The Ultimate Biohacking Guide to Increase Your Motivation
It happens to all of us. On any given day, you may feel a lack of motivation to complete a task or project.
On one hand, you may feel disinterested with what is required of you, and on the other, perhaps the task or project scares you and makes you so anxious or overwhelmed that you can barely figure out how or where to begin, so you simply do nothing.
Much of the time these reactions seem all in your head, where you think you are being lazy and just can’t muster up the energy to do what you need to do. You think you are simply “too tired” or you are knowingly sabotaging your success with unhelpful thoughts and patterns.
Motivation, however, is highly complex and is affected not only by external factors such as perceived effort and reward, but also the harmonious or disharmonious function of the biochemistry of your mindbody.
This complex psychobiological symphony includes hormones, the microbiome or “gut health”–the types of bacteria present in your gastrointestinal tract–as well as nervous system function.
In this Ultimate Biohacking Guide to Increase Your Motivation, we’ll help you to determine when your biology is betraying you because of hardwired old patterns or daily lifestyle choices you have made, and how to make better choices to support optimal performance and success in your life and work.
COHERENCE: HOW TO INCREASE MOTIVATION AND YOUR FLOW STATE
Think about a time you found yourself in a flow state–that feeling of timelessness, selflessness, and seemingly effortless effort–and you’ll know there is a close relationship between flow, motivation, and stress.
Motivation is essentially a drive or impulse to do something, but flow and motivation are not always synonymous.
True Flow and Bent Flow
While stress can be harnessed to push you to take action, many times it comes at a cost and results in undesirable side effects: anxiety, illness, and non-supportive coping behaviors such as indulging in addictions to numb your emotions.
Flow states are typically intrinsically rewarding–you engage in them because they feel good–whereas motivation can often be externally rewarding, yet not feel good or enjoyable in the moment.
Educational researcher and founder of Multiple Natures, Steven Rudolph, calls our artificial attempts to find flow and motivation from stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and nicotine “bent flow.”
You may be wondering:
Why would I choose bent flow over the real thing?
Stress and Resistance
Many times when you engage in activities that are not entirely conducive to your wellbeing, you are operating from patterns hardwired into your neurophysiology.
The good news is you can change your system from the inside out to support your behaviors and actions?
When you feel stressed or anxious, you create a restriction or point of resistance within your mindbody system. This stress response and your level of resilience is complex, involving your brain and gut, and affects your heart rate, respiration, endocrine function and more.
Flow and motivation involve mindbody system coherence, whereas stress and anxiety involve chaos, or incoherence.
According to the HeartMath Institute, there is a psychophysiological difference between coherence and relaxation. Coherence is specifically marked by synchronization, harmony and efficiency, greater emotional stability and improved mental performance.
This state of coherence is evident in a smooth wavelike heart rate variability (HRV) pattern. In HRV coherence, the two branches of your autonomic nervous system synchronize, with a shift toward parasympathetic activity without a lowering of heart rate.
The Relaxation Response vs. Coherence
The relaxation response, a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, is typically discussed in relationship to meditation and other mindbody practices that do lower heart rate and blood pressure, returning the mindbody to a pre-stress state (the opposite of a fight-or-flight response).
Coherence, then, as described by the HeartMath Institute, is more than simply a relaxed state.
Flow States and Optimal Performance
According to Jamie Wheal, a co-founder of the Flow Genome Project, the altered states you experience during flow, where your brainwaves, heart rhythm and endocrine system are working harmoniously, are deeply rejuvenating to your system (see his interview on the Mindvalley Podcast), and produce optimal conditions for creative thinking.
In addition to consciously accessing flow states more of the time, you can support your bodily systems through your daily lifestyle habits, including food choices and various mindbody practices.
In the following chapters we’ll break down key areas of your motivational “hardware” and offer upgrades that make your system conducive to motivation.
HOW YOUR BIOLOGY CAN MAKE OR BREAK YOUR MOTIVATION
Your ability to find flow and motivation–and your ability to respond to stress–are connected through your brain and gut. In a moment you’ll see why “gut feeling” is more than a metaphor.
