Dominik Berner

C++ Coder, Agilist, Rock Climber

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Chase the dopamine and get motivated

Chase the dopamine and get motivated

“It is really demotivating, nothing gets done here.” A complaint I heard a few times in various settings. Sometimes just as a exclamation to vent steam, sometimes with a sigh and an edge of desperation to it. Surprisingly most of the time I hear this, it is from people that I esteem as far from lazy and quite capable of actually doing and completing things. But lack of motivation can strike the best of us.

Motivation - an elusive thing. Sometimes one is bursting with it, sometimes it is hard to find. Everyone probably gets the the feeling once in a while that work is an endless drudgery of monotonous days without end? Even worse, for some of us these days are full of stress and constant pressure to deliver something. You might ask yourself “how can that be that I’m working with so many capable, highly competent people but nothing seems to happen around here?” If this is the case you are lacking a healthy dose of dopamine (and some other biochemicals).

The “Feel-Good” chemistry-kit

Dopamine, together with endorphin, serotonin and oxytocin, are the four self-produced chemicals (aka hormones) that make up that warm, fuzzy feeling that one gets when everything goes smooth and well. Technically dopamine is a Neurotransmitter not a hormone, but let’s leave that distinction aside for the sake of simplicity. Hormones are our bodies control mechanism to create incentives and rewards for us to jump into action and on a pure biological/chemical level are responsible to motivate us to do things. Overall those hormones should be more or less balanced out to function properly. Too much of one and we get the incentive to behave in a certain direction - which is exactly what evolution designed those things for. Very much simplified one can separate these four hormones into their main tasks:

  • Dopamine creates the good feeling you get if you succeed at something.
  • Endorphin is a painkiller, it makes you go one when things are tough.
  • Serotonin makes you feel appreciated so it makes you want to share your deeds.
  • Oxytocin helps with creating a feeling of social security by creating intimacy and closeness.

Serotonin and oxytocin are not just influenced by our own actions but by interaction with other people and their behavior. The more immediate the contact we have with other people, the more influence they have on our hormone levels. This is why it is so important to work in a trustful, healthy environment and why being part of a strong team feels so good. The drawback of this is, that we can only influence our own production of Serotonin and oxytocin indirectly. Dopamine and endorphine production on the other hand can be actively stimulated by performing certain actions. This is useful, because we can use those chemicals to break out of situations when we are low on the feel-good-hormones. As endorphin only dulls the pain, focusing on getting a fix of dopamine is a much more constructive way to go.

Chase the Dopmine

Raising the dopamine level is surprisingly easy. Just get something done. This can be a very simple thing like cleaning your desk including cleaning all those drawers from that accumulated junk or finally unsubscribing from all those junk mails from those annoying shops. Or it can be something with more impact as writing a small script to automate a simple task. It does not really matter what you do, but it is important that it has a visible end result (at least to you). If not sure where to start, take a small task that takes between ten minutes and half an hour to complete. Then focus solely on that task. With a bit of practice the dopamine-inducing task can grow bigger, but the tasks should be small enough so they can be completed in one go. It is true that the larger and harder the task is, the bigger the dopamine rush at the end; A proper all-out dopamine high can feel like you’re on top of the world and that everything is possible - A truly great feeling. However the the caveat is that we get the dopamine only if we finish the thing we took on. No Dopamine for quitters.

Once you’re finished get up, look at the result and say to yourself. “I’m done!”. Do you feel that tiny bit of satisfaction that things are now better than before? That’s the dopamine! Enjoy that feeling! Generally I try to find problems that are small but annoying to solve if I need an urgent dopamine fix. The more of an annoyance or inconvenience not fixing something is the more dopamine. An additional benefit of that approach is of course that you also get rid of all those small inconveniences that tend to make our daily work tedious. Over the time I got real good at setting myself achievable goals for my dopamine hunts. But like a junkie I also started to crave dopamine after a while without it.

Get serotonin and oxytocin into play.

Raising the dopamine-level is only part of the feel-good combination of hormones and unfortunately its effects are rather short term and tend to wear off with time. To get a lasting and well rounded effect we have to get the other chemicals going as well. Since serotonin and oxytocin are dependent on other people’s reaction it is important that we make the effort and solution of our dopamine-inducing tasks visible. Especially with work on a computer this requires a bit of effort, as the small tasks and scripts we do are often not observable from the outside. The solution is simple: tell people about your success and why your - or even better their - life is better now. This can be a simple “Ah, my mailbox looks so empty, now that I unsubscribed from all that junk” over a cup of coffee. Or it can be a bigger more formal event such as giving a demo of that nifty little script that you just wrote. Sometimes it can also just be enough to have people observe - and comment - on you doing something. Of course this does not mean that you have to advertise every single little thing you do all day, but showing off once in a while will help with the balance of dopamine, endorphin, Serotonin and oxytocin. Coincidentally a lot of the agile practices that make “done” work visible are very good tools to get that mix of hormones flowing.

So whenever things seem to be a standstill take a moment pick a little task and chase that dopamine! The rest of the feel-good mix will follow along.

A small disclaimer

This post was inspired by Why leaders eat last by Simon Sinek. It is a very, very much simplified version of of the hugely complex fields of Neuroscience and human psychology and I do not have a formal education in either of these fields and most of the material used in this post is from wikipedia, so everything I wrote should be considered popular science than correct in every single detail. Which of course does not prevent all this from working ;)

Written on July 20, 2018