Why is it so easy to spend numerous hours scrolling through YouTube or your socials than it is to get started on that report due soon?
Consciously, you know that finishing the task is the right thing to do and that you would benefit from a well-written, thorough report.
But it just seems infinitely easier and more rewarding to stay lost within cyberspace, right?
Even if you end up accomplishing nothing, watching videos you may not remember, or not finding anything else of interest, your brain might lead you to believe this is more rewarding than doing any work.
To understand why this happens, let’s talk about the neurotransmitter dopamine.
What is Dopamine?
One of the nicknames dopamine often goes by is “the pleasure molecule.”
You may have heard about it referred to in this way in any number of listicles telling you how to improve your mood or why eating desserts makes you so happy.
But as Michael Treadway, clinical psychologist and neuroscientist at Emory University, points out – dopamine has less to do with pleasure, and more to do with motivation.
The neurotransmitter acts before you perform or accomplish a task by signaling your brain with an expectation of a reward.
For instance, think about how you might react when you see the logo of your favorite burger joint or donut shop, or during the opening sequence of your favorite show’s new season.
Whether you enjoy the meal you purchase or the episode you watched, you experience an expectation of a reward, which motivates you to go ahead, buying a meal set or watching the show.
The same happens when you hear a notification ping on your phone, or as you’re scrolling through YouTube.
Nothing particularly exciting might be happening, but it’s the expectation that something might keeps you going.
It’s sort of like trying out a claw machine repeatedly; no matter how many times it drops the toy you picked up, you may want to keep going because you keep hoping for a reward.
When it comes to working, or exercise, or cleaning your home, these immediate expectations of a reward are often missing, even though consciously you are aware of the long-term benefits.
It’s easier to choose the path of instant gratification than to haul yourself out of bed early in the morning to go running or to work, right?
Luckily, neuroscientists point out that if applied correctly, you can use strategies to tap into your body’s dopamine system and motivate yourself for things you ordinarily feel reluctant to do.
Check out these 5 ways to trick your brain to do hard things!
5 Ways to Trick Your Brain to Do Hard Things
1. Use Micro-Goals to Trick Your Brain to Do Hard Things
Watching an hour-long cat video compilation seems effortless compared to the same amount of time spent working.
It isn’t unusual to feel discouraged or demotivated when faced with a big task – like meeting a project deadline, submitting a proposal, or an essay – especially when you have an easier alternative for gratification.
Fortunately, you can hack this system to work in your favor.
Because your brain’s reward centers activate with dopamine in expectation of a reward, create a system of goal accomplishment and reward to feed your motivation.
Keeping a simple to-do list can show you the difference this can make.
Instead of, for example, lumping all your chores together, split them up – make the bed, scrub down your windows, vacuum, etc.
After accomplishing each micro-goal, reward yourself.
This could be something simple, like 15 minutes of scrolling through your social media feeds, a slice of cake, a short walk, a cuddle-session with your puppy.
Similarly, you can do this for work or studies – instead of feeling demotivated because of a looming deadline, break your tasks down into a series of mini-deadlines, with rewards built-in in between.
By creating a system where your brain expects a reward as a result of completing an important goal, the dopamine gets you to feel motivated to complete the task.
Moreover, once you accomplish the task and get your reward, your brain learns to expect a reward after every task or micro-goal you accomplish.
Compare the feeling of ordering in a pizza after, say, two hours of working on an important project.
Your brain predicts how much you will enjoy that pizza afterward, compared to ordering a pizza and eating it while your work sits, untouched, fueling your stress, and reducing your enjoyment.
2. Use Mindfulness to Trick Your Brain to Do Hard Things
According to Professor Kim Hellemans, a neuroscience researcher at Carleton University, “In a healthy dopamine system, receptors would be plentiful, and dopamine would exhibit a pattern: moderate levels at rest, heightened levels when confronted by a cue of motivational significance, and quick, strong pulses when an unexpected reward is obtained, or rapid declines when an expected reward is withheld.”
Excessive dopamine levels can spiral into addictive behaviors because the brain adapts to these high levels and craves them.
Social media, gaming, and gambling addictions are behaviors that can result from irregular dopamine levels.
This is why mindfulness is necessary to maintain the type of healthy dopamine system Professor Hellemans outlined.
While spending several hours on the internet may seem harmless, excessive indulgence of these behaviors can potentially create long-term addictive behaviors.
These make it even more challenging to do things you need to do.
Neuroscience researchers and clinicians recommend “consciously abstaining” from behaviors that can snowball into these kinds of habits.
Limiting time spent online can help reduce the temptation to indulge too much in the limitless expanses of the internet.
It also helps reset the brain’s reward expectation system, so you are better able to resist the urge to check every social media notification the moment you get them.
In fact, the best way to accomplish a good balance of mindfulness is to build these moments into your daily work and home routine.