Your brain and gut operate together through a highly complex system researchers call the microbiota-gut-vagus-brain axis.
When you know how to create healthy conditions for this axis, your mindbody is in a state of homeostasis positively affecting your health, mood and behavior.
Microbiota aka Gut Health
Your microbiota, or the trillions of microorganisms that live in your gastrointestinal tract, influence cognitive functions, learning abilities, memory and decision making, and, therefore, explains why the gut is now widely considered to be the second brain.
This area is responsible for 90 percent of the serotonin production in your entire body.
Serotonin acts as both a hormone and neurotransmitter, governing wellbeing, contentment, anxiety and fear.
While too much serotonin can cause gastrointestinal distress, low serotonin levels lead to lack of motivation, low mood, anxiety and depression.
Chronic inflammation in your gut caused by dysbiosis (when your gut microbiome becomes out of balance) can lead to “leaky gut”, or intestinal permeability, which can lead to depression or lack of motivation.
This systemic inflammation can be a result of infection, nutritional deficiencies, medication, food sensitivities and stress.
In chapter five we’ll show you how to support your gut health.
If your gut is the “second brain”, the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the human body, is essentially a superhighway between your gut and brain.
Researcher Stephen Porges at the University of North Carolina first introduced Polyvagal Theory in 1994, which refers to branches of the vagus nerve that connects the brain, lungs, heart, stomach, and intestines. This nerve regulates heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion and even speaking.
It is widely known that when the vasovagal reflex is suddenly stimulated, an individual experiences a drop in blood pressure and slowed heart rate.
The vagus nerve is a significant actor in your autonomic nervous system, which has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the parasympathetic system (PNS).
Your sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which governs your fight-or-flight response, moves blood to the muscles for quick action, partly by triggering the adrenal glands to squirt out adrenaline, which speeds up the heart rate and increases blood pressure. The PNS, on the other hand, triggers the release of acetylcholine which calms arousal.
Even though it is commonly referred to as a singular vagus nerve, there is a distinction between the right and left vagal nerves, which ascend asymmetrically into the central nervous system.
According to PTSD expert Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., the right nerve is associated with dopamine and reward neurons in the brain–a key area related to motivation. The left vagus nerve is more related to satiety rather than reward. (See van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score for more about his work on treating stress and PTSD with creative therapies such as yoga, meditation and theater).
Heart Rate Variability and Vagal Tone
As we noted above, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) controls arousal and the fight-or-flight response.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) promotes self-preservation functions like digestion and wound healing and slows the heart down, relaxes muscles, and returns breathing to normal.
When you breath in, you activate the SNS, and when you breathe out you activate the PNS. Therefore, you continually speed up and slow down the heart when you breathe, and so, the interval between heartbeats varies.
HRV, or heart rate variability, measures your flexibility in this case, and greater variability actually indicates that your system is balanced rather than rigid.
If you recall from chapter one in this guide, HRV is an indicator of system coherence, which leads to greater emotional stability and mental performance.
What is Vagal Tone?
The strength of your vagus nerve is known as “vagal tone.” While a low vagal tone usually correlates with chronic inflammation and problems with emotional and attention regulation, strong vagus activity, or a higher vagal tone equates with stronger social and psychological health, concentration and memory.
Moreover, strong vagus activity means that your body is more resilient and can recover more quickly from stress. Higher vagal tone also correlates with higher Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
Meditation has been linked to higher vagal tone, but we’ll show you some other creative ways to improve your vagal tone in the next two chapters.
HOW TO USE YOUR BREATH TO MAKE YOUR VAGUS NERVE YOUR BEST FRIEND
As you learned in the last chapter, toning your vagus nerve for higher vagal tone leads to greater Heart Rate Variability, which is a key indicator of the amount of coherence or synchronization in your mindbody system. Coherence allows you to perform better in life and work.
There are many ways to improve your vagal tone, but in this chapter and the next we’ll focus on some highly potent ways to transform the stress in your body, and create greater coherence and performance so you are not hindering your motivation.
