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Hey, Colleague: How do I combat my work-from-home funk?

Strengthening your dopamine levels by getting a good night's sleep can help.
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Suffering from a lack of motivation could be due to a deficiency in dopamine.

Send questions about careers, productivity and work-life balance to kpn@glaciermedia.ca. Please include your name and location, or request to remain anonymous.


Hey Colleague, 

We are coming out of a pandemic but I’ve been stuck in a funk for too long especially because I’m still working from home. I’m having a hard time finding the motivation to do simple tasks and I’m afraid this affecting my job performance. Any tips?

—Anonymous


You may suffer from a lack of motivation due to a deficiency in dopamine — one of the hundreds of neurotransmitters in the human brain. When you’re not motivated, you’re not productive. This can be from medical conditions, poor diet and lifestyle choices, substance abuse, or chronic stress. 

Things that drive human actions are necessities (food, sleep, avoidance of pain) and rewards. Dopamine is the currency for the reward system in our brain and neurons in different regions of the brain use it to communicate with each other. For example, neurons that release dopamine are activated when we expect to receive a reward.

Dopaminergic people are usually focused “go-getters.” Since dopamine is also known as the molecule of more, it controls our motivation and drive and delivers a sense of satisfaction after completing a task. 

Dopamine deficiency may result in:

  • low motivation
  • lack of focus and concentration
  • forgetfulness
  • moodiness
  • apathy
  • fatigue
  • insomnia
  • sugar cravings

Turn effort into reward

In a podcast episode, Dr. Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist and professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford, gives us a masterclass on dopamine. The expectation of a reward powerfully influences our reaction. As creatures of comfort, we naturally drive towards our end goal, thinking once we achieve x, we will be happy (we feel this in a dopamine release). Because we keep on getting the dopamine hit at the end of the activity, we will receive less and less pleasure from that activity, the more we do it. 

Dr. Huberman claims this is the antithesis of a growth mindset. Having a growth mindset means focusing on the effort itself. 

The striving should be about the journey — the progress. Not the reward. We can all cultivate this but we have to learn to access rewards from effort and doing. 

How? In moments of most intense friction, you tell yourself: “This is very painful but it will evoke dopamine release later.” It’s also important to tell yourself you are doing it by choice and you want to do it. You have to truly believe and want it and even if you don’t at the moment, keep on telling yourself you do until you truly do. Strengthen those neural connections.

I’ve been playing around with neuroplasticity for years and I used this hack to get myself into loving the Grouse Grind, by repeating to myself “I love this, I love this” while hiking up the gruelling mountain over 10 years ago. Now, I truly love it and it’s part of my routine like brushing my teeth. I also did this with Crossfit, going to the gym and cycling. 

From these habits, my discipline and motivation at work and in life in general also increased.

It’s hard work but possible by consistently appreciating and attaching the feelings of friction and effort to your internally generated reward system which has strong implications for goal-oriented behaviours, cognitive functions, reward and motivation.

Here are some ways you can strengthen your dopamine levels naturally:

Exercise regularly

Exercise is the best thing you can do for your brain because it slows down aging, increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) a.k.a. ‘the fertilizer for your brain’ which is a key player in neuroplasticity, and most importantly, increases dopamine.

Sleep

Lack of sleep will reduce concentrations of neurotransmitters in your brain, including dopamine. Your body does all its repair work while you sleep, giving a chance for your brain to wash away any built-up toxins during the day, properly store away memories, and keep your nerve cell connections and pathways active.

Meditation and breathwork 

Meditation has many science-backed benefits including increasing grey matter in our brain, lowering cortisol, reducing anxiety, depression and blood pressure, and improving memory and focus. Meditation develops self-awareness which will help you overcome challenges and develop constructive patterns. If you don't know how to meditate, check out the Insight Timer app for free guided meditations. 

Intermittent fasting

Fasting has many benefits including autophagy, reducing inflammation and boosting cognitive performance. In relation to dopamine, deliberately restricting food restricts dopamine and increases the rewarding properties of deprivation so once you have your first meal, the dopamine effect will be much stronger. Note: Fasting is not for everyone. Please consult with your doctor before making changes in your diet.

Maintain a healthy diet

Tyrosine is an amino acid that’s naturally produced by your body and is a precursor to dopamine, amongst other neurotransmitters such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. By ensuring you have a diet that includes protein-rich foods such as eggs, fish, almonds and chicken, you can maintain healthy levels of brain chemicals. You can also consider taking a supplement but do your due diligence and consult with a health professional first.

Validate your existing beliefs

Simply hearing something that validates one’s prior beliefs can increase dopamine. If you tell yourself that certain behaviours are good for you, it will also reinforce them on a chemical level.

As mentioned above, if you don’t believe it now, just keep on doing it and telling yourself it will because you’ll eventually see results through consistency — which will eventually turn into belief. The dopamine circuit is sensitive and vulnerable to subjective interpretation — which can be used for good or bad. I’ve felt this rush of dopamine when I listen to podcasts or audiobooks that validate [through science] something I may have experienced years ago. I remember the dopamine rush and excitement just by hearing that alone.

I hope I gave you some tools to better manage your motivation levels. I have always lived by the philosophy that ‘knowledge is motivation’ and once I understand the underlying mechanisms, it gives me power and motivates me to stay on my path. Perhaps it will do the same for you.