What happens when you combine the latest scientific evidence with everyday simple habits? You start to feel like you can do, be and accomplish anything.
First, a little background to set the stage…
According to Dr. Andrew Huberman, neuromodulators such as dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine and others modulate and enhance the activity of particular brain circuits and suppress the activity of others. For example, when dopamine is released, it makes certain brain areas work better and others work less. Dopamine improves energy and motivation and causes us to focus on things outside ourselves. It enhances our well-being inside while putting us in an outward, goal-orientated mode.
Dopamine works with epinephrine in the brain and adrenaline in the body. When dopamine is released, epinephrine tends to be released, too. And when epinephrine is released, dopamine may or may not be released. This is important because epinephrine is involved in generating a sense of agitation, urgency, desire and willingness to move. You’re feeling like, “Let’s get up and do this!”
You’ve got energy but you’ve also got agitation. If dopamine is present with epinephrine, you’ve got the perfect combination for getting things done. But if you’ve got epinephrine without dopamine, now you feel agitation and stress without motivation. Dopamine is released when something good happens and it’s also released in anticipation of things that make us excited such as reaching a milestone in our goal.
Then there are the serotonin and oxytocin systems that work together not for goal achievement, but to make you feel good for where you are and what you have in the moment. When the serotonin system is engaged, we feel rewards for what we have in our immediate environment or for what we already possess.
Think about when you hug your family members or your pet at the end of the day. You think about how much you love them and that hug and those thoughts release serotonin. Serotonin gives you ‘here and now’ rewards for what is good in your life right now, whereas dopamine makes you feel good about the rewards that are out there in the world waiting for you.
The serotonin system can be accessed anytime by feeling love and gratitude. It promotes quiescence and calm and gives the warm soothing feeling that you’re good with everything that you have. If you think in terms of primitive man, then dopamine sends people out to hunt, forage and take risks; while serotonin brings them back home again where they feel warm and safe with their family.
Serotonin and oxytocin, along with dopamine and epinephrine, have to be balanced. Certain “A” type personalities who run 24/7 on dopamine and epinephrine burn out. They become not just unhappy but miserable because they can no longer access serotonin and oxytocin. That’s why there has to be a balance.
The question is, how do you align your serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine reward mechanisms in a way that allows you to get as much work done as quickly as possible and with as little stress as possible? That’s where it gets tricky if you don’t know what I’m about to reveal.
These 17.5 simple habits you can perform every day will enable you to enhance the effect of these neuromodulators and become almost super-human in your ability to get things done. I know that 17.5 seems like a big number, but you’ll see that most of these things are simply little tweaks to your day that can make a big difference in how you feel and perform.
These are habits to incorporate into your everyday living that will make you not just more productive, but also happier, have less stress with more energy and generally feel better about yourself and life. Tall order for a few new habits, right? But this is scientifically proven, so let’s dive in:
1: Get enough sleep. If possible, be in bed no later than midnight. Get up at the same time every morning. Reduce or eliminate overhead lights in the evening before going to bed. Make your bedroom as dark as possible.
2: When you get up, move your body and get some sun in your eyes. You don’t have to do your full-blown exercise regimen, but at least do something like yoga, jumping rope or walking for 15 minutes right after getting out of bed.
If possible, get this movement outdoors where you can get some sunshine into your eyes, telling your body it’s a new day and time to release dopamine. Moving for fifteen minutes is going to get the norepinephrine system primed because you have the adrenal glands which sit above your kidneys and they kick out norepinephrine and cortisol and get your system awake.
3: Have real, tangible, written goals. Not, “I’m going to make more money.” That’s too vague. “I’m going to increase my income by $2,000 a month by June 12th” is a better goal.
4: Have a goal for what you will accomplish before noon. The dopamine system works best when you pick a goal and have a target you want to hit. This is why it’s so crucial to identify what you’re going to accomplish before noon or even in the first hour or two of your day.
5: When anything other than your goal leaps to mind in those first hours of the day, push it aside and stay focused on your goal. Why is it crucial that you not get distracted? Because if you stay focused, you’re going to get the dopamine reward.
Moving forward might feel a little tough if you didn’t get enough sleep but if you can reach that goal then you’re going to feel a dopamine release. This in turn will make it easier to accomplish your next goal of the day, as well as improving your ability to focus on singular goals.
6: Stay off of social media in the morning. You can also get your dopamine by flipping through Facebook or Instagram but this won’t help you to achieve your goals.
You want dopamine. You’re going to get dopamine. But the method you choose will determine if you get stuff done or if you waste your time. Identify what you want to accomplish in those first hours and then laser focus on that.
