4 Motivators for Productivity and the Science Behind Them

Joshua Kraus
Joshua Kraus / August 9, 2018

Motivation is hard to come by. There's always another task, another project, another objective—and any motivation you manage to scrape together for one thing is absent for the next. "If only I had more of it," we think.

But motivation isn't a resource—at least not in the way the language surrounding motivation suggests. Motivation is a response to stimuli, and that response isn't always the same. Different stimuli trigger different parts of the brain and motivate us toward productivity in different ways. So instead of wishing for motivation or hunting for more motivation, it might be more helpful to think about the different types of motivators we experience and what's going on in our brains when we experience them.

There are all kinds of motivators for productivity, but here we're going to focus on four common types of professional motivation:

The Basic Science of Motivation

In order to understand each motivator's relationship with the brain, we turn to neuroscience and psychology.

Over the years, neuroscientists and psychologists have established that we generally experience motivation when dopamine—a neurotransmitter that relays signals between brain cells—is released and travels to the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is an area of the brain that mediates reward behavior: So when dopamine reaches the nucleus accumbens, it solicits feedback on whether a good thing or a bad thing is about to happen. As Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director of UNC Executive Development, explains, this prediction prompts us to respond in ways that either "minimize a predicted threat (the bad) or maximize a predicted reward (the good)."

Image of the brain with the nucleus accumbens highlighted

So if you get an email from your boss with a new assignment, dopamine hits up the nucleus accumbens to form a prediction of what will happen if you do the assignment or not, or if you do it well or poorly. With that prediction in place, you'll either act to increase the probability of reward (payment, praise, sense of accomplishment) or decrease the probability of punishment (demotion, yelling, sense of failure).

So we're motivated by the promise of reward or punishment. But zoom in a bit, and we can separate motivation into two more categories: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation, according to psychologists Stefano Domenico and Richard Ryan, is the "spontaneous tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one's capacity, to explore, and to learn, even in the absence of operationally separable rewards." In other words, intrinsic motivation comes from within, no outside prompting involved.

Extrinsic motivation is the opposite. It occurs when we're prompted to act by external stimuli.

Reward vs. punishment, intrinsic vs. extrinsic—these are the broad strokes of motivation. But there are all sorts of nuances when it comes to motivation, so let's look at our four motivators for productivity and see what truly drives us.

Creative Expression

In writing this blog post, I'm motivated by creative expression. It gives me an opportunity to flex my creative muscles and express myself through prose and storytelling. But what's happening in my brain while I'm writing?

Creativity might be one of the hardest neurochemical phenomena to understand because it's a combination of several neurochemical processes. But in recent years, we've started to pin things down in the swirl of ambiguity.

When you're motivated toward productivity via creative expression, it's likely that one of two things is happening:

1. You're "in the zone"

This is the colloquial term used to describe an uninhibited creative flow, in which it seems as if you're not even thinking about what you're doing. Many artists describe being "in the zone" like being a conduit, where ideas flow through them onto the page, the canvas, the instrument, and so on.

When you're in the zone, a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) becomes less active. Research conducted by neuroscientists Dr. Charles Limb and Dr. Allen Braun connects the DLPFC to planning, inhibition, and self-censorship, which makes sense considering that those qualities are almost antithetical to uninhibited creative flow. When mediating a rush of ideas, there's no time to analyze or organize. Planning and censoring only get in the way.

2. You're "methodically sculpting"

If creativity were only possible when in the zone, art galleries would be a lot emptier. Ask any artist and they'll tell you that the "zone" is intermittent, and to depend on it is folly. Every artist has to put their nose to the grindstone and create, whether they're in the zone or not.

Most creativity is hard, tedious work, and during these pre- or post-zone creative sessions, activity in the DLPFC can actually ramp up, especially if you're reviewing or editing. That's because creative expression usually involves a balance of uninhibited flow and methodical sculpting. Similar to the famous piece of writing wisdom, "Write drunk, edit sober," a good book or moving song is often the product of both stream-of-consciousness inspiration and meticulous craftsmanship.

