We've been settling back into work post-Christmas, finding our flow and probably trying to make a productive start to the year. How's it going for you? The festive period left us with low batteries, and these cold and dark start to the days don't exactly set our minds up for focus. For those of us who didn't even have a festive break, it can even be more difficult to find energy for carrying on with job tasks these days. But sheer force is not necessarily the best approach to keep going. We've actually got a better ally for productivity: that's dopamine.
We've probably all heard about dopamine - the feel-good chemical released in our brain when we do something very exciting and rewarding. But not many of us ever really think about our jobs as a dopamine booster. It's not certainly as exciting as bungee jumping or as pleasant as eating a bar of chocolate, is it?
But even cracking on with our work responsibilities, provides plenty of possibilities to activate the beneficial effects of dopamine in our brain, that will boost our productivity too.
Dopamine is directly involved in our reward circuits. When reach a reward, like completing a tough task, or doing well in a presentation, dopamine is released in our brain, which produces feelings of pleasure, motivation towards the activity generating the reward, and satisfaction around it. And what more can you ask for from your job?
While the ideal world can be quite different from reality, reward and its beneficial effect on our mindset aren't so idyllic to achieve when we're at work.
We all know that work can be a significant source of stress in our lives and prolonged distress has detrimental effects on our mental wellbeing, but stress can sometimes be transformed into something exciting for us, a challenge to take on. In other words, it can become a source of dopamine for our brain.
3 ways of transforming your tasks into dopamine boosters
Learning new things, searching for new information, developing our understandings are all good sources of dopamine boosts. Curiosity is a natural attitude as human beings: nurturing our hunger for the novel and unknown has a positive effect on our brain, and every time we discover something new or embark on a new path, dopamine comes in, together with a positive sense of reward. So if you get stuck with a work task, don’t settle for a usual routine to complete it, but dare to try a new approach. And if you have an opportunity to volunteer yourself in a new task, go for it.
If we’ve ever competed for something, attended a sports competition or even just played a video game on our phone or had a games night with friends, we are familiar with that dopamine boost that comes in when we are involved in a challenge and competing towards an objective. Often it is not the objective itself that makes a challenge more exciting, but the pathway to reach it instead. So, if you think your work tasks are boring, or at least not so exciting, you could gamify them by transforming them into small challenges you have to achieve. For example, setting time limits for tasks is one of the simplest ways to make your work challenging and is a common suggestion for boosting productivity. Be careful not to set limits so small you end up frantic - or if you do, stretch that time limit a little. Dopamine-boost challenges are effective when we aim just beyond our comfort zone, but still achievable for us without distress or frustration.
The sense of accomplishment that comes with reaching an objective, or completing a task, is ultimately what activates our reward system. But so often we reach objectives and complete tasks as a part of our daily work, without getting any immediate reward out of it, so we miss that dopamine dash which could refuel our productivity for the next task. Many of us will be familiar with that pleasurable feeling of ticking something off our to-do list - and the applies here. Progress tracking for tasks can be highly rewarding, whether it's a checklist, a kanban board, or a gold star on a chart (old school). Acknowledging when you complete tasks, even if just with yourself, can help to generate a higher sense of achievement than if we were to just move onto the next. You could include larger rewards for completing big chunks of work, such as going for a walk, listening to some music or eating some chocolate. Social reward is also very important, so sharing even small achievements with your team and getting mutual support can help.
But is dopamine always good for productivity?
While boosting dopamine can work to our advantage, it's important to recognise when it may become an obstacle for productivity. Because, as with everything - too much isn't helpful either. In fact, it is well known that dopamine is also involved in addictive behavioural patterns. Our daily habits and behaviours can become addictive to us, like scrolling social media for hours on end, repeatedly checking our phones for new notifications, continuously searching Google for new information. Habits we've all likely fallen into ourselves. And we know these aren't the best ways to spend our free time, particularly when they become significant obstacles for productivity or we're sucked in while at work. If we think about it, these activities respond to similar needs as listed above, such as discovery of new information or social reward. And if we lack sources of dopamine elsewhere, we might revert back to find it in such behaviours that can be detrimental to our productivity levels.
When can we get a healthy refuel of dopamine to sustain work?
If we feel we need an extra boost of dopamine to maintain our productivity levels on top, we can find them in non-task-based activities that we can easily perform before, after, between or even during our working time.
Exercise, movement and sports are a natural source of dopamine for our body and brain, especially if we have the opportunity to do something that we enjoy, out in the fresh air. Even something as simple as taking the stairs can help.
What we eat is also determinant for our levels of dopamine. In fact, several foods are natural suppliers of tyrosine, which is a key chemical involved in the production of dopamine, found in foods like avocados, bananas, almonds, eggs, green tea, yoghurt and chocolate. Annoyingly - but unsurprisingly, foods rich in fats and sugar can reduce the production of dopamine.
The hobbies and activities we do in our free time can also help maintain a good level of dopamine in our brain: doing something that we really enjoy, that keeps us in a flow state, meaning that it offers a level of challenge and engagement aligned with our abilities, gives us a sustained feeling of pleasure and reward. For this, music can become one of our best allies for productivity, as listening to music that we like boosts the production of dopamine and helps us flow while we are working.
So no more scrolling for now and let’s start getting things done! And, by the way, great stuff for coming to the end of this blog, you did great in completing a dose of wellbeing!