“Where is the center for what appears to be a person’s soul? The Brain. And what is created there, Jilly? That’s right–dopamine. What does dopamine do? Creates feelings of love and euphoria. How do we get our brains to create more? Drugs, massage, and/or sex. Boil it down and it’s all just dopamine.”- Kaya McLaren
What’s the secret to unlimited motivation? You might be surprised to know it’s already subtly influencing your behavior every single day. It’s what motivates you to binge on Netflix, to make regular visits to unhealthy fast food restaurants, and to zombie out on Facebook for two hours straight.
The secret to motivation is the neurotransmitter dopamine, but instead of using it to enhance our lives, most of us let it control us. In this article, I’m going to show you how to flip this dynamic so that dopamine literally addicts you to accomplishment and hard work.
Dopamine is widely known as the reward molecule. Its function is to make you desire rewards (chocolate, sex, six-pack abs). The popular media has misrepresented dopamine by suggesting that it makes you feel good. But that’s not its primary function.
Dopamine pulls you towards rewarding behavior like a magnet. You’re under the influence of dopamine release when you reach for your phone to check if your crush liked that classy mirror selfie you posted. You’re under the influence of dopamine when you tell yourself, “Just one more episode, then I’ll get to work.” You’re under the influence of dopamine when you say, “One cigarette won’t kill me.” Dopamine doesn’t make you feel good, it drives you to do something that might get you a reward.
The products you love are so compelling because they cause dopamine release. For example, research has found that video games cause dopamine spikes as extreme as snorting cocaine. Social media, advertisements, fast food; it all motivates (you might even say, controls) your behavior with the sweet siren call of dopamine.
In short, if you don’t learn to use dopamine for your own ends, it will use you.
I’m going to share with you two practical and easy-to-implement strategies to leverage the power of dopamine as a catalyst for personal success.
Dopamine is released in anticipation of a reward, that anticipation of reward makes you take action to get it. Short-circuit this dynamic by rewarding yourself for any progress you make towards your goals. Here’s how I do this: whenever I finish a session of productive work (writing, exercising, etc.) I set aside a predetermined amount of money for a future indulgence. Right now, the money’s going towards trip to Europe. The knowledge that I get to set aside money for my trip once I finish my task is a motivating dopamine-releasing reward.
If that doesn’t give you a motivational boner, this might; it’s called taking in the good. This technique is the flagship concept from Rick Hansen’s fantastic book, Hardwiring Happiness (he uses the technique to be happy, but that’s not our goal, I bastardized it for you so you can use it to get more shit done). The overarching concept of his technique is to look for good facts, and turn them into good experiences. The first step is to “Really enjoy the experience” So, to use taking in the good as a dopamine-releasing reward, do this: once you complete a goal oriented task (like going to the gym), take a moment to notice any sense of accomplishment you feel. Find the positive emotions associated with the fact that you just did something productive.
Next, take a conscious pause for 20-30 seconds, during this time, make a conscious effort to sense that the good experience of accomplishment is sinking into you. I do this by visualizing the good feeling turning into a warm, white light that spreads throughout my entire body. You can do this however you want; the key is to have the intention of letting the positive feelings get deeply absorbed into your present moment experience.
In essence, you are conditioning yourself to anticipate this rewarding feeling you get at the end of the activity. Thus, in the future, your body will release dopamine to motivate you to engage in the activity again. I’ve found this technique to be particularly powerful, of hundreds of self-help techniques I’ve tried, this is one of the few that I’m confident has a tangible and substantial impact on motivation and productivity.
These techniques will help you create sustainable, long-term motivation for any goal you might be pursuing, I use this every single day, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.
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