better results will be recognized and rewarded; 
  3. valence – faith in the promised reward. 

An external motivator can increase motivation in the short term, but it won’t keep it high long-term.

Intrinsic motivation 

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process - 5. Intrinsic motivation 

Unlike extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation is integrated into human identity and is about doing something meaningful for a particular individual.

Since it comes from within us, it is not triggered by any expected reward, deadline, or external pressure. It can be a personal pleasure in action, a desire to gain knowledge, a new skill, or to improve in a specific activity. In the long run, it is more vital in pushing to act than extrinsic motivation, and the resulting achievements are more rewarding.

It is the kind of motivation that keeps us focused on a specific thing and allows us to practice deep work without getting distracted. The intrinsic motivation drives humanity towards the development of civilization and progress in many fields of science. 

Extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation

At first glance, it may seem that it is better to be motivated internally than externally. But, unfortunately, we do not live in such a motivational utopia. 

Suppose you have a complex project in your job. In that case, you are probably externally motivated – either by your manager, potential pay rise, or commission – even if you actually like the project. 

And as a student, you might be externally motivated to learn a new skill (e.g., a foreign language) because you get grades for it – but at the same time enjoy the learning process. Both motivation aspects play their part. 

The key is figuring out why you and your team are motivated to do something and encouraging all factors contributing to that motivation

The motivation process according to neuroscience 

Limitations of traditional theories of motivation 

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process - 6. The motivation process according to neuroscience

The main psychological theories that have contributed to understanding the complexity of human motivation include among others: empowering learning, attribution, self-determination, expected value, goals, and self-regulation. For years, empirical research on motivation has been divided into areas, making it difficult to provide a detailed, comprehensive view of its issues. 

According to Sung-il Kim of the Brain and Motivation Research Institute at Korea University, traditional theories of motivation have limitations such as: 

  • vagueness of the concept of motivation (it is impossible to draw a clear line between motivation and concepts such as drive, need, intention, desire, goal, will); 
  • lack of a comprehensive theory of motivation (each of the existing ones concerns only a specific part and there is no deep understanding of the motivational process as a whole); 
  • difficulty measuring motivation (self-report measurement limited to the consciously accessible aspect of motivation). 

New, integrative approach to motivation process

Faced with the limitations of traditional theories and attempts to overcome them, a new assessment of motivation arose. It is an integrative approach, drawing on many disciplines – cognitive, social, educational psychology, and finally, neuroscience. By detecting changes in the brain while performing tasks, it has become possible to understand the dynamic and hidden nature of motivation. 

The main goal is to discover the function of rewards in human behavior. It has been shown that external stimuli undoubtedly play an essential role in shaping our behavior. However, humans have the ability to engage in a task without them, such as by self-generating internal rewards. The forms of motivation triggered by inner rewards are caused by interest, curiosity, or intrinsic motivation. 

Reward and motivation 

Feeling no motivation to work? Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process - 7. Reward and motivation

Do rewards improve learning or work outcomes? According to recent findings in cognitive neuroscience, the answer points to the direction that they do. There is a connection between motivation (reward) and memory systems in the brain.

However, research in social psychology has also shown that external rewards can sometimes undermine internal motivation. For example, when a task is intrinsically interesting, rewards may weaken the motivation and therefore not bring the expected benefits. 

3 levels of motivation process 

By combining neuroscientific discoveries about reward, learning, values, decision-making, and cognitive control, scientists created a model of motivation processes. It defines motivation as a series of dynamic sub-processes involving the generation, maintenance, and regulation of motivation. These three sub-processes interact with each other. 

3 levels of motivation process:1. Generation: Reward-Driven Motivation2. Maintenance: Value-Based Motivation Process3. Regulation: Goal-Directed Motivation

1. Generation: Reward-Driven Motivation

Process Reward is one of the most potent variables influencing motivation, regardless of its type (physical or social reward). Reward processing consists of a sequence of sub-processes, such as: 

  • reward prediction (associating reward with behavior); 
  • planning to receive an award; 
  • encoding the value of the prize; 
  • updating the relative value of the prize. 

Therefore, when a person gets a reward, different brain regions are stimulated. This process extracts a reward region (also known as the dopamine pathway) in the brain where a fundamental stimulus-action relationship is formed. The process is classified as automatic motivation.

2. Maintenance: Value-Based Motivation Process

This sub-process involves value-based decision-making. It relies on evaluating various results of actions, learning through a positive prediction error, and constantly calculating values. The area of ​​assessment plays a crucial role in keeping you motivated. 

The difference between the expected and real reward is referred to as the reward prediction error (RPE). The higher the RPE, the more dopamine is released. However, only waiting for a reward, not receiving it, increases its release and thus generates the target behavior.

There are two types of RPE: positive and negative. A positive RPE appears when the result is better than expected or when unexpected rewards are given. In comparison, a negative RPE occurs when the result is worse than expected or when expected rewards are missed. Both positive and negative RPEs increase dopamine release, which increases the frequency of target behaviors. 

3. Regulation: Goal-Directed Motivation

Process Controlling impulses and regulating motivation require detailed planning and the implementation of future goals. The central process underlying such regulation is cognitive control; it includes goal maintenance, planning, performance monitoring, strategy selection, and performance evaluation

Cognitive control is a helpful strategy for dealing with your emotional response to negative feedback. This can lead to better performance and the production of a positive RPE, which in turn stimulates the release of dopamine to promote motivation and increases the chance of new learning. 

The reason people fail to complete tasks and have no motivation to work is because immediate rewards have more subjective value than delayed rewards. Scientists call it temporal discounting or delay discounting. If participants can choose the timing and size of the reward, they experience a conflict between a small but immediate reward and a large but delayed reward. Knowing this relationship can help you consciously trade away from immediate dividends for a delayed but greater reward. 

How to increase motivation to work? 

Learn what neuroscience says about the motivation process – How to increase motivation to work?

If you are a manager wondering how to increase motivation among employees – remember to use external rewards in a thoughtful way. Bonuses, commissions, and promotions will be appropriate for above-average initiatives, such as acquiring new skills, taking on a new challenge, or reaching the quarterly goal.

Above all, however, make sure that the employees’ motivation is internal. To do this, provide them with your support and guidance and give them the time and resources to discover skills and projects that really interest them independently. Employee motivation will additionally increase when they see that the actions they initiate have a tangible impact on the company’s results.

And, if you are an employee, do not spend all your energy chasing external rewards. Instead, make sure you take the time to discover activities that bring you inner satisfaction. 


In fact, the most significant successes won’t come from focusing solely on motivation. To create a thriving team environment, you need to motivate and inspire.

A LinkedIn survey found that both motivating and inspiring factors are critical in creating a sense of belonging among employees. In addition, as many as 59% of respondents wanted to feel appreciated for their achievements; and 46% wanted to know that their company cares about them as individuals.

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