7: Make accomplishing an early morning goal a daily habit. By getting something done right after you wake up that NEEDS to be done, and by doing this nearly every single day, you are priming your dopamine system to work with you in goal achievement.
8: Exercise daily. Physical movement is a key component of achieving any large goal. Stress will stop you from moving forward on your goals, and the best way to combat stress is to exercise.
When there’s even a low level of stress in the system, exercise will quiet the activity of the threat detection center (amygdala) in the brain and allow you to be more creative and get more done.
9: Write out your daily goals the night before. When some people wake up, they are raring to go. But for others, they feel groggy and it takes them time to transition out of sleep and clear their head. That’s another reason why the fifteen minutes of movement is helpful when you first get out of bed. This amplifies the epinephrine and dopamine system.
And having your goals already written means you don’t waste time trying to figure out what to do that day; you simply get busy and do it.
10: Try morning fasting. Not eating when you first get up will stimulate the release of norepinephrine. It also slightly increases the amount of dopamine because it puts you in a kind of anticipation of a goal, which in this case is food.
There’s this ancient mechanism whereby when our blood glucose is low even though we might be a little hungry and a little bit agitated, it tends to focus us on things outside ourselves. And because we need something outside of ourselves, we’re less content to just sit on the couch.
Contrast this with how you feel after eating a big meal. All you want to do then is sit down and relax. This is why by not eating in the first hours you’re awake, you’ll likely get more done.
11: Overcome stress by focusing on an immediate goal. If stress is stopping you from acting, you can get focused by setting your sights on an immediate goal and a horizon that you know you can accomplish.
It can even be a trivial goal, like you’re going to make coffee, sit at the computer, open a file and read 3 pages. Fixating on the large goal can be paralyzing but focusing on what you can accomplish right now is incredibly freeing and helpful in releasing dopamine.
Even accomplishing a tiny goal couples the neural circuits for focus with the neural circuits for goal directed behavior with the neural circuits for energy and agitation. You’re getting those aligned and they’re coherent.
Conversely, when you look at the news and Instagram and your email and Reddit, your neurochemical systems are split. They’re incoherent. And it’s no wonder that by noon you haven’t accomplished much.
12: Chunk your efforts. You have something called ultradian cycles, not to be confused with circadian cycles, where the brain works well for a time and then needs a break. For many people this is 90 minutes.
You might set a timer for 90 minutes and then take a break to do something entirely different such as a bit of exercise, reading something unrelated or whatever you choose to rest your brain. Some people prefer the pomodoro technique which is bouts of just 20 minutes, but if you’re like most people you can effectively work longer than that.
13: Write down your pop-ups. When distractions pop into your mind “I should check email” or “I need to put soap on the shopping list” just write it down on a pad you keep next to your work. This frees your mind to continue focusing on the project at hand while training it that mind chatter can be dismissed rather than acted upon.
14: Get a second dose of sunlight. Cortisol and norepinephrine naturally start dropping through the afternoon, which is why it’s a good idea to get a little bit of sunlight towards the afternoon hours. This might also be a good time to get your exercise, too.
15: Abstain from caffeine later in the day. Unless you need to pull an all-nighter, it’s best to stay away from caffeine starting mid-afternoon. Caffeine later in the day will negatively impact your dopamine and norepinephrine system.
16: Eat complex carbs later in the day. There’s a naturally occurring amino acid called l-tryptophan that’s present in turkey and in complex carbohydrates like pasta, rice and things like that. L-tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is why many people find it useful to eat the majority of their complex carbohydrates late in the day to promote the secretion of L-tryptophan and help them transition to more relaxation and sleep.
17: Eat low carb during the day. Since you can have complex carbs for your last meal, it’s a good idea skip them during the day to keep your energy levels and focus levels high.
17.5: If you want to, take a short afternoon nap. Many people (but not all) benefit from a short nap in the afternoon to recharge their batteries. If you find that a short nap is better for you than a long one, you might set an alarm or sleep in a semi-reclined position to prevent over-sleeping. This can also be a great time to do a little meditation, listening to something that puts you in a trance or even lulls you to sleep for a few minutes.
People who are truly effective in both their work and their home lives have found a way to toggle back and forth between these two systems and control their dopamine system rather than having it control them. If you can learn to go from full performance to full relaxation, you’ll get so much done it may shock you. Mastering the transitions between these systems gives you an outsized effect on performance and relationships in your life.
Try adding as many of these habits as you can and pretty soon when you get up in the morning you’ll find yourself automatically in forward motion and naturally and joyfully achieving more of your goals in life.