Motivation During a Pandemic

You don’t have to go far on the Internet these days to find tips for how to “stay productive” during the pandemic and ideas for how to maintain heavy work loads despite crumbling routines and high uncertainty.

The reality on the ground though is that for many of us productivity and high motivation are as elusive as a babysitter right now. While a certain amount of stress can boost energy and increase focus, more often it leaves us feeling irritable, tired, and fuzzy. Goals that seemed achievable at the start of the day often seem out of reach by lunch.

That’s not to say that staying in bed for the next year is a good idea. Understanding the science of motivation can help us keep our eyes on how to nurture it in our kids – not to meet the relentless pressure of “productivity” but for mental health and wellbeing and so that we can find ways to stay engaged in what really matters as the pandemic wears on.

Child not motivated to start distance learning work.

Yelling, “Get motivated” doesn’t work

This question came from a parent last week. “How do I motivate my son to care more about his online school work? He has no trouble getting his act together to hang out online with his friends, but I can’t for the life of me light the same fire for him to complete his assignments!”

It can certainly be frustrating as a parent to attempt to energize and motivate your child toward their goals, especially when your investment in their progress doesn’t match theirs. It’s when we are most frustrated that we will pull anything out of our toolkit to help get them moving including cajoling, yelling, lamenting, and bribing.

Motivation is essential yet so elusive. Why is a baby so motivated to learn how to walk despite hundreds of setbacks? Why is homework the last thing on your teenager’s list of priorities every day? Why doesn’t it seem to work when we tell our kids they just need to, “Get motivated?”

The science of motivation

Understanding the brain science of motivation sheds some light on this important attribute and teaches us that it’s not something we lose or find. Instead, motivation is built over time with special windows of sensitivity during early childhood and adolescence. As we explore the world, our experiences cause a release of neurotransmitters that change the chemistry of our brain in ways that stimulate us to keep going or hold us back. I like to think of neurotransmitters as “molecules of emotion” because their levels in our brain have a lot to do with our feelings.

One of the central players in positive experiences is dopamine, the “happy” brain chemical. The more dopamine is circulating in our brains the happier we feel. Dopamine (and other neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins) don’t just make us feel good. They also send chemical signals along pathways that connect the regions of the brain responsible for rewards and memories. This makes sense! It is very useful for me to remember the things that make me feel good. Smell a bouquet of flowers? Delightful. See flowers again? Smell them again!

This chemical feedback loop helps us remember positive experiences like this so we are motivated to repeat them.

Approach motivation and the seeking brain.

Importantly, the brain doesn’t just reward us for doing things that we enjoy. It also rewards us for anticipating things that we enjoy. Based on our experiences, we learn what makes us feel good. This includes everything from smelling those flowers to making new friends or eating a bowl of ice cream.

Our brains then prompt us to seek these things out again by making the search rewarding in and of itself. This explains why a child’s anticipation of a new toy is sometimes even  better than playing with it. When it comes to learning, the seeking system is the driver of motivation. Ideally, children are asked to engage in questions and ideas that are at their learning boundaries, motivating them to constantly seek new information, answer questions, and experience rewards along the way.

A combination of safe routine – “I’ve been here before! I know this ends well!” – and novelty – “I wonder what is going to happen next?” – makes our seeking brains hum.

Avoidance motivation and stress

Our brains aren’t just pumping molecules of emotion to help us seek and repeat good things. Another process motivates us to avoid bad things as well. When our stress response system alerts us to danger, it triggers our freeze, fight or flight response (we can add congregate and collapse to this list as well). This system hijacks the thinking brain and floods the body with adrenaline so that we can focus on the threat, respond quickly, and get towards safety. This is some helpful motivation! It has kept us human beings alive for a long time.

Given that we are living through a global pandemic, it’s no surprise, therefore, that our surveillance systems are on high alert.  For some of us, the avoidance system is taking priority over the approach system. Plus many of the routines and activities that ignite the seeking brain are off limits. With this in mind, it makes total sense that some or our teens would rather sleep or play video games until August and our five year olds fall apart in the face of basic tasks.

To be clear though, avoidance motivation did not begin with the pandemic. For many kids, ongoing experiences like racism, food insecurity, or transphobia and/or episodic stressors like grief, natural disasters, or family changes ignite kids’ survival systems. In other words, we shouldn’t expect kids to run excitedly towards spaces they don’t feel safe in.

