motivation task initiation executive function

Motivation: How to Work With Your Brain to Get Things Done

Have you ever wondered where motivation comes from and how to have more of it?

Perhaps you wonder about motivation when you are staring at a blank computer screen, for the tenth time in a day. Or maybe when the pile of dishes in your sink only grows larger and larger. 

Perhaps you wonder about motivation when your kid cannot seem to get started on their essay, which is due tomorrow. Or maybe when they seemingly refuse to take the trash out.

Motivation. You need it. I need it. The kids in our lives need it. 

Where does motivation come from?

Neurologically speaking, motivation happens in the front part of the brain. This is also where Executive Functioning happens, which is how you manage goal-oriented thoughts and actions. As you can guess, motivation is very important to Executive Function since it encourages us to try and reach our goals.

Studies have shown that dopamine is the primary chemical responsible for motivation. The brain makes dopamine in a two-step process and the nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells. Although research is ever-evolving on ADHD, it does seem that ADHD is connected to a shortage of dopamine. Which is why treatment sometimes involves dopamine-boosting medications.

How can you get more motivation?

So, if you are like most people, you want to know how you can get more motivated. And, sometimes the bigger issue is how to motivate your kids.

There are of course no magic tricks here. Similar to how Executive Function is a life-long skill, motivation is a process that ebbs and flows in reaction to life circumstances and well-being. However, there are some approaches to improving motivation in yourself and your children that will lead to more success. 


The first approach is play. Wait, what was that? Aren’t we talking about motivation to get things done? As in, math assignments and oil changes? Yes, we are. You should still play more.

Neuroscience studies have shown that motivation is based on neurological systems related to exploration and play. If you think about it, when a child is exploring the outdoors or building an imaginary world in play, they are doing so because they want to. They are enjoying it. They are accessing that part of the brain that produces dopamine and encourages goal-oriented behavior. 

Maya Angelou is quoted as saying, “you can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” Similarly, you can’t use up motivation. The more you use, the more you have.

Everybody has a way of playing, and teens and adults are not excluded from that. It might be woodworking, cooking, or interior design. It might be Minecraft, chess, or basketball. 

What we can do as parents is encourage environments where our kids can play without distraction and for extended periods of time. We can also encourage play that is creative and active rather than consumptive and passive. Of course, we can’t play all the time, we do have to set some time aside to get things done. But, having a good play-work balance will aid in having motivation to do the other things, too.

Sleep, Food, Water

At The Chicago Family Tutor, we really do value the whole person. We take a holistic approach because we understand that academic, behavior, and Executive Function challenges do not occur in a vacuum. While it would be nice to pull out a tool from our toolboxes and fix a problem, it usually takes more than that for sustainable change.

One example of this is sleep. To keep brain chemicals balanced and motivation in supply, you must sleep. Sleep is important for everybody, and especially for developing children. Start prioritizing sleep by setting a reasonable bedtime, keeping screens out of the bedroom as much as possible, or taking naps when you need it. You may be surprised how much better your family starts to feel!

In addition, nutrition and hydration are vitally important. Your brain is 80% water which means that even slight dehydration causes fatigue, headaches, and lack of motivation. If you feel that your nutrition and water intake needs a little more, set small goals such as adding a fruit or vegetable to one of your meals each day or drinking a glass of water before your shower each morning.  

Each season of life has its own challenges when it comes to sleep and nutrition. However, when children are at home it is an important time to model how to prioritize these basic building blocks for health and wellness. To do so will show them how to reach their goals in a productive, and even joyful, way.

Achievability is the key to motivation

Finally, achievability is key. Anyone who is motivated to start something does so because they truly believe it can be accomplished. Most people thought Einstein was crazy to undertake the inventions that he did, but he had a core belief that he could achieve what he set out to do.

In children, this is often the biggest hangup when getting things done. They do not believe they can do what is being asked of them because it seems too overwhelming. This is where the Executive Function skill of task initiation comes in. 

Task Initiation

Task initiation is a skill that can be developed in many ways. Breaking tasks down into age-appropriate steps is often helpful to motivating your children to get started. It allows an overwhelming task to seem more manageable. For example, in the mind of your pre-teen, cleaning the kitchen may be overwhelming. To help them initiate the task, you can break it down to putting away clean dishes, loading the dishwasher, and wiping the counters. 

Another helpful tool is something called the pomodoro technique. This is where you set an interval of time to work and an interval of time to take a break. Then you repeat for up to four cycles. This would be helpful when a child is overwhelmed by a school assignment and is struggling to be motivated to start. Set the timer for 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes break, and repeat. You can lessen the work time depending on the age of the child.

How to Get Started Today

We have now seen how to work with our brains instead of against them. What does that mean for you right now? Choose an area of focus whether that be play, sleep, nutrition, hydration, or task initiation. Add one thing to your routine for this week, or start a conversation with your kids on how you can support them in one of these areas.

We would love to hear from you! How are you going to work with your brain to get things done today?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top