Your breath is intimately related to the functioning of your vagus nerve and HRV. It is not surprising, then, that you can hack your system with breathing exercises.
In a study involving diaphragmatic breathing to reduce test anxiety among undergraduate students, researchers found a specific diaphragmatic protocol to be highly effective in increasing students’ test taking performance.
Researchers Jain and Rubino define their specific Diaphragmatic Breathing protocol as:
Slow, measured, conscious breathing for ten breath cycles while focusing on aspects of a particular problem. This intervention, influenced by the traditional Yogic practice of Pranayama, also contains elements of systematic desensitization and cognitive reprocessing, initiating and pairing a relaxation response with a disturbing thought or belief.
Jain and Rubino offer these specific steps for best results using their protocol:
Diaphragmatic Breathing Protocol
1. Sit comfortably upright with your spine lengthened. Make sure you have a good support behind your back if you need one. Arrange your legs so they are also comfortable and relaxed.
2. Place one hand on your stomach. Notice how much the hand on your stomach is moving as you consciously slow your breath down a little. Begin to count to 4 while you inhale, pause, then count to 4 as you exhale, and pause. When you are comfortable with that slow, easy breathing pattern…
3. Bring to mind the problem you want to address.
4. Assess your level of distress about the problem you are addressing, from 0 (no distress) to 10 (extreme distress).
5. Create an appropriate Reminder Phrase that keeps you focused on the specific part of the problem you are addressing.
6. Repeat the Reminder Phrase silently with each breath for ten breath cycles.
7. Assess distress level again. If the same or higher, clarify specific aspect causing distress and repeat steps 5–6 with modified Reminder Phrase reflecting revised topic of focus.
8. Assess distress regarding original problem…If different aspect of problem is still troubling, create a new Reminder Phrase and repeat steps 5–7 as needed until problem feels resolved.
9. Go on to the next problem and repeat steps 4–9 until all relevant problems have been addressed.
Try using this diaphragmatic breathing protocol any time you feel stressed, anxious, or lack motivation and focus to complete a task at hand. Using deep breathing techniques regularly will tone your vagus nerve, making you more resilient to stress.
HOW YOUR JAW ALIGNMENT AFFECTS YOUR MOTIVATION
As biohacker Dave Asprey noted on an episode of Bulletproof Radio, he had a misaligned jaw that created a large amount of systemic inflammation and pain every time he chewed that would, in turn, trigger his fight-or-flight response.
Asprey also noted that while you may be using all kinds of techniques to hack your biology, if you suffer from a fundamental misalignment in your jaw, those techniques may not be quite as effective as you need them to be.
Meet Your Trigeminal Nerve
The trigeminal nerve in the jaw is responsible for biting and chewing, and connects to the vagus nerve. The sensory zone of this nerve runs from under the jaw to the top of the head, and from ear to ear.
According to Dr. Dwight Jennings, a clinical researcher, dentist and TMJ specialist,
The trigeminal nerve has 100 times more dense pain fibers than any other nerve in the body and is linked to the pain neurotransmitter called Substance P.
Jennings believes this neurotransmitter is likely the “most major modulator of inflammatory response in the body.” Substance P causes cell membranes to open, making cells less efficient, and can create hypersensitivity to allergies, asthma, and chemicals. It also throws off hormone levels, and is linked to movement disorders such as skoliosis.
The trigeminal nerve is also a major modulator of brain blood flow to the prefrontal cortex. Lack of blood flow in this front area of the brain can cause loss of cognitive function.
While you may or may not be suffering any temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain, any kind of dysfunction in this area can lead to systemic inflammatory issues in your mindbody.
If you are suffering from any kind of inflammation in this nerve, your nervous system is overtaxed, and you will likely experience incoherence in your system, as Dave Asprey did until he was treated by Dr. Jennings.
If you have jaw pain or discomfort, you may want to consider treatment, as this condition could be affecting your performance in life far more than you know.
