Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Brain Chemistry: The role of dopamine in motivation and coaching

We are pleased to share an article entitled  “Brain Chemistry: The role of dopamine in motivation and coaching written by Meredith Canaan 

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As a coach, you strive to help your clients achieve their goals, and it can be frustrating when session after session they seem unmotivated to work on goals they created for themselves.

One thing you may not have considered is the neuroscience behind what could be stopping them. The obstacle in front of them may not be an issue of mindset or a lack of commitment. It could very well be that the key to coaching them can be found in neuroscience. It’s important to analyze the impact of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, on your clients motivation levels.

This article aims to outline the role of dopamine in motivation and coaching, shedding light on the intricate connection between brain chemistry, behavioral patterns and goal attainment.

This is especially true if you have neurodivergent clients (such as those with ADHD or Autism or other medical causes where it’s proven to be a specific medical reason causing dopamine deficiency). This is an opportunity to understand that their struggle with motivation, getting started, and all of the steps that are required to accomplish a goal to fruition are very real and neurological.

A little bit about dopamine. It is often referred to as the “feel-good” chemical that plays a pivotal role in regulating our reward and pleasure centers. It is closely associated with feelings of motivation, reward anticipation and goal pursuit. By understanding how dopamine functions at a neural level, we can effectively guide our clients toward achieving their desired outcomes.

When we are dealing with clients who have a dopamine deficiency – who struggle with the activation of actually getting from zero to anything – we can help get them started by breaking down goals into the smallest, easiest next step, so that achieving them feels easy and attainable with minimum effort. They get that dopamine hit from the simplest of tasks achieved.

Once they get a taste of the dopamine, just like sugar or other addictive substance, they will seek out the next dopamine hit. Then they are more likely to continue to take each simple and small action to get to the larger goal. The experience of small success after success feeds the dopamine.

Ned Hallowell and John Ratey, both renowned experts in the field of neuroscience, have extensively studied the concept of the Task Positive Network (TPN) versus being stuck in the Default Mode Network (DMN) of distraction. According to their research, the TPN is responsible for goal-directed thinking and focus, while the DMN is associated with mind-wandering and daydreaming. And sometimes this daydream consists of negative imagined results, or the worry caused by the “what ifs.”

Dopamine plays a crucial role in facilitating the TPN’s activity and reducing the dominance of the DMN. The release of dopamine helps to increase attention, motivation, and engagement with tasks. Conversely, a deficiency of dopamine can result in difficulties with focus, motivation, and overall cognitive functioning. Especially for these clients who get stuck overthinking, and ruminating on what to do and “is it right”.

When they get stuck in the negative thought spirals, it becomes increasingly difficult to flip the switch from the DPM side of things to get those domine hits and positive effects they get from accomplishing even the itty-bittiest of tasks. Because when your clients have the “glitchy switch,” a dopamine-deficient person needs what feels like 101% motivation to get even the smallest of tasks started, in contrast to neurotypical peers who only need 51% when getting started with normal dopamine levels.

So the smaller and more bite-sized the task, the easier it will be to get started, and then follow the momentum of accomplishment with celebrations. Dopamine is theirs!

In their works, including ADHD 2.0, Driven to Distraction and Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Hallowell and Ratey highlight the importance of maintaining optimal dopamine levels for cognitive performance and productivity. Motivation is not all about the dopamine, however, challenges with dopamine can significantly hinder the effectiveness of the SMART goals technique.

SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, provide a structured approach to goal setting. Dopamine deficiencies or imbalances can undermine the reward and motivation system required to pursue and accomplish SMART goals.

Without adequate dopamine levels, individuals may struggle with maintaining focus, experiencing pleasure from progress, or feeling motivated to continue working towards their goals. They may lack the ability to hold that focus on their intended goal over time, and as coaches, we can provide that continuous accountability and reminder of what they have declared they want to achieve, and be the structure and support they need.

While dopamine may be a natural response to goal attainment, it is crucial to recognize that not everyone may have the same level of dopamine release. Some individuals may have naturally lower levels of dopamine, while others may experience fluctuations in dopamine due to various factors such as stress, fatigue, or other medical conditions.

In situations where dopamine challenges hinder motivation, coaches can explore alternative motivators to ensure their clients stay on track. These alternative motivators may include:

1. Intrinsic Motivation: Encouraging individuals to find internal sources of motivation, such as personal values, passions, or interests, can help sustain momentum even in the absence of dopamine-induced pleasure. Helping them bring creativity, pleasure and playfulness can be powerful motivators.

2. External Rewards: While not as directly linked to dopamine release, providing external rewards such as recognition, praise or small incentives can help maintain motivation levels and provide a sense of accomplishment. Creating activities that are specifically a reward or celebration of something they want, help drive them towards that achievement. Creating a competition to beat a past personal goal or accomplish something in less time than previously can also be cause for a reward. Examples can include a vacation for a very long-term goal or dinner at a favorite restaurant for a smaller goal.

3. Social Support: Building a supportive network can increase motivation and accountability. Connecting with others who have similar goals or seeking the guidance of a coach or mentor can provide encouragement and help individuals navigate challenges. For many, just having another person to work next to as a body double can provide the external support to help clients show up at a certain time to get in action.

4. Personal Meaning: Helping individuals connect their goals to their values, purpose, or long-term vision can create a sense of significance and drive, ultimately enhancing motivation levels independently from dopamine fluctuations.

5. Novelty: Occasionally it’s time for a new perspective, or a different way of doing things. When motivation is missing, things may need a fresh new take. Helping the client see their goal in a new way can serve to keep and hold their attention. For example, the way the same old house can feel new when we paint it and rearrange the furniture. Eventually it wears off, and we need to adjust things so it “feel like the first time” again.

So just remember, if you’re having difficulty with what seems like client motivation. Ask yourself if it could be caused by one of these three things:

1. Could this be a dopamine deficiency and they are stuck trying to flip the “glitchy switch” so they can experience accomplishment?

2. Are the goals that they are currently working on broken down into the very smallest of SMART goals to achieve?

3. Would adding an outside motivator – such as creativity, play, rewards, competition or novelty – create the increased motivation to get them in gear and moving towards their goal?

If the answer to the first questions is yes, then you may have a neurodivergent or dopamine deprived client. And now that you’ve identified the potential problem, you can take the next steps to properly coach them, and meet them where they are.

They have a goal they want to achieve, and you are their coach who will help them discover the right tools and motivators to get them where they need to go.

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