So can we make a sticker chart to get through this thing?

Motivation is shaped by two forces: genes and experience. Both approach and avoidance motivations are built into our brains even before we are born. In other words, babies arrive in the world hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We don’t have to teach them these skills! This is what we often refer to as “intrinsic motivation.” In the context of safe and secure environments and relationships, most children move out into the world, approach new experiences, and enjoy what they find there.

While tempting, a sticker chart alone will not get us through the pandemic. Research is pretty clear that intrinsic motivation is the active ingredient for sustained interest and enjoyment. That’s not to say that we can’t enhance motivation with extrinsic rewards. We can! But when they become the primary motivators, their effectiveness fades over time. If the only reward comes from the sticker or prize, children are less likely to stick with the task once the sticker fueled dopamine wanes.

If we can’t just rely on stickers, what else can we do?

Prioritize warm and caring relationships.

In our quest to be “productive” we often miss the most essential ingredient in motivation: connection. Children and teenagers alike benefit from warm and caring relationships that help them feel safe and secure enough to want to approach and explore the world again. This is true for all children, but especially important for children who have experienced or are experiencing stress and/or trauma.

This means that we should prioritize connecting with our kids over harsh discipline. Work towards a balanced approach that balances limits and consequences with plenty of warmth and support. Find creative ways to stay connected with teens and prioritize ways for them to connect with their friends. Apologize when we make mistakes. Find our way back to each other after a hard day.

Make room for choice and share power.

If kids feel safe and secure, their seeking brains will propel them to seek new, fresh experiences. Boredom can quickly undermine motivation so change things up when possible and look for new rewarding routes towards daily goals. This requires a bit of creativity when children and teens are at home all day. It also takes a willingness to share power with kids. Balance structure with plenty of choice and creative play. Let your child lead. Rotate the job of who gets to choose the family activity. Or ask a teen, “We have to get your school work done today. What else is on your list? What’s your plan?”

By the way, this is why some parents report that their kids are actually more academically motivated during this period of crisis online education. For some students, having more choice and control over their day is helping. For others, not so much.

Fan sparks wherever they show up.

Pay attention to what your child enjoys doing, what they are passionate about, and what they look forward to. This pandemic is hard, but kids’ “sparks” can form a motivating on-ramp to other, less exciting activities.

Look for ways to link your child’s interests to a task. For a child who loves dinosaurs, learning to read about dinosaurs might be a lot more motivating than reading about trucks. A teen who understands that a boring task is just one part of a more interesting project is more likely to prioritize it. Don’t write off digital interests but instead try to build bridges between online and offline activities when possible.

Prime the brain with natural doses of dopamine.

Don’t feel like doing anything? Just put one foot in front of the other. Going back to the basics can be a way to get dopamine flowing again in healthy ways. Exercise, sleep, mindfulness, getting outside, and eating healthy foods are all  ways to naturally boost dopamine levels. Once we get a little mood boost from these activities, we are often motivated to do more. Too often, these are the first activities to go in pursuit of productivity. Kids may not feel motivated to go on walks or head into the woods when presented the options but most benefit from the experience once they are there. While these activities are not a substitute for critical mental health support when needed, they are essential to our wellbeing.

Attend to our collective wellbeing.

It’s hard to activate the seeking system and approach the world with curiosity if you have learned through experience that your probability of success is limited. This means that while many of us are busily just trying to get through the day, we can’t forget to take a broader look at systems that either facilitate or put roadblocks in front of kids’ chances at success. This pandemic is further revealing systemic inequalities and racism that means chances of “success” are not evenly distributed in our communities. Remember, motivation is distributed in relationships and shaped by systems, not something we either get or lose on our own. By settling our bodies, we can generate the emotional resources and motivation to continuously expand our circles of concern and rebuild systems that work for everyone.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by or frustrated with how you and your kids are moving through the days, I hope that you can return to brain science for this powerful reminder:

Being patient and gentle with ourselves, fanning precious sparks where we find them, nurturing our connections with each other, and prioritizing collective wellbeing are among the most “productive” things we can do right now. These things aren’t as easy to check off a list and don’t always show up on the report cards, but they are the essential work of this time.