HOW YOUR GUT HEALTH INCREASES YOUR MOTIVATION AND HAPPINESS
As we mentioned in chapter two of this guide, 90 percent of your serotonin production takes place in your gut. Serotonin is critical to your motivation and overall mental health.
Imbalances in gut health and serotonin levels are linked to depression and anxiety.
By making different choices about what you put in your body, you can impact your happiness and sense of motivation.
Food Choices and Serotonin
While researchers once thought gut to brain communication happened via hormones, newer research suggests your food choices play a significant role.
In fact, one study demonstrates that probiotics can activate the vagus nerve, affecting brain and mood. You may have noticed this trend in recent years: probiotics are present in yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods, as well as widely available in probiotic supplements. Always consult your healthcare provider to decide what kind and how much probiotics your body needs.
Avoiding Sugar and Processed Foods
It is now widely understood that a diet high in sugar and processed foods can lead to greater systemic inflammation in your body. This inflammation can lead to an imbalanced microbiota and intestinal permeability, which affects mood, and consequently, motivation. While you may not be concerned about your physical appearance or weight, if you are experiencing mood swings, lethargy, and lack of motivation, your diet could be the culprit.
Eating a diet plentiful in whole, minimally processed foods can do wonders for your gut health, helping to support mental health and performance.
HOW SOUND CAN CHANGE YOUR MOTIVATION
As we noted in chapter two of this guide, researcher Stephen Porges who developed Polyvagal Theory notes in The Body Keeps the Score, “a kind face or a soothing tone of voice can dramatically alter the way we feel.”
It is not surprising, then, that prosodic speaking (a sing-songy tone), laughter and singing can positively affect HRV and vagal tone, suggesting that our overall sense of wellbeing and motivation can be as simple as doing things that naturally make us happy.
Speaking in a sing-songy voice — think about the way many people speak to young children — can affect vagal tone. Keep in mind how you speak to yourself and others affects your wellbeing, and theirs.
The vagus nerve appears to be connected to laughter. In a study of children with epilepsy who received a vagus nerve stimulator, some suffered the side effect of uncontrollable laughter. There are many positive health benefits to laughter, but this specific link between vagal stimulation and laughter is worth noting.
Singing and Heart Rate Variability
While you likely realized long ago that singing makes you feel good, a study demonstrated that the HRV of individual group members synchronized while singing in unison.
So even if you already enjoy singing by yourself now, consider joining a group to improve your HRV and overall system performance.
HOW TO GET MORE FLOW FROM SIMPLE DAILY HABITS
As we noted in chapter four, serotonin levels can directly impact your motivation. Some key lifestyle areas that you can easily change to support healthy serotonin levels are your sleep hygiene, ensuring enough sunlight exposure, and using intermittent fasting.
Sleep Deprivation and Dopamine
Sleep hygiene has become a hot topic in recent years. While there are many things we simply do not understand about sleeping and why we need it, researchers have demonstrated that sleep deprivation reduces dopamine function and dopamine receptors. Dopamine is directly related to reward and motivation, so getting adequate sleep is critical to your wellbeing and performance.
REM Sleep and Motivation
Researchers have even found a distinct connection between REM sleep and motivation, with a lack of REM reducing motivation in rats. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding blue lights a few hours before bed, and ensuring that your room is dark can help your body synchronize naturally to circadian rhythms.
Sunlight and Motivation
Just as getting adequate sleep is linked to healthy dopamine levels, having adequate exposure to sunlight is equally important in maintaining healthy dopamine and serotonin levels. Sunlight keeps your body attuned to circadian rhythms and raises endorphins which are linked to motivation.
Intermittent fasting has become extremely popular in recent years, especially with the widespread adoption of a ketogenic diet, which involves eating low amounts of carbohydrates, moderate protein, and high amounts of quality fats.
Many individuals choose a keto lifestyle to lose weight and improve physical performance, but fasting can also boost mental performance.
A key hack for getting into a state of ketosis faster (where your body uses fat instead of carbohydrates for energy) is intermittent fasting. There are many variations of this type of fasting, but a common example is fasting for 12-16 hours, and only eating meals within an 8-12 hour window (the 12-16 hours can include time spent sleeping).