The emotional connection

Okay, so we know what's happening in the brain while you're "in the zone" vs. "methodically sculpting." But how do we get to those brain spaces in the first place? While the science isn't complete, one thing we're sure of is that the DLPFC can exhibit different levels of activity when responding to positive or negative stimuli.

In a study published in Scientific Reports, jazz performers were asked to look at photographs of a woman wearing a positive, negative, or neutral expression, and then try to replicate the photo's mood with improvised melodies. Those responding to negative stimuli experienced more activity in brain regions connected to visceral awareness (i.e., a heightened sense of one's feelings); those responding to positive stimuli experienced less.

So when the jazz performers were induced into a positive emotional state, their visceral awareness went down—and without that analytical third eye, they were more susceptible to uninhibited creative flow.

But when they were induced into a negative emotional state, they became more aware of their own feelings, and thus more analytical, more grounded, more rational, and more susceptible to methodical sculpting.

Takeaway: Being motivated by creative expression can result in an organized delivery of new, unexpected, and imaginative ideas.

Financial Incentive

Yes, creative expression certainly motivates me toward productivity while I'm writing this piece. But it would be dishonest to say that I'm not also motivated by payment. It's part of my job, and I do it to pay for things like food and shelter and HBO, so the promise of financial reward trickles down for sure.

Our brains look very different when motivated by financial compensation. And just as different types of creative expression are associated with different neurochemical processes, so are different types of financial incentives, namely salary vs. added incentive.

Motivation from salary

Money can certainly motivate us toward productivity—anyone with a job can tell you that. But extrinsic motivators like salary work best when paired with other, more intrinsic motivators. Edward Deci, a psychologist at Rochester University, says that we have three psychological needs that help supplement financial motivation: autonomy, competency, and the sense of feeling connected to others.

Salary alone doesn't motivate us, Deci says. In fact, he argues, "Over-emphasis on financial reward undermines autonomy and therefore intrinsic motivation." So while our salary can encourage us to be productive, there need to be other factors at play too.

Motivation from added incentive

Many employers offer added financial incentives like commission and bonuses: If you perform to X level, you get Y extra cash. Even if you're already motivated by a healthy balance of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, things change when these performance-based financial incentives are introduced.

In a study led by Dan Ariely of Duke University, researchers asked participants to play games that tested memory, creativity, and motor skills. They would each receive a financial reward based on their performance, but one group was offered a small reward, another a medium reward, and another a very large reward. The study found that participants who were offered the largest amount of money performed the worst.

Three different sized stacks of coins

Ariely concluded that while performance-related rewards generally increase activity in areas of the brain involved in motivation, there comes a tipping point. When the potential reward is too large, it can undermine performance by making people overly focused or mentally aroused. Excessive activity in these areas can compromise decision-making abilities and result in more mistakes.

Bottom line: To get the most from their employees out of financial incentives, employers should bolster the salary motivator with other important motivators like autonomy and interpersonal connection, and ensure their incentive pay schemes don't offer rewards so large as to dominate decision-making.

Takeaway: Being motivated by an excessively large financial incentive can result in a mistake-riddled product, while a reasonably-sized financial incentive (paired with intrinsic motivators) can result in something more thoughtful and polished.


Light bulb on a chalkboard

While writing this post, I find myself learning new and interesting information. It makes me curious to learn more, so I dig deeper…and the cycle continues.

Curiosity and the desire to learn are purely intrinsic motivators. Our brain is signing up for an extracurricular activity. It's taking the path less traveled. There's no financial reward or looming punishment. There isn't anything that needs to be created or configured. It's seeking knowledge for knowledge's sake.

