It’s that time of year again when we are naturally drawn towards re-evaluating our lives and setting goals for the year ahead. This year is particularly special, with the dawn of a shiny new decade inviting us to step out and step up and achieve great new things.

However, with so many of us giving up on New Years resolution before we even reach the end of January, what can we do differently this year to ensure that we gain, build and maintain progress towards our goals?

Whether you would love to run a marathon, build on the success of your business or gain a sense of peace and order in your life, all change requires motivation to keep you going well past the point when others have faded and lost their way.

Motivation is the fuel to our actions, pushing us forward towards our goals and if we want to build what I call ‘Motivation Momentum’ we need to turn to our basic chemistry to help us along.

The two main systems that are involved in motivation in our brains, are the Reward System and the Threat System and both are equally powerful in helping build and maintain motivation.

To help us develop a recipe for success, we need to understand and harness the power of the neurotransmitters linked to these two systems – Dopamine for reward and Adrenaline for threat.


Dopamine is well known as the reward neurotransmitter. We get a burst of dopamine when we anticipate completing a task, when we complete it and when we reflect back on what we have achieved. It is this good feeling that will make completing things – like going to the gym or making that difficult call – pleasurable. Our brains are designed to be drawn towards reward.

If we are consciously aware of the impact of dopamine, we can use it to our advantage. People who have made exercise habitual have a deep understanding that, even if they don’t feel pleasure at the time, completion of a run or a workout provides a great sense of satisfaction (and a range of endorphins) after.

That is the reward.

Keeping a journal or chart that maps progress is a great way to increase the dopamine in our systems – reflection on what we achieved gives us an addition boost of the feel-good chemical – pushing us to repeat this behaviour again and again.

On the days, when we feel that we have achieved very little, spending a couple of minutes listing what we did manage to do amid the chaos, produces some dopamine, which will in turn improve our mood and our motivation.

Ways to Use Dopamine for Motivation

1.    Remind yourself how good you will feel after the task is completed – see if as a gift to yourself – to get a little ‘anticipation dopamine’.

2.    Break big goals into tiny steps and congratulate yourself once each step is completed – ‘reward dopamine’.

3.    Have chart on the wall or in a journal, monitoring progress, so that you can bask in your achievement – gaining a little ‘reflective dopamine‘.

4.    Keep a visual reminder of what your goal is, so that you are constantly reminding your brain of the major reward that you are heading towards.


Just as we are drawn towards reward, our brains are designed to avoid threat. Adrenaline is triggered in our systems when we feel that a threat is imminent. If we view the behaviour that we need to undertake to reach our goals – completing a workout, cutting out sugar, getting up at 5am to write for an hour – as a threat, our bodies will produce adrenaline and we will be inclined to avoid the behaviour. Adrenaline will convince us to move away from the ‘threat’.

However, if we re-frame the desired behaviour as a ‘gift’ and the behaviour we want to move away from as the ‘threat’ we can use the power of Adrenaline to our advantage.

When starting his own business, my husband focused just as clearly on what he no longer wanted to do to harness the power of Adrenaline. He needed to make the business work so that did not have to go back to his old job – wasting three hours a day in a frustrating commute only to sit in front of a computer crunching numbers. This was wanted he wanted to avoid and so when the going got tough, he reminded himself of this regularly to give him an Adrenaline boost – honing his actions and his thinking – driving him away from the undesirable situation towards his goals.

Adrenaline focuses our thinking and provides us with the energy that we need to move away from something undesirable. Too much fear and we can become avoidant or frozen, so it is important that we get the right amount. Here’s how we can use a little bit of fear to propel us towards our goals.

Ways to Use Adrenaline for Motivation

1.    Think clearly about what you no longer want. Visualise how you will feel if you do not make the changes that you need to make your life better.

2.    Think about the consequences of not taking action. Will no action lead to continued stress, health problems, financial difficulties or negative consequence for those that we care about or are responsible to? What is the cost of no action?

3.    Find an accountability partner – someone that you can trust to not let you off the hook – to help you stay on track when you feel like giving up.

4.    If you’re feeling brave enough, make your goals public. The knowledge that others are watching might be enough to motivate you when you lose sight of the reward.

Like a steam train leaving the station – slow at first and but steadily building speed – with the right amounts, Dopamine and Adrenaline provide powerful fuel that can help you become an unstoppable force.

And remember, if you have a lapse – which of course happens to everyone – and find yourself getting off the motivation steam train, just take a break at the station and jump right on board the next train, using reward and a little dose of fear to propel you towards your goals!

Catherine McIntosh is the founder of STRIVE & THRIVE CONSULTING.  She is a Consultant, Trainer and Writer on Performance and Resilience for Teams.  Strive & Thrive provide a range of programmes Building Peak Performance and Resilience for Teams.
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