According to experts such as Dr. David Perlmutter, a longtime proponent of a ketogenic lifestyle and utilizing fasting, these practices can stabilize blood sugar and balance mood. Whether you choose a ketogenic lifestyle or not, intermittent fasting can boost your performance. Always consult your healthcare provider before trying fasting.
Some newer studies suggest the specific role of intermittent fasting on vagal nerve function, with caloric restriction affecting heart rate variability (HRV). As we’ve demonstrated repeatedly in this guide, your HRV is intimately related to your mindbody system’s coherence, flow, and motivation.
HOW TO “TAP” INTO MORE MOTIVATION
Over the last several years, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or “Tapping” has emerged on the scene with great success in helping individuals overcome anxiety, phobias, stress, physical pain, limiting beliefs, emotional traumas, and blockages to optimal performance in life and work.
By using your fingers to tap on specific acupressure points all over the body while focusing on a particular issue, you can release unhelpful emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
In one study researchers found this process highly effective for reducing test anxiety among undergraduate students. Likewise, this process can be used for any kind of anxiety that inhibits performance and motivation.
According to researchers Sachin Jain and April Rubino, “the results of the study support that both tapping and breathing interventions decreased test anxiety, while focusing on current negative cognitive/emotional states to facilitate neuropsychological repatterning.”
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
Jain and Rubino define EFT as
Acupressure tapping combined with guided mental focus and self statements about what one is aware of that feels bad. This intervention contains elements of systematic desensitization, cognitive reprocessing, and self-concept improvement via statements of intentional self-acceptance, relaxation triggering, situational acceptance and reframing.
Acupressure tapping is based on the ancient Chinese medicine concept of negative emotion and disease as manifestations of disruptions in the free flow of energy through meridian pathways. One can alternately appreciate the potential of applying kinesthetic stimulation to different neurologically sensitive points on the body while focusing on current negative cognitive/emotional states to facilitate neuropsychological re-patterning.
Jain and Rubino specifically suggest the following EFT protocol to be the most effective:
1. Assess your level of distress about the problem you are addressing… from 0 (no distress) to 10 (extreme distress).
2. The Setup Statement…Repeat a targeted self-acceptance affirmation 3 times while continuously tapping the Karate Chop point (the side of one’s hand on the pinkie side). As much as possible, avoid global statements. Zero in on the worst part of the thing that is bothering you. “Even though I [have this problem, feel this pain– whatever is bothering you], I accept myself” (or “I want to be okay with me” or “I deeply and completely accept myself”—whichever is true for you right now on this issue).
3. Create an appropriate Reminder Phrase…that keeps you focused on the specific part of the problem you are addressing.
4. The Sequence…Tap about 7 times on each of the following energy points while repeating the Reminder Phrase at each point.
FACE: Eye Brow, Side of Eye, Under Eye, Under Nose, Chin;
BODY: Collar Bone, Under Arm, Ribs;
HAND: Thumb, Index Finger, Middle Finger, Pinkie, Karate Chop.
5. Assess distress level… If same or higher, clarify specific aspect causing distress and repeat steps 2–4 with modified Reminder Phrase reflecting revised topic of focus. If distress is lower but still not gone,
6. The Sequence (again)…Repeat step 4 until distress about the problem is gone.
7. Assess distress regarding original problem… If different aspect of problem is still troubling, create a new Setup Statement and Reminder Phrase and repeat steps 4–5 as needed until problem feels resolved.
8. Go on to the next problem… and repeat steps 1–8 until you have addressed all relevant problems.
So that’s The Ultimate Biohacking Guide to Increase Your Motivation.
Now we want to turn it over to you: what did you think about this guide? Or maybe there’s something we missed.
Let us know by leaving a comment below.
30 thoughts on “The Ultimate Biohacking Guide to Increase Your Motivation”
Wow, that’s a comprehensive guide. Each chapter could be an individual blog post. I found the information on the vagus nerve interesting.
