Want to start your day with more motivation? Here’s some tricks I’m trying based on neuroscience. They seem to be working so far.
Every morning I wake up sometime between 3:30am and 6am (I don’t use an alarm to avoid sleep deprivation). I go straight to my computer and start writing while the family sleeps. But lately that changed. I would wake up the same time, but I have no deadlines to get work done so my motivation was waning. Instead of writing I would check emails, check Facebook and watch some YouTube. I would do this for an hour, maybe two. Then my kids would wake up and we have our morning routines together. When it was time to work again my motivation was sapped and my energy drained. It even carried over to other things, like going to the gym. I would drag myself there, lift a few weights and leave after 10 minutes into my workout. My mental and physical energy were drained.
I was in a slump and I couldn’t figure out why. Then I listened to a few podcasts with Anna Lembke, author of the latest best-selling psychology book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. She explained how social media, dopamine and motivation work together.
The Huberman Lab, Chris Williamson, Tom Bilyeu and the Joe Rogan Podcast were the ones I listened to. Interestingly, it’s the very habit I developed (wasting time listening to podcasts) which helped me break it!
Here’s the gist: dopamine is released when we’re working towards goals and experiencing pleasurable things. It’s what drives us towards achieving something. For our early ancestors, it’s the chemical that drove us to hunt, fish, gather, explore and do things to survive. What happens after a dopamine high is your body restores homeostasis, the physiological balance in the body. It’s the old story of what goes up must come down. After a dopamine high, we end up in a dopamine deficient state – our dopamine levels are actually below baseline. This is when we feel low on energy, anxious and even depressed. This is an important feeling because it motivates us to go back and do the thing we just did to feel better.
And this is how addictions begin – addiction is defined as the narrowing of things that bring us pleasure. After a high we have the inevitable low, which motivates us to go back and do that thing again. This was valuable to our ancestors who, for instance, couldn’t store food or water. To survive we’ve needed motivation to continue working. But what about in today’s society of abundance?
Things brings us to social media and the internet. Have you ever swiped through your apps, checked all the notifications, put the phone down and then picked it up and started over again? Or maybe you didn’t even put the phone down! This is dopamine in action. The social media notifications trigger dopamine releases but when we finish, we experience a low and so we are motivated to go back and repeat the action.
My morning routines were depriving me of dopamine. Checking emails, Facebook and YouTube were all giving me short dopamine bursts followed by a dopamine deficiency. When it came time to do something else I couldn’t be bothered. I wanted the easy hit. I could actually feel my body being driven towards opening my laptop and repeating the cycle.
So how do we overcome this? Lembke suggests two things and they’re working for me. First, she suggests giving up your “drug of choice” for 30 days. Personally, I need email to function professionally so I can’t do that. But what I can do is select the times I check messages. I wanted an easy rule and a simple mantra (I like mantras!) so I came up with “web-free before three!” For 10 days now, I have waited until after 3pm to check notifications in emails, Facebook, and YouTube. I love it. Not only does it free up time in the morning and throughout the day, it also means I have less time to actually do these menial tasks. I can feel my motivation and drive towards more important work (like writing blog posts and making videos) is higher and I work more efficiently.
The second thing Lembke suggests is to deliberately do difficult things. It’s healthy to be bored. It’s healthy to be uncomfortable. If our lives are one big mission to experience pleasure at every opportunity, ironically we will end up anxious and depressed because of the related dopamine deficiency. Lembke uses the metaphor of a see-saw (teeter-totter) to explain the pleasure-pain balance because pleasure and pain are activated by the same brain circuits and they try to stay balanced. This means if we go deep into the pain side of things and deliberately reduce dopamine levels by purposefully doing unpleasant things, our body will restore homeostasis by elevating dopamine levels, thus we feel happier and more motivated.
That’s why along with web free before three, for 10 days I have started my day with one thing I find boring and another I actively dislike, but both I know are good for me. I have picked up doing 10 mins of Yoga followed by a cold shower. Now when I sit down to my computer to write I am motivated, refreshed and have heaps of energy and motivation. It lasts throughout the day. I can notice the difference in the gym, too.
For three months earlier this year I started my day with 30 mins of yoga to see what would happen. It was great (I can finally touch my toes!) but 30 mins every day was a big long. I can feel my body tightening up again, which is why I am experimenting with 10 mins.
It might just be a honeymoon effect; perhaps it’s not the behaviours taking effect but just the change in routines. If you’re reading this 12 months or more after this is posted, ask a question if I’ve kept up with these habits or not. I would like to think I have.
Think about your own morning levels of energy, motivation and drive. Reflect on morning routines. Do you wake up and pick up your phone, start swiping and checking? How does that make you feel? I don’t have a smartphone for the simple reason I am addicted to my laptop. I simply can’t imagine putting another one right in my pocket! Perhaps a good mantra for students would be phone free before three. Try leaving your phone alone for 30 days. Perhaps delete the troublesome apps and just access them from your laptop, so you’re not constantly tempted for a dopamine fix.
I think success involves doing the hard thing when you know it’s the right thing to do. Yoga’s boring, but its’s good for me. Cold showers suck, but they make me feel better. Same goes for eating salads, doing intense workouts and long runs. Listen to any successful person explain how they did it, and I bet they’ll say it involved repeatedly doing things they didn’t want to but knew they had to. Some say, “success is doing the things that other people aren’t prepared to do.” I agree.
The effects of smartphones and social media is broad and deep. I have been thinking hard about historical comparisons we could draw and lessons to be learned. I will write more about that soon.
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.