Brain Building 101.1 – Instant Gratification… Beware the POWER of DOPAMINE

If you have kept up to date with the latest brain science (or this blog) you have heard or read some things about habit formation. Habits can be trained and developed on purpose, but they are frequently formed without our conscious intent or consent. Specific mental habits sit at the core of your ability to focus under pressure, your ability to manage your stress level, and your ability to perform to your potential in any challenging task. This is why it’s important to be try to be choosy about which habits get ingrained into your neurological architecture, and which don’t.


Unfortunately, it is not always obvious which mental habits are good for your performance and overall mental well-being over the long term. Many activities provoke instant gratification which makes habit formation alarmingly easy. The good folks in the marketing department at your favorite social media network (FB, Twitter, Instagram) understand this very well indeed. They have known all along that likes, shares, and follows are rewarding at the biochemical level, (a little ‘hit’ of dopamine) and therefore very addictive!  While the popularity of these networks and our cultural addiction has been obvious for a while, it has only been more recently that the negative impact of these addictions have also become evident.


Habits reinforced by instant gratification can negatively impact the performance of serious professionals over the long term. We all know that we get an intrinsic chemical reward or ‘buzz’ when we succeed, score, win, or accomplish a challenging goal.  It’s a great feeling! We can understand how these inner rewards helped our ancestors and predecessors amass great knowledge, wealth and success. Anyone serious about performance will acknowledge that focus, the ability control what we pay attention to at any given moment, is absolutely critical to real-time performance. The ‘dopamine reward’ we receive when we achieve results seems to have evolved, at least to some extent, in order to stoke our zeal for repeated successes.  The buzz may come from scoring a goal in sport or winning a hand in poker. It might happen as a result of breaking a personal record, winning a cash incentive or even just receiving a pat on the back from someone in a leadership role. In and of itself, this ‘pump’ or ‘buzz’ is not a bad thing, but it can become one if it takes up center stage in your mental focus. You see, those payoffs are all…outcomes. And we also know that sustainable excellence comes, to a great extent, from the ability to remain focused on the processes involved in your performance. That is to say, when you are under pressure to perform, you have to focus on what you’re doing, not what your going to receive (biochemical or cash rewards) if you do it well.

Focusing on outcomes leads to stress, anxiety and frustration.  More importantly, if you are conscious of outcomes or rewards, you cannot be deeply focused on the the relevant information from the challenge of the moment.  In those moments, when the pressure is high, focusing on how you go about your role, the process, is a demonstrably more successful approach than focusing on the outcomes you wish to achieve.  The simple reasons for this is that you can always control how you go about your work, you cannot always control what you achieve. If your motivation keys off of rewards and successes, it will falter whenever those outcomes seem unlikely or impossible.  If you focus on scoring a goal (or a hat-trick, or closing a sale, or making the boss happy) you will tend to get very unfocused and nervous when those are off the table.  On the other hand you can learn to get your buzz from getting deeply focused on the problem, seeing it very clearly and reacting calmly and intuitively.  This will help you develop habits that reinforce and sustain your ability to do your duty to the best of your ability over the long term. Even when you do not hit the bullseye, score the goal or win the contract or contest, you can still feel rewarded for how you performed.

So what does this tell us about how we might take an active role in managing the habit forming impacts of instant gratification? For starters, it tells us that we might want to re-train our brain’s reward system to key off of how we go about our roles (the process), as at least as much as the payoffs and external feedback we look forward to (the outcome). There are simple ways to teach yourself to ‘buzz’ when you are focused, feeling great and working intuitively, regardless of results. We know that getting into ‘The Zone’ has more to do with how you perform, than what you achieve.  Think about it. You achieve great results because you get into the Zone. If you need great results to get you into the Zone…. you’re at an impasse. Good mental skills and habits are at the heart of it. Effective stress recovery habits are critical to developing focus control habits which, in turn, allow you keep your eye on the ball at gametime, both literally and figuratively. With practice, your internal kudos (attaboys / attagirls / high 5’s) generators and the related hormonal rewards become tied to the feeling that you are focused and working the right way, and are less coupled to outcomes or results.

You can do everything right and not get the results you are after.  It’s important to accept the fact that this is true on some occasions because our perspective, specifically the perspective that told us how ‘right’ our approach was, is way off, and there’s some growing up to do. There will also be times when you really do give it your all, in the right way, but still fail to achieve the results you or your team hoped for. The more you learn to tie your satisfaction (buzz, mojo, whatever you like to call it) to the process of ‘doing it right’, the better you can avoid getting addicted to elating outcomes. As mentioned above, the process of training your endocrine system to dole out intrinsic rewards for well executed processes will require that you use effective stress recovery skills (read the article) including the ability to be honest with yourself as you move along the path towards building more effective mental habits. Ironically, the more you get in the habit or getting your cues and feedback from how you execute the processes, the more the results and outcomes will improve (and yes…you’ll still get that extra buzz when it goes just right)!

Always remember that there is something to learn every time you come up short.  Know that sometimes it is possible to perform very well and still not get the win. There will also be times when you do get the win even though your quite sure that you were not performing to your full potential. In either case, if you stay tuned in to the processes you can control; your focus, your effort, your preparedness, etc, you will learn and grow, and the results will follow. If you can get in the habit of feeling great when you know you’re doin’ it right, you might just find that you get it right more and more of the time!  And that’s a great feeling, and you will come back for more!

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