Want to be More Productive?

Want to be more productive?

Do you have important things on your to-do list that you never seem to get to? Maybe these are projects or activities that are really important to you. Maybe you set a goal to start implementing a daily stress management strategy like mindfulness meditation. Or maybe you set a goal to finally start putting in, at least, five hours per week to write that book you always wanted to. But it just never happens. Do you seem to just run out of time each day or each week to work on them? You may wonder, “Where does the time go?” or “Why can’t I prioritize something so important to me?”

Prioritizing is getting harder and harder as technology advances. We are constantly bombarded with things competing for our attention: phone calls, text messages, emails, social media updates, etc. In this hyper-connected era, we are expected to respond instantly to many of these.

I too struggled with trying to stay productive. I would have lofty goals that I never seemed to have the time to get to by the end of the week, and wonder where the time went.  I started to feel helpless and victimized. I was constantly checking my email, responding to texts, and occasionally, falling down the social media or Google search rabbit hole. I wondered whether I had ADHD and just didn’t realize it until now.

I then woke up to what was going on. No, I didn’t have ADHD. But being constantly distracted and feeling unable to stick with the tasks you want to knock down is not unlike having ADHD. Turns out, every time you engage in your technology by doing things like checking email, texts, social media, and surfing the net, the dopamine reward pathway is activated in your brain. Dopamine’s role in the brain is pretty complicated, but one of the things it controls is your motivation to seek out or search for things that are potentially rewarding or pleasurable. Note I used the word “potentially”. The more unpredictable getting a reward or experiencing some pleasure is, the more the dopamine system kicks in. And that makes you want to keep searching and checking. Make no mistake, this mechanism in your brain is VERY STRONG. All those text messages, emails, phone calls and such come at random times, which enhances your dopamine response even more!

Psychologists discovered decades ago that the best way to control both animal and human behavior was through the use and timing of rewards. They found that the best timing and frequency of providing rewards came when variable schedules of reinforcement were used. We now know that this is related to the dopamine response noted above. And guess what? Checking email, texts, social media, and surfing the web reward us with a variable schedule of reinforcement. So it’s no wonder we can’t get anything done!

You may have been told by your parents or others who rarely use modern technology to simply “stop checking your phone!” While there is some wisdom here, it’s easier said than done. It’s similar to an addiction. It not just about deciding not to check, because there are powerful brain mechanisms at play that are not under your full control. The solution is not to rely on sheer willpower to resist the temptation to check. Although willpower can be strengthened, it becomes weaker with use over the course of the day, and when we are tired or hungry.

So what’s the solution? The solution is to hack your brain and hack your environment. First of all, you need to schedule time to work on your important goals. This has to be given the same priority level as something like a doctor’s appointment. It’s basically non-negotiable. And when the time comes to work on that goal, you need to eliminate any possible distractions. So turn off your phone, email, social media, and even your internet if possible. Without any beeps, buzzes, or alerts from your devices, your brain’s dopamine reward-seeking pathway will relax a little and let you get down to business. You should start using this strategy when you are doing any important work. In fact, you should even consider doing this when you spend time with people who are important to you, like your family and friends. You’ll be happier and more fun to be around as you’ll be more engaged and present.

It’s time for you to take your life back!