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Morning Walk #57
What you need to know about dopamine to control your motivation, focus, and satisfaction
Hi. I’m Stepa Mitaki. I’m a product person and an entrepreneur. From 2013 to 2021, I was helping cities use technology to better serve people. In 2021 I switched my focus to healthcare. Currently building Carial to improve primary care.
Morning Walk is a personal weekly newsletter where I share some musings on tech, digital healthcare, working on startups, productivity, and some nerdy stuff.
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🧠 What you need to know about dopamine to control your motivation, focus, and satisfaction
Here is another remarkable piece of knowledge from a famous neuroscientist I learned this week that is changing the way I work now. Dr. Andrew Huberman talked to Tim Ferriss about the science of dopamine and how to tune your dopamine system for discipline and motivation.
The part I’m talking about goes from 12:01 to 26:05, so I highly recommend you set aside 14 minutes and listen to it in full. But here is the gist and how I’m applying this to my life now.
What dopamine actually is
Dopamine is a molecule that basically drives you to pursue more.
Dopamine has an incredible ability to put us into action. It shapes the way we think, it shapes the way we feel about what we are doing, and it’s very powerful.
The counterintuitive thing about dopamine
It turns out that when you get a reward for your action, it doesn’t just increase your baseline dopamine level and stay there. It goes back down. That seems logical. But it doesn’t just go back down to the level it was before. It goes down to a level below what it was before you went out seeking that thing.
And the extent to which it drops below baseline is proportional to how high the peak was.
Example from a real life
Let’s say you ran a marathon. If you cross the finish line pretty happy, it won’t drop that much below baseline afterward. If you cross the finish line ecstatic, well, a day or two later, you’re going to feel quite a bit lower than you would otherwise.
This drop below baseline after any peak in dopamine governs whether or not we are going to feel motivated to continue to pursue other things.
There is a workaround to stay motivated (hint: but it’s hard)
Try to guess it before we jump into an answer.
But first, a classic Stanford experiment:
The researchers took a number of kids in kindergarten that liked to draw. Then, they started giving them a reward for drawing. A gold star or something that a young child would find rewarding. Then they stopped giving them the gold star. And what they found is the children had a much lower tendency to draw on their own. No reward = no drawing anymore. This was an activity that prior to receiving a reward, the children intrinsically enjoyed and selected to do. No one was telling them to draw.
Science calls this intrinsic versus extrinsic reinforcement. When we receive rewards (even if we give ourselves rewards), we tend to associate less pleasure with the actual activity itself that evoked the reward.
And that’s the catch.
When we engage in an activity because of the reward, we actually are extending the time bin over which we are analyzing or perceiving that experience. Simply speaking, our mind is busy thinking about the reward and don’t get to enjoy the activity itself.
Because the reward comes at the end, we start to dissociate the neural circuits for dopamine and reward that would’ve normally been active during the activity.
Because it all arrives at the end over time, we experience of less and less pleasure from that particular activity while we’re doing it.
Now think of the activities that exists in our minds that we pursue just because they are innately pleasureful: food, sex, warmth, water when you’re thirsty, etc.
You might have other activities you just enjoy doing: walking, reading, playing football, cycling, drawing, listening to music, sleeping in. You don’t think of the end of them, you enjoy them as they go. And because of that you don’t lower your dopamine baseline after. It even insreases.
I'm sure you might have experienced that with some activities you genuinely like. If you put an end goal and focus on that instead of the process, you don't enjoy it as much. For example, when I put something I really enjoy (e.g., reading) on my to-do list, I enjoy it less. And it happens precisely because of that extrinsic reinforcement.
So, if you get a peak in dopamine from a reward, it’s going to lower your baseline. The brain thinks that you didn’t really do the activity because you enjoyed the activity. You did it for the reward.
So, in a nutshell:
Have an end goal to an activity → brain starts to focus on the reward → brain forgets about the activity itself → you get the reward → dopamine baseline drops 📉
Enjoy the activity without thinking of your prize in the end → brain focuses on the activity itself and its pleasure → you finish activity → dopamine baseline increases 📈
That’s the key: turn effort into the reward
Learn to access the rewards from effort and doing instead of an end goal.
Do not layer in other sources of dopamine in order to get to the starting line.
Do not layer in other sources of dopamine in order to be able to continue.
Start to attach the feeling of friction and effort to an internally generated reward system.
Okay, great. But how do I actually do that?
Here is your checklist for upcoming week.
In those moments of the most intense friction, tell yourself that you are doing it by choice and you’re doing it because you love it. That might sound like lying to yourself. And in some ways, it is lying to yourself, but it’s lying to yourself in the context of a truth, which is that you want it to feel better. You want it to feel even pleasureful.
Don’t spike dopamine prior to engaging in effort. And don’t spike dopamine after engaging in effort. Learn to spike your dopamine from effort itself.
Try to bring more mindfulness into the process. Pay attention to your body and your mind during the process. It’s like learning to meditate. It would feel uncomfortable at the moment, but you’ll get there with practice.
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That’s it for today. Thanks for reading. Until next week 👋🏻
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