A key way to overcome procrastination is to leverage our dopamine levels. Dopamine is critical for motivation and confidence and is involved in drive and pursuit. A factor that is often overlooked when it comes to dopamine is how our dopamine levels in the moment are impacted by the preceding hours, days, and weeks. So if you are feeling unmotivated or flat right now, what is known as experiencing a dopamine trough, it is worth understanding how dopamine works and what may have caused this decrease in your dopamine levels.
Dopamine operates at a baseline level, which can fluctuate due to various actions we take, food, drink, drugs we have ingested, or even our thoughts. Numerous factors influence our baseline dopamine levels, such as genetics, our behaviours, sleep, nutrition, and the levels of dopamine experienced in the preceding days.
Our dopamine levels can peak and trough depending on what we have been doing. A dopamine trough is a concept that refers to a temporary decrease or drop in dopamine levels in the brain. It occurs after experiencing a surge of dopamine due to certain rewarding experiences or activities. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, motivation, and reinforcement, and its release in the brain is a key component of the brain's reward system.
When we engage in activities that bring pleasure or satisfaction, such as eating delicious food, consuming caffeine or alcohol, using social media, achieving a goal, or receiving positive feedback, our brain releases dopamine, leading to a sense of reward and pleasure. However, after this initial spike in dopamine, there is often a subsequent decrease in dopamine levels, leading to the dopamine trough.
The Dopamine Trough
The dopamine trough is a natural physiological response aimed at maintaining balance and preventing excessive and constant stimulation of the reward system. It serves as a mechanism to avoid becoming desensitised to the pleasurable effects of dopamine, which could otherwise lead to diminishing returns from rewarding experiences.
When we experience a dopamine trough, we may experience a range of emotional and physical sensations. These feelings can vary from person to person and may be influenced by individual circumstances and brain chemistry but here are some common experiences associated with a dopamine drop:
- Decreased motivation - dopamine is strongly linked to motivation and goal-directed behavior. When dopamine levels decrease, we may feel less inclined to take on new tasks or pursue activities that require effort.
- Reduced pleasure - dopamine plays a significant role in the brain's reward system, and its drop can lead to a diminished sense of pleasure or satisfaction from activities that usually bring joy.
- Low energy - dopamine helps regulate energy levels and arousal. In a dopamine trough, we might feel fatigued or have lower energy levels, making it challenging to engage in activities that require physical or mental effort.
- Lack of focus - dopamine influences attention and concentration. When dopamine levels are low, we may find it harder to concentrate on tasks, leading to reduced productivity and cognitive performance.
- Irritability or mood swings - dopamine is involved in regulating mood and emotional responses. A dopamine drop can lead to feelings of irritability, frustration, or mood swings.
- Cravings and impulsive behaviour - in response to a dopamine trough, some individuals may experience stronger cravings for rewarding experiences or engage in impulsive behaviours to seek pleasure and restore dopamine levels.
To alleviate these feelings we may find ourselves mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, binging on Netflix and other forms of procrastination to numb the pain. Hence avoiding or limiting procrastination has as much to do with what we did the day/s or hour/s before as it does with what we are doing right now.
Getting Out Of A Dopamine Trough
So how do we get out of this dopamine trough? We do hard things! To overcome procrastination, we need to take on activities that are harder or more effortful than being in an unmotivated state. This then helps increase our dopamine levels and thereby helps us rebound from the dopamine trough we are in.
When we take on difficult tasks or engage in activities that require effort and concentration, our brain releases dopamine in response to the perceived challenge and effort required. This increase in dopamine gives us a sense of pleasure and satisfaction, motivating us to keep going and not fall into the trap of procrastination.
As we continue to engage in hard work and experience the positive reinforcement of dopamine release, our brain becomes more attuned to seeking out challenging tasks. This is leveraging our dopamine in a positive way, as over time, it can lead to a positive feedback loop, where we actively seek out new challenges and become more intrinsically motivated to accomplish difficult goals and spend much less time procrastinating.
Our Dopamine Fuelled Environment
So if you have been struggling with procrastination in your work recently, take a look at how you are spending your time outside of work - have you been engaging significantly in dopamine stimulating activities? Dr Anna Lembke is an American psychiatrist who is Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University and she has written extensively on the topic of dopamine including a book called Dopamine Nation. Lembke describes the challenge of our current dopamine filled environment as follows:
Remember what you do outside of work matters. It doesn’t mean you cannot have any enjoyment but it does mean you need to be conscious of how you spike your dopamine levels and where you direct your time, energy and focus.