Productivity & the Brain

September 12, 2017 | Jacob

Your brain is making you unproductive. 

It’s hard to believe, but what makes you feel good can also ruin your concentration. 

Jacob Flood, October 12, 2017

Ever feel like you’re chasing happiness?

Well, in many ways you are. Our brains, for centuries, have been programmed to crave those feel good emotions as a mode of preservation. When we make the right decisions in life, like eating well, we find happiness. Conversely, when we put ourselves in unpleasant or dangerous situations, we feel unhappy, which forces us to change our actions.

The result in this constant give and take is that our bodies desperately crave happiness. Every feeling, thought, and idea is your minds attempt to make you happy.

So why do we do things that make us unhappy?

Well, our brain is smart. It knows that sometimes you need to be unhappy now in order to be happier later. So it invented motivation.

Let’s use an analogy: if happiness is like money, motivation is like investing. You put away the happiness now, with the goal of withdrawing it later once it grows. Motivation keeps you satiated while you tolerate being unhappy, with the hope that your hard work will eventually pay off.

While yes, every person defines happiness differently. For some it’s tangible, for others it’s emotional, motivation is required to get there. Motivation is the toolkit to achieving happiness.

Therefore, what can we do to maximize our motivation?

For that, we need some background.

Motivation is the toolkit to achieving happiness. 

Neuroscience 101

Your brain processes thoughts and emotions using molecules called neurotransmitters. These molecules travel between the billions of neurons in your head. Each one has a different role, and causes a different feeling. Some we understand and others not so much. For our purposes, we’ll look at two of the most important: serotonin and dopamine.

As a general rule, serotonin and dopamine are considered the happiness chemicals. If we look closer, however, they play very different roles. They act through different channels and they affect different parts of the brain.

If we ignore the complexities, the gist of it is this: serotonin regulates happiness, while dopamine regulates motivation – we call it the reward system.

This relationship has been known for quite a while. Many prescription drugs function by modulating the concentration of these two chemicals in your brain. Too little of either can cause major anxiety. Too much of either is what we call “getting high.”

The limbic reward system- how dopamine travels in your brain. 

The answer to our question, then, should be simple: to increase motivation, increase dopamine. By all logic, this should solve our problems, and improve our lives.

Sadly, the brain’s not that simple and it doesn’t like interference. It has developed a way to come back to that equilibrium when things go wrong.

The best way to visualize this is to picture a bathtub. If you seal the plug and turn on the faucet, the tub will fill. Remove the plug, and the tub will drain. If you were to make the drain wider or smaller, you could control how much water drains, and reach an equilibrium – where the amount of water entering from the faucet is the same as the amount leaving from the drain.

In your brain, the drain is equivalent to neuroreceptors – the little windows that let neurotransmitters enter and exit a neuron. The more neuroreceptors – the wider the drain – the better a neurotransmitter can enter the cell. Each neurotransmitter has it’s own neuroreceptor – from hereon out, I’ll refer to them as dopamine and dopamine receptors.

Dopamine neurotransmitters entering a neuroreceptor. 

Take a big breath. We’re almost there.

When your dopamine concentration increases, your brain freaks out. In response, it increases the concentration of dopamine receptors – basically, “using up” the dopamine. The result – though temporary – is crazy motivation, drive, and energy.

Over the long-term, more receptors – and less sensitive receptors – mean that you need more dopamine in order to get the same feeling. This is what we call addiction. From our analogy, it’s like if the drain in the tub is constantly open – there’s no way to fill the tub.

So what does this all mean?

Work is tough. It takes a lot of motivation.

Your ability to focus depends primarily on your brain’s reaction to dopamine. The idea of doing great work triggers the dopamine that motivates you to put in the effort – investing the time, for the reward at the end.

When your dopamine receptors are desensitized, bad things happen. It can be as subtle as an unconscious decrease in focus – a difference you’d never even notice – or as major as clinical-level anxiety. Mess with your dopamine, and you mess with your productivity.

Sadly, we can get way more dopamine today than our body is built to handle. Below are the common killers that yield unnatural levels of dopamine.

Infrequently used, none of these are particularly harmful – most are actually quite common. If used habitually, however, they have dramatic effects on your dopamine sensitivity, and are the source of a lot of people’s motivation issues.

The amount of available dopamine in a non-drug user vs. a drug user. 

1.    Caffeine

Taken regularly, caffeine seriously messes with your dopamine system.

At its core, caffeine is a drug. Among other things, caffeine prevents reabsorption of dopamine – meaning more of it is floating around in your brain. This is responsible for most of the addictiveness and withdrawal we feel if we don’t have a coffee in the morning.

Don’t let coffee ruin your work. Take regular days off.

2.    Sugar

Sugar is energy, and energy is good. As a result, your body shoots out tons of dopamine whenever you eat it.

Back in time, this was never an issue. Foods high in sugar often have fiber, which mitigates this effect. In the days of refined sugar however, it’s just so easy to get a quick fix.

If you want to work more efficiently, cut down on sugar. Replace candy with nuts – your brain will thank you.

3.    Porn

We’re pretty much programmed to want to reproduce. It’s the second most important thing, right after staying alive.

Your brain really wants you to have sex. The rush you get – usually termed arousal – is basically a burst of dopamine in your system. Internet porn makes that so easy, that our brains can’t handle all the dopamine we’re feeding it.

4.    TV series

Humans are wired to be social creatures. Watching TV stimulates the same dopamine release as real conversation does.

What makes TV so much worse is that it’s created with the intention of eliciting emotion. That addictive feeling you get when you’re watching an amazing show is the dopamine response from the emotions you’re feeling. That intense surge of dopamine affects you the same way drugs do.

5.    Alcohol

We say that Alcohol is addictive for a reason.

Alcohol, like most drugs, releases dopamine. It’s not as bad as some other drugs – alcohol acts primarily through GABA, not dopamine – but the effects are still there. That’s without mentioning all the sugar and dehydration that usually comes with drinking.

6.    Smart Drugs

Smart drugs – Ritalin, Adderall, Modafinil, and others – increase cognition by flooding you with dopamine.

These are usually prescribed to patients with ADHD – a condition characterized by low dopamine levels. In a controlled setting, they can help regulate someone’s dopamine system by purposefully desensitizing their reward centers.

Used incorrectly, that very same effect can completely numb your reward system. When you’re on it, your focus is unreal. Afterwards, however, your motivation drops way below normal.

7.    Recreational Drugs

This is a category all of it’s own.

Recreational drugs are powerful substances. They produce more dopamine – or sometimes serotonin – than your brain was ever built to handle. I’ll neither advocate for or against their use, but understand that drugs – marijuana included– can permanently harm your dopamine reward system.

So what now?

This revelation seems morose – if it makes you happy, it can ruin your work. The good news is that our bodies are incredibly agile at returning to equilibrium.

Just as your brain can make more dopamine receptors, it can get rid of old ones too. Stop drinking coffee, and you’ll be back to normal in less than two weeks.

You don’t need to remove all pleasure from your life. That’ll lead to a burnout faster than it’ll lead to increased productivity.

Your choices directly affect your brain, whether you realize it or not.

We think of our minds as the masters of our actions, but the reverse is also true. Without an active awareness of the impact of your decisions, your mind becomes no more than a slave to your emotions.

The truth is, this is just the beginning.

There’s so much more that can be done to improve productivity. Step one is the tools above – steps two through two hundred are still to come.

We started Mindset with the purpose of creating the ultimate productivity tool. We’re so excited with what it’s become – more than just headphones, it’s the solution to the concentration problem we experience every day.

Learn more about Mindset here.

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