What To Do When You Can’t Go On

When does your brain urge you to keep working, and when does it tell you it’s time for a rest? Researchers are learning more about the nature of such messages, writes my friend Maia Szalavitz on Time.com:

“New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers insight into how people decide when to keep going and when to take a break.  That decision apparently hinges on a specific signal that at its peak—say, when your muscles are screaming that you can’t do another rep or your brain refuses to focus on the page —prompts you to quit. And when your body and brain are refreshed and ready to go again, the signal quiets down and gets out of your way.

The peaks and valleys that trigger these decisions, however, are not pre-set: they’re influenced by how much effort you’re expending and how big a reward you expect from the work. The bigger the reward and the smaller the effort required, the more likely you are to keep going until you’ve done what needs doing. As you work, it seems, your brain continuously calibrates your breaking point in relation to your expectations of gain.”

To understand this signaling, researchers led by Mathias Pessiglione of the Motivation Brain and Behavior Laboratory of INSERM in Paris, France, imaged the brains of 39 people while they squeezed a handgrip with the most strength they could muster, trying to earn varying monetary rewards. Maia continues:

“During the challenge, the brain scans showed activity in a region involved in pain perception, known as the posterior insula. The signal there became more intense when greater effort was required—but less strong when the same level of effort was connected with a bigger potential reward. Bigger rewards also led to a muted signal during rest periods between the tests, meaning people would both expend more effort and require less rest when more was at stake.

The authors write, ‘[This] process might implement the intuitive psychological phenomenon that, when motivated, we literally push back our limits,’ allowing us to worker harder for longer.”

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of feeling that we can’t work (or exercise, or do anything difficult) for a moment longer, and then remembering what we’re striving for and finding the strength to go on. It’s good to know that, as Maia puts it, our limits are not “pre-set” but can be affected by environmental factors under our control (i.e., we can promise ourselves a reward or motivate ourselves in other ways).

What works to motivate you when you encounter that “I can’t go on” feeling?

3 Responses to “What To Do When You Can’t Go On”

  1. Barry Kort says:

    When doing brain work (problem solving), I like to work until I reach a natural stopping point, where I don’t have to save a lot of context. If a lot of things are “up in the air” (think of juggling as the metaphor here), it’s not a convenient time to stop.

    That’s also why I don’t like being interrupted when I am focusing intently on some problem or task.

    When a friend of mine was home-schooling his children, he was scheduling a fixed amount of time each day to spend on each subject. I called that the Tyranny of the Clock, and suggested that he spend as much or little time on any topic as it took to reach a natural stopping point. It was one of those, “Well, duh,” moments for him as a home-schooling parent.

  2. Ruth says:

    I’ve found that-aside from the usual stretch break and staying hydrated and caffeinated-that I can work longest if I’m also listening to an interesting podcast or NPR talk. I’m an editor, working on technical papers, but perhaps because I’m also a musician, I find music more distracting. Quality talk keeps me on task on long solitary projects. Perhaps it’s a soothing voice keeping me virtual company and stimulating my flagging self; perhaps it’s that one part of my brain wants to hang in there to hear the end of the story. Or perhaps the recorded voice prevents my inner chatter that would otherwise tell me I’m tapped out or in need of pie and websurfing. Other people I know can’t listen to talk while doing verbal work. Good to know one’s own wiring, even if it’s not up to code.

  3. Adrian says:

    This has happened to me a lot when running. Part of me wants to run longer and faster, but there’s another part of me monitoring how my body feels and judges how it will feel if I keep running. Sometimes when I stop running it happens so fast I don’t remember making the decision. Maybe that’s because when I mull over the decision in my head I usually end up talking myself into running farther :)

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