Why do some people accomplish so much, while others do hardly anything at all?
How is one person able to exercise, hold meetings, and finish numerous tasks before lunch, while someone else hasn’t gotten out of bed yet? How does someone work on their craft, day after day for years, while someone else can only daydream about getting started?
We all know what we should be doing. We should be learning. We should be staying healthy. We should be working on things that will pay dividends in the future.
But we don’t. You see, those things aren’t easy. In fact, they can be incredibly hard.
It’s much easier to do something like, say, playing mobile games. Even if you know deep down, while your thumb taps the screen, that you aren’t being productive.
Why do we burn away the time doing things that don’t contribute to our well-being?
To reach the answer, let’s take a look at an immensely popular mobile game: Candy Crush.
Why It’s Hard to Crush the Addiction
With over 2 billion downloads, Candy Crush Saga ranks high up on the list of popular mobile games. The company that created the game, King Digital Entertainment, was valued at $7.08 billion at its IPO in 2014, making it the largest IPO for a mobile company.
Following the IPO, the company generated over $2.6 billion in 2014, with the game Candy Crush Saga generating almost half that amount. Over 9 million people play the game for three or more hours per day.
When you think about it, Candy Crush is a very simple game. Beyond the flashing colors, the zappy sounds, and the cartoony characters, it’s really a rehash on the classic match-three puzzle game. So why then are millions of people hooked onto their phone for hours playing this game?
The quick answer: dopamine.
When you first begin, the going is easy. You breeze through levels, giving you a sense of accomplishment. Dopamine, the chemical in your brain associated with reward and motivation, gets triggered.
After this dopamine surge, you feel the need to keep repeating the actions that led to this feeling. Your brain is exploding. Fireworks are going off, and you’re on cloud nine.
Of course, Candy Crush knows better than to keep things the way they are. You see, if the later levels were as easy as the initial ones, you would get bored. So the difficulty levels go up, making your achievements less frequent.
Like a slot machine, you don’t know when you’re going to win. But when you finally do, that dopamine goes off in your brain. You feel great…and then you’re back to the grind again.
This intermittent cycle of wins is known in psychology as a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. It’s what keeps people glued to the app, perpetually chasing that dopamine hit.
The game may seem like a fun pastime, something to whittle away the long evening commute or a quiet afternoon at home. But can too much lead to negative brain effects?
How Dopamine Changes the Brain
In a study on addiction, mice were provided with a lever to press whenever they wanted. Every time the mice pressed the lever, the dopamine in their brains would be activated through a special optical sensor. In other words, pressing the lever would provide the mice with a sudden feeling of euphoria.
It didn’t take long before the mice discovered the powers of tapping the lever. They soon found themselves obsessed. They didn’t eat, drink, or sleep.
The mice simply pressed the lever repeatedly, flooding their brains with dopamine. After two hours, the scientists removed the mice from the cage. According to the researchers, if they didn’t remove the mice, the mice would have died (of happiness).
But what the scientists saw next was even more alarming.
Not only did they discover the triggers behind addictive behavior, but they also found traces of addiction induced plasticity, or long-term changes in the brain. Being overexposed to dopamine permanently changes the brain, even if the addictive substance has left the system.
Addiction works in a way that people are inclined to use the substance that provided them with that sense of pleasure. Over time, the brain begins producing less dopamine to compensate for the overstimulation. As a result, the person feels less and less excitement.
What was formerly a source of joy, such as seeing loved ones or enjoying the weather, feels like nothing at all. The person begins to feel depressed and bored. The world, formerly in all shades of colors, seems gray and dull.
How to Enjoy Difficult Tasks
You know logically what you should be doing. Yet, when you come across an exciting activity that isn’t good for you, you can’t help but get sucked in.
When you look at activities that are beneficial, such as working on a project or eating vegetables, these are low dopamine activities. There’s no hit to the brain, no immediate emotional reward.
High-dopamine activities, on the other hand, include playing video games, playing with your phone, or interacting on social media. These all provide immediate satisfaction and feel great in the short-run, even if they aren’t doing you any favors down the road.
These high-dopamine activities are incredibly tempting. If you’re not careful, they can swallow up the best hours of your day.
So how do you avoid what’s easy, but unproductive, and start doing what’s hard, but rewarding in the long run?
The good news is that there’s a way.
You see, your brain is like a puppy. It responds to how you act. Let it run wild, and you’ll find things spiraling out of control quickly.
But you can take a different approach. You can train your brain to know there is an order to things. Discipline it, give it the resources to succeed, and when things go well, give it a treat.
Here’s how you can get your brain to not only perform, but thrive on difficult tasks:
1. Start the day off right.
When you eat something intensely flavorful, such as a hamburger topped with a fried egg and cheddar cheese, eating something much milder such as broccoli feels like a let-down. It’s almost flavorless in comparison.
Your daily activities are the same. When you begin your day with high-dopamine activities, it’s hard to get back to doing the low-dopamine work.
For instance, you might mean to check social media just for a few seconds. But, it’s so rewarding that you end up clicking away until lunchtime. Before you know it, a good portion of the day is gone and you haven’t actually done anything useful.
To start the day off right, begin with the important tasks. Finish off that report you’ve been meaning to wrap up. Work on an essential task sitting on your list.
When you cross off the highest priority items, the rest of the day feels much easier.
2. Put low-dopamine tasks into your schedule.
There are a lot of things that we imagine would be good to get started on. Yet, we never get around to it. We get bombarded with other distractions.
If there’s something you know you need to do, put it in your schedule. The moment you think to yourself, “Yeah, I should really do that,” don’t let it slide. Find an empty spot in your calendar and mark it in. Make it concrete.
Your daily schedule should be composed of low-dopamine tasks, such as working on a project, practicing a skill, or studying. This way, your brain gets used to “boring”, but productive tasks. When your brain gets weaned off high-dopamine activities, it comes to expect and even appreciate slower activities.
3. Keep high-dopamine activities out of reach.
Knowing is not enough. You may know that high sugar and fatty foods aren’t good for you, but if they’re sitting beside you, it’s hard to resist. Similarly, you know that you shouldn’t be checking your phone notifications while you work, but you just can’t help it when your phone is sitting right on your desk.
When you make it more difficult to reach those high-dopamine activities, you’re less likely to give in to them. Keep your entertainment system separate from your working area. Place your phone in your desk cabinet, out of sight.
Consider what you should be doing. Then look at your surroundings. Does your environment push you in the right direction, or do you find yourself swimming against the current?
Let Your Brain Thrive on Challenges
Easy, fun things should be part of your life. But they shouldn’t be your whole life.
Exposing your brain to too much stimulation leads to de-sensitization. Your brain learns to expect non-stop excitement. Eventually, those exciting activities feel normal, while tedious activities become almost impossible to bear.
But you can train your brain to do the opposite. You can learn to love doing what is tedious. You appreciate and learn that not all rewards come from immediate efforts.
Gains are ultimately more rewarding when you push yourself through the hardships.
Melissa Chu writes about creating great work and successful habits at JumpstartYourDreamLife.com. To transform your goals into reality, grab the guide How to Get Anything You Want.