Hint: It has nothing to do with your willpower (or lack thereof)
Learning has never been easy. It requires a long span of focus, as well as putting substantial hours of deep work.
How many times have we found ourselves momentarily deep in focus, only to almost involuntarily reach for our phones? The next thing you know, you’re knee deep in Tweets, Instagram Stories, and Facebook Posts.
Or perhaps, when learning to play the guitar, some of us face a heavy resistance just picking up the guitar.
Our lack of focus is one key obstacle to learning. Our lack of motivation is another.
Learning has never been easy. It is also a complex topic to tackle, which can no means be exhaustively covered within this one post.
My hope with this post, is to help you better understand the underlying problem for our seeming lack of focus and self-motivation, when learning.
Does your typical day look something like mine?
If you’re like me, your typical day outside work will look something like this:
- Watching Netflix, or, scrolling through the Netflix catalog
- Wandering around the kitchen, looking for something to snack
- Scrolling through pictures and videos on social media
- Replying to text messages
Understanding what drives your behavior
When you start to scroll through Instagram or Twitter, or looking for videos to watch on YouTube, it may almost feel like muscle memory — you are aware of what you are doing, but it seems automatic.
Just a few minutes ago, you did not make the conscious decision to scroll through your Instagram feed in the next five minutes, but you picked up the phone anyway, without much thought.
What’s happening here?
When you find yourself in a reactive state, like the one I’ve described above, it is most likely that you are in a dopamine loop.
What is dopamine, and what is a dopamine loop?
Dopamine is a chemical released by our brains to motivate us in certain behavioral patterns. It works as a signalling feedback for predicting actions with certain rewards.
- When an activity provides a rewarding feeling, body releases dopamine
- Our brain then associates the release of dopamine with the “feeling of pleasure” and creates a reward system
- We then assign activities with an emotional value to guide behavior and make split-second risk/reward assessments
The result is that we orientate toward activities that provide for this release of dopamine
Our primitive roots
Back when humans used to live in caves, and hunt in tribes, our reaction to dopamine was very much depended upon to increase our chances of survival
For example, the associated pleasure with eating motivates us to hunt for food.
Similarly, the protection associated with being in a tribe is what makes us hard-wired to crave for social feedback.
The problem(s) with dopamine in today’s environment
As explained earlier, our actions are largely orientated toward activities that provide for dopamine release.
The problem? With your smartphone, these activities are now easily accessible at your fingertips — a multitude of apps that provide you with bite-sized bits of novel content every other minute.
Each time you scroll through social media, you get a short release of dopamine. A few minutes later, you pick up your phone a few minutes later, and get another release of dopamine.
The second problem? After repeated success with dopamine from the same activity, the “feel good” pleasure starts to dwindle. You then crave for more of such activities, or more of other activities that provide that same hit of dopamine release.
This is otherwise known as the dopamine loop, and is exactly why we can’t sit still, focus, or be alone with our thoughts for more than five minutes (even less for some).
When in the dopamine loop, it is difficult for us to engage it any other activity that do not give us that same release of dopamine.
What happens when we try to slot in a new habit into our typical routine?
When we learn a new skill, the inertia is a lot, getting started isn’t easy. A lot of emotional resistance gets built up when we attempt, or even think about proceeding with the task.
Often times, learning a new skill requires prolonged focus.
Compare that with the newly refreshed Twitter feed that is less than an arm’s length away from you, which activity sounds more tempting?
To keep this post below a 5-minute read, I’ve limited my scope to address the “why” in our deficit of attention and focus, rather than the “how to” in tackling this issue.
Nonetheless, I’ll give a brief overview of my experimental efforts to increase my focus and motivation when learning.
My approached involved a two-pronged approach, involving:
- Making access to unproductive dopamine releasing activities as difficult and as out of reach as possible
- Channeling the release of dopamine to a more productive cycle for learning. This approach leverages on the “Winner Effect”.
The elaboration of my approach warrants a separate post in itself, which I will share in detail, in my next post.
I hope however, that this post has provided you with the insights necessary to understand the underlying drivers for our behavior.
Doing so would allow you to tackle any obstacles to your learning journey more efficiently, at the root cause.
Useful Sources and Information:
- The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop: Psychology Today
- How Does Dopamine Drive Our Behavior?: Into Action Recovery Center
- Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time: Science in the News, Harvard University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
- Has Dopamine Got Us Hooked On Tech?: The Guardian
- The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failure, by Ian H. Robertson