It is almost always the case that the hardest things in life are also the most important.
Our brains are always looking to get a quick hit of dopamine. Behind this there is a simple evolutionary explanation: The 200000-year-old human brain has spent the majority of its existence evolving to help the hunter-gatherer thrive. In other words, our brains are mostly designed to help us thrive in the resource-poor wilderness, not in the incredibly resource-rich modern civilisation.
Let’s say you have a choice between these two options:
- focusing on a big assignment (the long term valuable option)
- checking email (the lazy option)
To choose option 1 is to fight against your psychology. For the quickest hit of dopamine the brain often wants to work on the option which will be completed faster (in most cases it is the lazy option). Left to our own devices it is not abnormal to spend all day doing easy things like checking emails, organising the desk, getting snacks etc — it feels good.
This is why it is typically so much more difficult to make progress towards long-term goals compared to short-term easy goals.
In the face of this predicament, many people simply rely on their willpower — a strategy bound for failure in our world of instant gratification. Likewise, we cannot expect to only have to do things we enjoy and find intensely motivating by themselves.
We need much more robust strategies to stay motivated on whatever it is we want or need to…
i. Cheat yourself out of needing motivation (using habits)
Behaviours are one-off actions that require motivation, the ability to do them, and a prompt. If you can learn to build your own habits you can make these behaviours more automatic and consistent. In other words, habits can do some of the hard work for you and reduce the need for as much motivation. What if you had the goal of writing more? You could just try to remember to write and wait around for the days when you are motivated enough to do it or better yet, build a habit like writing 1 blog post every single day.
So the obvious question is how do you build new, good habits? I highly recommend reading Atomic Habits by James Clear to thoroughly learn his framework for successfully making good habits, an invaluable life skill. The key concept is to make the behaviours that you’re trying to turn into habits Obvious, Attractive, Easy and Satisfying.
Here’s what it might look like for you to create a successful habit to focus more every day.
- Obvious: After finishing my morning coffee (a habit stacking technique)
- Attractive: Want to check social media/email? Only let yourself check it afterwards (temptation bundling)
- Easy: Focus on something important for just 5 minutes
- Satisfying: Tick it off your to-do list and smile
ii. Make big things seem easier
Have a huge project you’d like or need to do, but it just keeps getting moved back to another day?
You can make it much easier to get started on, right now, by breaking down big tasks into at least a few small sub-tasks (sub-tasks that will take around 20–30 mins are ideal, e.g. break down ‘presentation’ -> ‘first slide’). This great little hack can provide quick hits of dopamine when working on a long-winded project, to make it an attractive alternative to high-dopamine work activities like checking email. It can really help to get over that initial hurdle and start gaining some momentum.
iii. Reimagine work as a challenge
Often tasks that may be repetitive, boring (the opposite to above) can be reimagined into a challenge as a very effective way to get into a deep state of focus. If you’re creative you can create an infinite number of intrinsically motivating challenges anywhere you look. Trying to get through a bunch of boring emails? Why not challenge yourself to do 1 email per minute?
Here’s another crazy-sounding idea that works for some people when stuck on a boring topic. Try to imagine and convince yourself that it is the most interesting topic in the world.
iv. Reward yourself
Work can be intensely rewarding in the long term, so we just need to work some magic to carry over that motivation to the short term too. In essence, we want to reward ourselves more when we’re doing the things we want (in this case, focusing on work). This can be as simple as tracking your progress towards your work goals or the tasks you’re working on, whether that’s with a to-do list or another tool.
Even if the work you need to do isn’t very rewarding, you can always periodically celebrate all the small wins in other ways — a healthy snack, a walk, coffee with a friend. Even more subtle things like a simple smile can be incredibly powerful and beneficial. Smiles release feel-good chemicals, they’re infectious to others and best of all they’re free! Even faking a smile can trick your brain into making you happier.
While you’re at it, surround yourself with positivity. Make your desk a place where you are happy to be. Decorate it with photos of your favourite people and places. Treat yourself with a few flowers or a little pot plant or a succulent. The scientific beauty of flowers has a profound positive effect and looking at anything we love boosts our happy chemicals. Researchers have found that happiness increases dopamine activity and also activity in certain regions in the brain which handle decision-making, learning and processing.
v. Talk nice to yourself
Your self-talk could be hurting you. Despite what all the YouTube hustlers try to tell you, shouting at yourself to ‘just do it’ implies that whatever you’re trying to do isn’t that important.
Seth Godin suggests rephrasing your self-talk, with the addition of the word ‘merely’ in front of ‘do it’. ‘Simply’ also works well. This seemingly minor distinction upholds your self-respect for what you’re doing and implies that it just won’t be as difficult as you anticipated.
Having strong self-talk like this and a strong mindset sets you up to be more motivated regardless of how difficult something is.
vi. Take frequent breaks
Not just a mini-reward for doing work, breaks also offer a chance to split up the day so you can de-stress a little and give your mind some time to recover so you can keep your motivation high. Studies have shown that breaks reduce stress, keep up performance through the day and maintain long term vigour and energy levels.
But to be effective breaks really need to be relaxing breaks and not be filled with more high dopamine activities like checking email, scrolling Instagram or watching YouTube. It’s a good idea to get off screens for this time. Our favourite suggestions are: having a glass of water, reading a book, having a stretch or going for a short walk.
That’s quite a comprehensive list of strategies, and it’s a lot of information to take in. If you’ve made it this far, well done! Put a note in your calendar to come back here in 2 days from now to check how well you’re implementing these strategies.