17 May 2022

Brainhacking: Why You Fail At Doing Things

Imagine you’re sitting in front of your computer and you have a sudden thought that you should get started on that quarterly report that’s due at the end of next week.

Imagine you’re sitting in front of your computer and you have a sudden thought that you should get started on that quarterly report that’s due at the end of next week. Do you know where that thought comes from?

It’s an addict’s craving for dopamine. Every human on the planet is addicted to it. It’s a good thing; don’t worry. Dopamine is sometimes known as the achievement drug. It is produced by and consumed in the brain when you achieve something, like ticking something off of a to-do list, eating fatty or sugary food, getting a message on WhatsApp, or seeing a cool post on Instagram. Dopamine keeps us moving in the direction of doing things.

From an evolutionary perspective, humans who are motivated to do, to accomplish, to achieve, to move forward have a better chance at surviving.

But the initial motivation is fleeting. I heard in a TED Talk once that it lasts about 40 seconds, but I’m not sure who said it, so I can’t cite it. Mel Robbins famously defends the assertion that you have only five seconds before initial motivation begins to die (Robbins, 2017). In any case, the initiative to change states from doing what you are currently doing to doing something productive that will feed the dopamine craving is short-lived and easily hijacked by two major brain processes.

The first is the amygdala. The amygdala is the kernel of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response. It helps you to assess the risks associated with starting on the report (for example) and explores the worry and fear that you might fail in writing it. You might make mistakes and lose the support of people around you. You might lose your reputation or your income. That’s a major threat to your security as a human who needs to eat and perhaps feed a family. So the amygdala is the part of the brain that tells you that it may be better for you to simply avoid that particular task in favor of seeking dopamine from an easier source, like a Big Mac.

The second is the brain’s wonderful ability to shortcut. Your brain has a registry of all of the sources of dopamine that you have explored in the past. It knows that you can get the dopamine hit you are looking for from a much easier source than writing that report. The report takes a long time, and, sure, the dopamine hit will be larger, but there are a lot of smaller sources that are immediate and require a lot less energy. You could check your Facebook, for example, or get a snack, or go and talk to someone and say something funny so they smile at you.

You get dopamine from all of those things. “So why,” the shortcutting brain asks, “would you choose to write the long-term, high-effort report over pursuing those short- term, low-effort distractions?” Most humans, most of the time, pursue the low-effort, short-term gains over the long-term ones. The amygdala and the shortcutting function succeed a good deal of the time, so instead of writing the report, you’re suddenly reading the entire Wiktionary page on the etymology of “tickle” because you think it’s a funny-sounding word.

Even if you do open up the report and start writing, you’re doomed to a barrage of distractions looking to hijack your focus toward those easy-shot dopamine fixes. A recent study has shown that the average attention span of someone working in front of a screen (like I am now) is about 40 seconds (Mark, Iqbal, Czerwinski, Johns, & Sano, 2016). So not only do you have only between five and 40 seconds to respond to the impulse for a dopamine fix by doing something productive, but even if you do decide to kick your own ass and write that report, you have 40 seconds before the next distraction tries to take your attention away from it. And there’s another one coming 40 seconds after that.

Another amazing study revealed that if you do give in to the distraction torrent and keep feeding your dopamine addiction by scouring YouTube for the top five videos on Beanie Babies, it will take you an average of 23 minutes to regain your focus and get back to your original task (Mark, Gudith, & Klocke, 2008). So your motivation to continue doing what you need to do and your motivation to get back to it once you’ve been derailed by the dopamine train are both incredibly weak.

The way I see it is that strong leaders get things done not by tapping into motivation but by recognizing its weaknesses and moving beyond them. The science is telling us that initial motivation lasts for about five seconds and will be challenged every 40 seconds. That’s a pretty weak force to have self-help books and human resources programs written on. We need something much more robust.

Discipline is the activity of doing what needs to be done whether we feel like it or not, and it’s the single biggest differentiator between successful and unsuccessful people. The next time you feel like you should be doing something to contribute toward your goals, start counting back from five, and then get your discipline on!

The highest performing executives in the world have an Executive Coach to help them build and maintain discipline. Get in touch and I’ll show you the secrets. For more information, you can also register your name on my website, and when my book Spartan CEO comes out, I’ll let you know.

Sources:
Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: more speed and stress. Paper presented at the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, New York. Mark, G., Iqbal, S., Czerwinski, M., Johns, P., & Sano, A. (2016). Neurotics Can’t Focus: An situ of Online Multitasking in the Workplace. Paper presented at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.
Robbins, M. (2017). The 5 second rule: Transform your life, work, and confidence with everyday courage. USA: Savio Republic.

Article by: Dr. Corrie Block
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