I appreciate your feedback, John. Thank you.
Great guide! Superb
Glad you liked it, Nour.
Interesting and eye-opening perspective on motivation. For a topic which is as complex and variable as the individual human psychology and physiology, the article did a great job making sense of it, while offering a practical guide.
It absolutely is interesting to understand the links between your physical state and mental motivation. Thank you, Abid.
Very thorough and actionable piece.
Thank you for the insight and information you shared with this article.
I look forward to the other pieces you’re going to create going forward.
Thank you, Jon. Stay tuned, I’ll be releasing more soon.
I love the detail and thank you for the insight and practicality.
Thank you, Ahmad.
WOW! I loved it, even for a guy who despised Biology (or anything science related) at school!
I particularly loved the whole part about how what you put in to your body, has an impact on motivation levels. As someone who is trying to eat healthier, I have heard of (and am currently experiencing) how eating healthier (e.g. less processed foods) keeps you more motivated to stay on the diet
I also likes the intermittent fasting part. I recently watched a documentary called ‘Eat, Fast, Live Longer’ made by the BBC / Horizon and it discussed how fasting actually IMPROVES our performance, in contrast to what we’ve been told for so many years.
Also, I’ll deffo be trying out the breathing exercises – here’s hoping they really help!
Really appreciate your feedback Tarek. Intermittent fasting is truly amazing. It really has a profound effect on our bodies.
The Ultimate Bio Hacking guide is a great read with info that can be applied. Must read.
Thank you Wisam!
Great piece with lots of practical ideas for people to try and see what works for them.
Hi, Dr.Joe – glad you liked the post. A good start would be to try one thing and then implement other ideas.
Very informative content, much needed resource.
Thank you Afroz. There are just far too many pseudoscience articles out there so I made sure this wasn’t going to be one of them.
This is one from the most important article I have ever read, The Ultimate Biohacking Guide to Increase Your Motivation, what a great detailed study everyone should read
Thanks Kevin for your effort
Thank you. I appreciate your feedback Moustafa. A lot of research went into this.
The Ultimate Biohacking Guide was an eye opener. The guide was very well written and easy to follow. Each chapter offered a wealth of knowledge. I specifically enjoyed reading Chapter 4- How Your Jaw Alignment Affects Your Motivation. I never considered the correlation between the jaw alignment and work- life performance. This is particularly important for those that clutches their teeth while sleeping, thus causing a misalignment in the jaw. Overall, I love the research around connecting happiness and motivation to our gut health. This further supports the adage that “we are what we eat.”
Great article and thanks for sharing with the masses.
Jaw Alignment and Performance – It’s a very interesting topic indeed. A lot of research went into this article and it’s nice to know you appreciate it very much. Thank you Dr. Loukisha.
That is WOW post! I loved the content and photo guides.
Each chapter is unique and very insightful. I was surprised by the role of the jaw, gut, and voice(especially uncontrolled laugh) in our motivation and cognitive functions.
Thank you, Kevin. It is a great article.
Thank you Rufat. I have some really amazing content coming soon, along with beautiful illustrations. Glad you enjoyed it.
The description on the separate domains of the vagus nerve was interesting. It reminded me that some diseases present asymmetrical symptoms and the mechanism of the asymmetry is not known. Whether the partitioning of the vagus nerve is required to manifest asymmetrical symptoms would be interesting to study. Increased awareness of the multiple variables that contribute to one’s psychological state as outlined by Kevin is helpful. Factors such as the microbiome and understanding its ability to influence health are becoming increasingly relevant as well.
Absolutely. Research around this is interesting. Thank you for sharing Melanie!
Very cool to know that someone took the time to put this together. Love it! Hope a lot of people practice it after reading.
Hey Sean – thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.
Huge like Kevin for this most valuable information that can make our lives better in general and specifically can increase our motivation ! you revealed lots of information I wasn’t aware of so thank you for that !!!
Thank you, Meital. Be sure to stay tuned, I’ve got some really good content on the way.