According to Domenico and Ryan, we're motivated toward productivity by curiosity/learning when we encounter new types of stimuli "that present optimal challenges or optimal inconsistencies with one's extant knowledge." Translation: We want to investigate things that we don't understand or things that run counter to our experiences. This explains why, for example, somebody might hear a ringing payphone and answer it. Sure, you yelled at Colin Farrell when he did it in Phone Booth, but it actually makes sense. Most of us understand that pay phones are for calling other people. Nobody calls a payphone. So when someone does call a payphone, the brain acknowledges the stimulus as inconsistent with its general understanding of pay phones—and of the world at large—and nudges you to go answer it.

So what's going on in the brain here? Dopamine, as with nearly all types of motivation, plays a key role when motivated by curiosity/learning, and dopamine neurons tend to exhibit two modes of activity: tonic and phasic.

  • When dopamine is in tonic mode, neurons fire at a steady rate, reflecting what Domenico and Ryan call the "general strength of animals' exploratory seeking tendencies." When we're in tonic mode, we might be walking around smelling things, looking at things, listening to things. You know, normal human stuff.

  • In phasic mode, neurons experience short bursts of activity or inactivity in response to specific stimuli, leading to an increase or decrease of dopamine, usually lasting several seconds. Whereas in tonic mode you might be compelled to glance at an unusual looking tree, a weird noise from its branches might trigger phasic mode—and suddenly you're inching toward that tree, eager to discover the source of the noise.

Whether we're motivated toward productivity by a sustained, baseline level of curiosity or specific stimuli that fire up our neurons, the tendency to seek out the new and the novel, the challenging and the inconsistent, is deeply intrinsic.

Takeaway: Being motivated by curiosity and learning can result in a more thorough investigation of ideas and a more fleshed out final product.


What if I woke up thinking this post was due in to my editor tomorrow only to realize the deadline was in two hours? Fear would ensue. Fear of being reprimanded, fear of being humiliated, fear of not getting another project. And that fear would motivate me to do whatever it took to minimize the likelihood of that bad thing happening.

Fear typically drives you toward productivity because you want to avoid a threat or punishment. And while a "due in two hours!" fear may not reach the level of fear you experience when a grizzly charges at you, it does trigger a similar neurochemical response: The amygdala, a part of the brain critical in the formation of memories, processing emotions, and making decisions, goes haywire. Once it detects danger, it sends your body into fight-or-flight mode, during which survival is prioritized above all else. Whether it's finishing an assignment to meet a deadline or running for your life, you'll do whatever it takes to survive.

Cat being scared of a dog

But just because you're being productive in this moment of fear doesn't mean you're producing something of quality. When fear kicks in, most of the brain's resources are diverted from their usual tasks to perform that survival function. So when fear hijacks your brain, it can compromise your decision-making. You're not thinking logically. You're not being analytical. You're just trying to get out of there "alive."

Fear might motivate you to work harder or work more, but when fear is the dominant motivator, intrinsic motivation is nowhere to be found. There's no room for creative expression or curiosity and learning. And without those, there's no urge to seek out new information or let ideas flow through you naturally. So while the work might be completed, it won't be as well-rounded. More likely, it will simply reveal your urgency to just get it done.

Takeaway: Being motivated by fear can lead to a lower quality—albeit promptly delivered—product.

Each of these motivators has the power to propel you toward productivity, but the outcome of that productivity won't always be the same. And, of course, these motivators don't always function in a vacuum: Your bonus might be tied to something that requires creative expression; you might be curious to learn more about something even when there's a fear of failure involved. But if we recognize why we are motivated toward productivity, we might be able to identify how we work best, and what kind of motivation produces the best results.

Hero image from gentlegiant27153 via Pixabay. Image of coins from nattanan23 via Pixabay. First image of the brain from Quasihuman via Wikimedia Commons. Second image of brain from the NIMH via Wikimedia Commons. Image of cat and dog from creisi via Pixabay.

Photo of Lawrence Watkins

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