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Opinion: Lacking New Year motivation? There is always some science to explain it!

Despite the fact that we are more than halfway through January the to-do list just keeps growing.

Naomi Lavelle

MY NEW YEAR goals are all set, the kids are in school, the sun is shining, the dishes are all washed. No distractions, no excuses, I am ready and primed for action… right? Wrong!

I am lacking some very important factors: energy, creativity and motivation.

Despite the fact that we are more than halfway through January the to-do list just keeps growing. I am told that I am not alone, that many others are doing little more than staring at the plans that they have made. So why am I stalling while barely off the startering block? While I wait for inspiration and motivation to kick in, I thought I’d take a closer look.

Diet

Why the lack of energy? Well, is this one really surprising? For most of us we just have to look at our diet over the last few weeks… sugar is probably high on the consumption list.

Initially, sugar does give us energy – it causes a rapid peak in blood sugar levels. It can be quite similar to a caffeine hit. But with every high there comes a low and for sugar that usually happens within an hour or so. A hormone called insulin is released in response to the high levels of blood sugar. Insulin instigates the uptake of sugar from the blood to the cells, resulting in low levels of blood sugars, fatigue, weakness and hunger. On top of all that, the cells will convert the sugar they do not use directly as fuel into fat, as it is lighter and easier to store in the body.

In general, the food we eat over the holiday season, although tasty, often has the overall effect of lowering our mood. Protein rich diets for example (how much turkey did you eat?) can lower our serotonin levels and leave us feeling low.

So the lack of energy is not exactly surprising.

Exercise

For most of us, Christmas is about doing very little, exercise-wise. I am a firm believer in taking time off and just resting for a while and those dark days at the end of the year seem like a good time to do so. The lack of exercise does, however, come at a cost… not only does regular exercise boost our mood, our energy levels and our general wellbeing, it can also increase our creativity.

Considering the fact that I barely left the house for much of the Christmas, it is little wonder that I am feeling low in mood and motivation.

Change of body clock

Then there is the change to our body clocks. Most of us don’t get up as early in the morning if we don’t have to. Even the children tend to sleep a little later (if we are lucky) because they, too, are staying up later every night. So we shift our body clocks on an hour or two and feel like we are recharging the batteries. The only problem is, once work and school resume, we need to jolt our bodies back into that early rise again.

The more clever and organised among us may do this in a gradual way but I inevitable cling to it until the very last second and then just go ‘cold turkey’ on the first morning back after the holiday; not exactly conducive to good energy levels and motivation.

Motivation

We have just established that I am tired, my body clock is out of whack and that my diet has made me sluggish. Not exactly great motivators. So how can I improve things? It turns out dopamine has may have a part to play in all this.

Dopamine is commonly linked with triggering pleasurable feedback and reward within the body. Its true role goes a little deeper than that as it is also actively involved in controlling mood, attention, behaviour, memory and motivation.

The complex fine-tuning of the effect of dopamine on our bodies comes with examining the route the neurotransmitter takes within the signalling pathways of the brain. If we imagine these pathways as a very complex rail system, the tracks the dopamine train follows, along with the individual stations the train passes through, dictate the overall response. When dopamine reaches certain parts of the brain, it signals feedback to anticipate reward or predict a particular outcome. This creates the motivation to act, rather than the reward for acting.

Spikes in dopamine levels have been recorded in situations of high stress, coming before any reward and likely to create motivation to action to reach a certain outcome.

This knowledge is very interesting but how does it help to motivate us when we are in a slump? By knowing how it works we can manipulate the system; create small, achievable tasks that will result in a drip-feed of dopamine within the brain. As each small task is performed, the levels of dopamine will increase and so too, hopefully, will our motivation. This system certainly got me through this article; when the task appeared too big I broke it down into words and sentences until, eventually, the motivation increased, the reward feedback kicked in and the paragraphs began to add up.

In other words, I took it in baby steps, allowing myself feel the individual reward as each step was achieved.

How does all this help me with my New Year’s resolutions?

Firstly, I have realised that I may be aiming too high. New Year plans are great but it is never a good idea to try to force them into being in early January. Better to implement these goals and changes gently, over time, and in small doses.

I need to remember to cut myself some slack. I chose to take the down time and I am really glad I did. Now I have to accept that it may take a little time to shift life up a gear, just as it takes time to shift the extra weight that comes with a good Christmas season.

The first of January may be a great day to make all these predictions but the first of February might be a better date to roll them out! In the meantime I am going to shuffle slowly and quietly through this month, I’ll call it “working behind the scenes”. Maybe by February I’ll be all revved up and ready for action. I am sure that there is still time to cram a year of plans into 11 months – once I remember to take it in baby steps and let the dopamine flow!

How are you doing with your New Year plans?

Dr Naomi Lavelle is a mum to three junior scientists who are always asking “how”, “why” and “what if”. She blogs at Science Wows where she aims to answer all their questions, one post at a time. She can also be found on Facebook and as @sciencewows on Twitter.

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Naomi Lavelle

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