Set an internet cut-off point for yourself during the day when you switch your notifications off and don’t check anything online.
Have specific days and hours set aside for your gaming and Netflix and other potentially “more rewarding” activities.
By allotting a specific amount of time to your indulgences, you can limit them as well as create a healthy dopamine-fuelled reward system.
In the meantime, this also frees up time for you to do things you might otherwise not consider as instantly “rewarding” activities – like going for a walk, reading a book, spending quality time with a friend.
Imagine that at a certain point every day, you would experience a power outage in your home.
What would you do to entertain yourself when you aren’t able to plug in to the rest of the world?
You might be surprised to find that many of the activities you come up with are actually much more enjoyable than you would have imagined.
Unplugging helps you be more mindful of your environment and self, and reduces your craving for potentially addictive behaviors, making it easier to perform activities you previously considered “hard.”
3. Use Exercise to Trick Your Brain to do Hard Things
According to Walter Piper, a neuroscience researcher at New York University, “Exercise and many other elements of a healthy lifestyle can boost dopamine activity in sustainable ways.”
Research shows that aerobic exercise can help improve the fine motor skills of people with Parkinson’s disease, a condition arising from low levels of dopamine.
Even 20 minutes of aerobic exercise can help switch your motivation around by regulating healthy levels of dopamine.
The increased activity gets more blood pumping to your brain, creating an optimum condition for it to grow and process – this is why you often feel more alert and focused after exercising!
Also, crucially, exercising stimulates endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin (another great neurotransmitter to put you in the right state to work and learn).
Exercise has a plethora of health benefits, but it’s also a much more sustainable way of getting your motivation system running and putting you in a good mood to tackle necessary tasks.
So work in some time for light exercises within your daily routine – even going for a quick jog or a walk around the block can make a difference!
4. Get Enough Sleep to Trick Your Brain to Do Hard Things
A natural dopamine cycle involves higher dopamine levels during the day, keeping you alert and focused, and lower dopamine levels later in the day to help you rest and sleep.
Not getting enough sleep can result in flagging dopamine levels during the day – and this, in turn, results in a lack of motivation to get things done.
A study conducted at the University of Michigan found that low levels of dopamine in rats resulted in these animals not even attempting to move towards food left a few inches away.
Along with the fatigue from not getting enough rest, lack of sleep can also compound negative feelings of stress and demotivation.
Enough quality sleep helps reduce the size of the brain’s amygdalae, which regulates feelings like anxiety, stress, fear, etc.
People who don’t get enough REM sleep tend to be reactive the following day about any negative emotions they had been experiencing.
This upset in your mood and motivation naturally impairs your ability to be productive and learn.
Reducing the time you spend on social media, and getting enough exercise (both things I recommend for regulating dopamine levels) can help you get better sleep.
For device usage, in particular, the blue light from your screen disrupts your body’s circadian rhythms by tricking the brain into thinking that it’s daytime, and it needs to be alert and active.
As a result, and because of the subconscious expectation of reward, you might find yourself on your phone through the night, feeding into your inability to sleep.
Unfortunately, this affects your dopamine levels and motivation the next day.
Getting enough quality sleep ensures that you wake up well-rested with your dopamine levels rejuvenated and your brain in its alpha wave mode – a calm, clear-headed state that’s best for learning.
Now you have another reason to instill a social media or internet cut-off point at some juncture of your day!
5. Listen to Music to Trick Your Brain to Do Hard Things
There is a substantial body of literature establishing the magical effects music can have on your learning, concentration, and productivity.
Listening to specific types of music, particularly melodic instrumentals, can significantly increase your dopamine levels and keep you motivated as you work, exercise, learn, and so on.
A study conducted by McGill University discovered an increase of 9% in dopamine levels when people listened to instrumentals that “gave them chills.”
Some companies report productivity surges of up to 40% through the introduction of music therapy into the workplace, along with increased job satisfaction.
In fact, a recent study by McGill University also found that music can “activate the brain’s reward center and motivate learning” – in other words, it gets your dopamine levels to rise and boost motivation.
So, put your headphones on and treat yourself to some lovely, melodious instrumentals of your favorite songs as you get to work.
You’ll be surprised by how much more uplifted and subsequently motivated you will feel as you work, thanks to all that dopamine!
With these 5 ways to trick your brain to do hard things, I hope you can jump right over the obstacles to your productivity and focus.
Are you going to try regulating your dopamine levels with any of the tips above? I would love to hear from you!
Pat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and an internationally noted brain coach known as America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert.
Pat’s superpower is helping people learn, read and remember everything faster. She has helped over half a million people in schools and corporations such as Microsoft, Intel and Google improve their lives with her learning strategies, learning styles inventory and courses, including How to Read a Book in a Day and Remember It and Total Recall Learning™.
Pat is the best-selling author of more than 15 books, a university instructor, mom and golden retriever lover!
If you have questions or comments feel free to email her!