How Brain Science Can Make You More Motivated and Productive

Ever wonder how the most productive people stay motivated? New research on the brain can help you minimize distractions, stay focused, and achieve the most important tasks.  According to a recent article by Ravi Shankar Rajan published in Medium Digest, dopamine is the neurological source of motivation.  It is well known that dopamine contributes to pleasurable sensations and a feeling of satisfaction, but it turns out to be a key factor in helping humans navigate the world around them.  Dopamine is perhaps the key brain neurotransmitter transporting information between neurons at a cellular level in the brain.

Experiments have shown that dopamine spikes when a human anticipates something important about to happen.  According to several studies, the brain can be trained to release dopamine.  Author Heidi Grant Halvorson presents these results following decades of research in her book entitled Focus.  Most prominently, she shows that “preventative motivation”, the fear of negative consequences, is associated with enhanced levels of dopamine.  E. Troy Higgins, in his fascinating research, found that by understanding how people focus, you can use this power to motivate yourself and those around you.

For example, if you utilize “if-then planning”, Higgins’ research showed greater motivation than what is commonly understood as “will power”.  The research indicates that if a subject, right before bed, tells himself or herself “I will wake up at 6 AM and go to the gym and do a 45- minute cardio workout”, the subject is more likely to follow through with the goal.  The theory is that one is effectively deciding in advance so there is no confusion or controversy when the time comes.  In over 200 studies this technique has been found to increase rates of goal achievement and productivity by over 200% on average.

The key to making progress in these areas, according to the research, is a series of good habits.  One of these habits is the daily selection of one “uncomfortable” thing to complete every day.  This means adding it to a daily list, making the decision in advance (prevention focus), and thinking about the consequences of failing to achieve the goal. According to the research, turning a task or activity that you do not necessarily want to do (going to the gym every day), into a habit can help achieve your goals.  Other simple techniques, like doing the hardest thing on your list first, will enhance your ability to get those things done versus allowing distraction and procrastination to get in your way.

Robert Leahy, a Psychologist, and Author, coined the term for these habits as “Constructive Discomfort”.  The concept is to practice a little discomfort (in terms of goal achievement) every day- by doing something that pushes you a little bit out of your comfort zone but is still within reach.  In other words, if you set a goal that is just high enough to stretch you a bit, but not so high that it discourages you, this will increase productivity.

This research also underscores the fallacy of “multi-tasking”.  The brain studies show that by adopting the habit of working on the achievement of small (somewhat uncomfortable) goals every day, improved focus and achievement will result.

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