3 Surprising Foundations of Motivation | by Delaney Tosh CPCC, PCC

Client or Coach building motivation by sitting on desk meditating

What Leaders Need to Know About Motivation and Productivity

When we look at motivation through the lens of neuroscience, there are several key areas that enhance overall motivation and energy. One key example is helping our clients find inner or intrinsic* motivation.

* Intrinsic motivation is an internal, personal process that taps into our neural reward system. It helps us with tasks requiring thought, planning, challenge and learning and when we're intrinsically motivated we perform better and are more satisfied.

But did you know self-care is also crucial for motivation?

It's also important for leaders and their coaches not to overlook self-care and health as additional motivation factors. In fact neuroscience suggests brain health and self-care are key foundational principles of motivation, and we explore this below.

Here are 3 Surprising Keys to Motivation

1. Brain health

A motivated brain is a healthy brain.

Sleep quality, exercise frequency and nutrition will either sustain or sap our cognitive and physical energy. And paying attention to these factors will promote dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and norepinephrine—all neurotransmitters and hormones essential for motivation, creativity and flow states.1

According to Ramon David (founder of BrainFirst®), when you put your brain health first, not only do you support dopamine activity in your brain, but you balance your autonomic nervous system and the hormones cortisol and DHEA by eliminating energy drains and boosting mitochondrial* function. This increases the efficiency of our emotional, cognitive and self-regulation mechanisms.

* Mitochondria are "the powerhouse of the cell", generating most of the chemical energy needed to power the cell's biochemical reactions.

In David's BrainFirst® Applied Neuroscience training, he outlines these seven habits of brain health 2:

  1. High-quality sleep
  2. Regular movement
  3. Nutritious food for brain energy
  4. Social time
  5. Down time
  6. Focus time
  7. Challenge time

How to put this into action: Consider the 7 habits above. What strategies can you, or your client, add into routines and practices that will nourish brain health and set the stage for enhanced motivation?

2. Mindfulness meditation

When you are hyper-aroused (in a stress response state), your brain is distracted and less able to draw on the neural networks that help us be productive.

A significant body of research shows that mindfulness meditation is a highly effective tool to help self-regulate your stress response. This in turn gives power back to the prefrontal lobes* in your brain, where higher thinking occurs.

* The frontal lobes of our brain are important for (among other things) managing higher level executive functions including the capacity to plan, organise, initiate, self-monitor and control our responses in order to achieve a goal.

The benefits of regular mindfulness practice are 3:

  • Improved attention
  • Memory
  • Creativity
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Down-regulated stress responses
  • Priming your brain for productivity and its innate intrinsic motivation

How to put this into action: What would adding mindfulness practice into your daily habits look like? What would be a great first step?

See the Resource Box below for Delaney's mindfulness resources recommendations.

3. Cognitive load

When we focus on a project or task that demands a lot of our attention, it commands more of our neural networks and consumes more glucose (our brain's fuel).

Our brains can only do so much—they have 'bandwidth' that can get full or overloaded.

If we're doing work we love, we may be able to stay in peak flow longer. But the less we love the work, the greater the cognitive load. In either case, it's important to provide your brain with rest periods and take breaks.

When you take a cognitive break, you down-regulate stress-associated brain chemistry. And this allows easier access to your brain's 'flow' state.

Neuroscientist Brynn Winegard, PhD, specializes in the intersection of business and brain sciences. She explains that it's important to work with, rather than against, your brain's ultradian cycle4 (natural rhythms). Winegard says the 'textbook' ultradian cycle of our brains is 90/15. So for every 90 minutes of cognitive work, give yourself a 15-minute rest period with some physical activity.

She also notes that in a tech-distractive, VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, our ultradian cycle is shrinking. This means that self-awareness is your guide as to when to take a brain break.

So working with, rather than against, your brain's natural attention-rest cycles will support brain health, cognition and dopamine production.5

How to put this into action: Plan your day so that for every 90 minutes of focused work, you include 15 minutes for a short walk or other physical activity. Physical activity primes the brain for productivity, which in turn can increase your motivation.


Neuroscience offers practical advice you can easily put into action that supports brain health and enhances cognitive function—and ultimately increases your sense of intrinsic motivation.

Bring your attention to these foundations of a motivated brain: brain health, mindfulness practice and cognitive load. These powerful, well-researched tools will help you enhance motivation for yourself, your clients or the teams you lead.

Delaney's Mindfulness Resources Recommendations:

Sources and Further Reading:

  1. From the Book: Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfilment by Dr. Gregory Berns (p146-74, 1st (2005) Holt Paperbacks).
  2. David, Ramon (2021). The Healthy Brain & The Motivated Brain, Applied Neuroscience Program, Module 4 & 6.
  3. Zeidan, F., Johnson, S., Diamond, B., David, Z. and Goolkusain, P. (2010). Mindfulness Meditation improves cognition: Evidence of Brief Mental Training. Consciousness and Cognition,19(2), 597-605. LINK: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20363650/
  4. Learn more about Ultradian Cycles here on the Better Human blog.

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Contributing Author:

Delaney Tosh, CPCC, PCC, coaches women who want to radiate with confidence and thrive as leaders. She helps her clients navigate the hurdles unique to women in leadership and also delivers the Resilience at Work® Toolkit and Resilience at Work® Leader Scale, helping leaders and teams create optimal performance through resilience. She is co-creator of the Phoenix-Hearted Woman retreats and webinars, designed to help women build resilience and strengthen their foundation for being heard and making a difference in the world. Connect with Delaney at SquarePeg Leadership or on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Delaney & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coach or Client Meditating on Desk by Dragon Images via Shutterstock

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