Many different factors are at play to produce great work: motivation, environment, job satisfaction, work-life balance, and — the most basic, yet underestimated, of all things — joy. Thankfully, we have science to help us decipher the psychology behind what makes us do our best work, and technology to optimize it. 

When you feel fulfilled and motivated, you do great work. And when great work gets recognized, that reinforcement makes you feel more fulfilled and more motivated to generate great work all over again. See how it works?

This five-part series will explore a) what is going on in your brain during the processes that prime you for focus and creativity b) how to use that feedback to ultimately create meaningful work that makes you happier, more productive, and successful in your job.

Part 1: Motivation

Welcome to science class! In this lesson, you’ll learn what goes on at the molecular level when you feel motivated and how all that neural activity gives you a performance boost at work.

What is motivation?

Motivation is a psychological force that enables action — a change in either the self or the environment. But something powerful happens when you tap into a source of energy propelled by goals, values, and emotional desires. You experience the drive and direction necessary to solve your most challenging problems.

What does science say?

Dopamine — a naturally occurring neurotransmitter that sends signals from your body to your brain — is widely associated with pleasure. But it has far wider effects critical to central nervous system functions, such as movement, attention, mood, and motivation.

“Go-getters” experience a more rapid release of dopamine in the areas of the brain associated with reward and motivation versus “slackers,” whose dopamine levels appear elevated in other parts of the brain linked to emotion and risk perception.

What does this mean? Targeting dopamine production in the right areas of the brain helps people overcome low energy levels, risk perception, stress, and pain. By seeking pleasurable activities and settings, you’re more likely to experience positive reinforcement and motivation.

How does this lead to great work?

It’s one thing to feel motivated, but another to perform the tasks you’ve set out to accomplish. The ability to execute occurs at the intersection of motivation and willpower.

Scientists have found that willpower is finite, meaning that you only get a certain amount in one day before it’s exhausted. When decision fatigue sets in, willpower diminishes, and the ability to follow through on motivation declines.

The solution?

Manage willpower and the things that zap motivation by developing solid routines, prioritizing, and eliminating unnecessary commitments. In the next post in this series, we’ll discuss what primes your brain for better concentration — your environment.

Liv Huntley is a Content Writer at Born in the Midwest, raised on NFL and Miles Davis, and lives on Google Drive. A serious journalist, a not-so-serious copywriter, and a social psychology nerd, she formerly wrote for a women’s magazine and always enjoys a bit of storytelling tomfoolery. You can catch her skiing in the winter and chasing cold climates year-round.