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Employee Wellness: Maintaining Motivation

Updated: 7 days ago

Red ladder going up to blue sky with white clouds

Motivation boils down to the willingness or desire to do something, or what drives you. It’s a word we hear so often in our lives. Motivation to work out and eat better. Motivation to get up and go to work. Motivation to finish the semester strong. Whatever it may be, when you’re in the middle of it, you might not really feel like doing whatever that thing is. What does motivation actually take? Why is it so hard to get motivated sometimes? Why do we like what’s comfortable and routine for us? This blog is going to explore these questions and offer some insight on how to increase your motivation with simplified and realistic goal setting.


Brain Chemistry

Our day-to-day lives are generally based in routine, habits, and normalcy. Humans love routine. According to the Journal of Biological Psychology, between the different parts of our brain, there is a goal-direction drive which acts as a feedback loop mostly between the basal ganglia, the amygdala (this processes stress), and the prefrontal cortex. One of the parts of the brain most involved is the basal ganglia, which controls voluntary movements, believed to work in conjunction with the prefrontal cortex in habit formation and emotional response. The prefrontal cortex is believed to not develop fully until age 21, but more recently has been believed to not fully develop until about 25, making teens vulnerable to poor decision-making. The prefrontal cortex, our most evolved unit of the brain, is key to our decision-making and habit formation. It can determine if we engage with or avoid what's going on around us. This feedback loop also plays a major role in substance abuse and addictions.


Hormones and Stimuli

Hormonal input regulates our drive to pursue stimulants in our environment or avoid them. The "feel good" hormones, like dopamine or serotonin, are why anything that stimulates us to "feel good" can easily become a habit or a routine, even an addiction. Sensory information also plays a role: how something tastes for example is processed along with other stimuli. Habits formed can be physical ones (actions) and can be emotional or thought-based ones, for example you always get an ice cream after work because it reminds you of when you were little.

This is compared to epinephrine or norepinephrine and cortisol, which are generally associated with stressful situations. These too can cause us to quickly learn that whatever caused that stressful feeling should be avoided. You don't want to go to the gym because you always feel embarrassed when you're there. This differentiation is a survival skill, to help assess our environment for threats, though modern issues generally are a lot less "life or death". Once it has been learned that doing something will cause a good or bad response, it's hard to break out of that thinking pattern.


Behavior Change

Psychologists believe that behavior change comes in different stages. This is referred to as the Transtheoretical Model of Change:

  • Precontemplation: You aren’t even willing to consider making changes.

  • Contemplation: You start to consider change as an option. The first questions are: Why do I want this?  What are the reasons I feel like this would be good for me?

  • Planning: How would this actually be possible for me? What can I do differently? 

  • Action: Putting these plans into your real life. This is testing the waters.

  • Maintenance: Upkeep of these changes (this is the hard part).


What to Do

Making meaningful, long-term changes in any established pattern of behavior can be difficult for many. A lot of people don't pace themselves in change, and make goals that are too big and not very realistic. Here's some insight into making real changes and keeping them.


  • Remember Your “Why?”

    • Sometimes, people don't do well in behavior change because they don't really want to change. They're comfortable, they don't want to be uncomfortable either physically or emotionally. Maybe their doctor told them they need to lower their blood pressure, lose weight, or improve their fitness. Their loved ones maybe came forward with concern about their health and are urging them to start changing. This is all external. Their external factors may also be what's holding them back: social norms, limited food options, or obligations at home or work. It may be hard to work around factors that are out of our control.

    • If there are resources around them, sometimes, people need full internal motivation before they do anything. Some people just have to "hit rock bottom" before they start climbing back up. Thinking about why changing might benefit you is a great place to start. Maybe you want to be able to play with your children or grandchildren more easily, maybe you want to feel better, or maybe you don't want to be winded going upstairs anymore. What would you like to be different?


  • Start Small

    • Slow and steady and starting small are some of the best methods. A goal that involves immediate overhaul of your entire lifestyle is going to be too much, too soon. People also often start with a very large weight loss goal, but they will not be successful in the amount of time they set for themselves and the frustration will make them want to give up.

    • Here are some more incremental methods of behavior change:

      • Habit Stacking: Adding habits onto already existing ones.

        • Ex: Do 10 squats whenever you brush your teeth.

      • Micro Habits: Small and simple with potential to grow.

        • Ex: One plant-based meal per week, then two, then three…

      • Habit Switches: Replace a habit with one that helps you get to your goal better.

        • Ex: Get skim milk or almond milk in your coffee instead of cream.

      • Habit Increases/Reductions: Start adding to or limiting your habits

        • Ex: Add one fruit to your breakfast every day.

        • Ex: Reduce the size- get a small coffee with cream and sugar instead of a large.

  • Build Positive Associations

    • Remember all the brain stuff we talked about before? How when something makes you feel bad, you tend to avoid it? This happens all the time in people who feel like they have to force themselves to do things they don't like to be healthier. They feel they have to do crazy intense workouts, eat foods they hate… You don't like boot camp or HIIT workouts? Don't do them. Do you hate tuna but that person online told you it's so good for you? You don't have to buy it; you don't have to eat it.  If you feel like you have to do something you don't want to do, it's just going to establish a negative feeling around it that you might apply to all exercise, all "healthy" foods, all methods of health improvement you feel pressured to do.


Maybe you enjoy dance workouts or swimming, that's great, you can totally do that instead of HIIT or boot camps. Eat nutritious foods you actually like. Not a big fan of vegetables but you really like fruit? Maybe try other methods of preparing the vegetables, but know that fruit also offers a lot of benefits too. Get a new healthy cookbook you're excited about and buy ingredients right away for a recipe that stands out to you. Join a social group, a walking group, or a support group for example. Goal achievement with a group can sometimes really help, some people need accountability established from others to actually do what they say they're going to do. Start going to bed a half-hour earlier, then an hour, and see what happens. You don't have to give up what you like, you just have to make some changes. This could be reductions, increases, switches, and buildable goals. It does not have to be a perfect, linear journey. Any effort is applaudable and remember: something is still better than nothing.


Learn more about Wellness Workdays and our wellness program offerings by downloading our brochure.


Written by: Elyse Robichaud Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern



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