Neuroproductivity: how to be more productive using neuroscience

Neuroproductivity is the neuroscience of productivity. Most of us have goals we would like to achieve. These can be professional or personal. But obstacles get in the way, which we need to overcome to get closer to where we want to be. External obligations such as social events, unforeseen additional work, and demanding customers can drain our energy so there’s very little left to focus on what really matters to us.

To make things worse, we’re also constantly fighting an internal battle against our brain, which background mechanisms we’re unconscious of. You don’t feel anything every time a neuron fires. You can’t identify exactly what neurochemicals are being released when you become aware of a particular emotion. You have little control over the neuroactivity inside your brain. But it has a huge impact on your productivity.

Understanding these mechanisms is half the battle to improve your productivity. Not only will knowledge of the principles of neuroproductivity will allow you to be more productive, but it will help you be kinder to yourself when things don’t seem to go as planned and you struggle to get in the flow.

The neurochemicals of productivity

Three main neurochemicals have been identified in people experiencing a state of flow—the zen-like meditative state where we’re mentally free to execute and apply our skills with no distracting thought whatsoever inside our mind. These are dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine. As you will see, it’s a complex system that’s worth understanding.

Dopamine is a controversial one in the neuroscience of productivity. It’s a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in the reward system. Releasing dopamine is one of the ways your brain has to make you feel good—and to encourage you to do more of whatever you’re doing. Research has found that behaviours such as sex, eating, and playing video games tend to increase dopamine levels in the central nervous system. So what does it have to do with neuroproductivity?

When it comes to productivity, dopamine is a double-edged sword. It can increase or decrease your productivity depending on what exactly triggers the reward system. Let’s say you get a notification on your phone and see someone liked your latest Tweet. Boom, a small hit of dopamine. Now, let’s say you check how many words you wrote in the last hour, or finally get a new feature to work in your app. Boom, you’ll also get a hit of dopamine.

In order to make the most of that nice feeling you’ll get from increased levels of dopamine, you need to ensure you trigger your reward system in a productive way. This means putting your phone away and focusing on the task at hand, and designing ways to reward yourself for a job well done. We’ll look at practical strategies to achieve this later in this article, but first, let’s look at the two other neurochemicals involved in the state of productivity.

The second neurochemical is noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine in the United States). It’s a neurotransmitter that’s involved in the fight-or-flight response, and it makes you more alert and vigilant. While chronic stress is damaging, the right amount of pressure can be beneficial in order to increase your productivity. This is why many procrastinators report performing better when a deadline is approaching.

Acetylcholine is the third neurochemical of productivity. It was the first neurotransmitter ever discovered and is abundant in the nervous system. Besides being involved in the autonomic nervous system—all of the involuntary and unconscious activity in your body such as heart rate, digestion, or respiration—it also plays an important role in focus, learning, and memory.

In terms of neuroproductivity, an acetylcholine deficiency often means that you’ll have trouble focusing your attention and remembering things, and damage to the cholinergic system—the system in the brain that produces acetylcholine—has been found to be associated with the memory deficits we observe in Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, studies found that increased acetylcholine levels have a positive impact on performance.

That’s a lot to remember, so how can you make the most of this knowledge in a practical way in order to increase your productivity?

A practical neuroproductivity framework

Dr Friederike Fabritius, a neuroscientist with business experience—she studied at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research then worked at McKinsey—created a handy framework to remember the three main aspects of neuroproductivity.

neuroproductivity framework
  • Fun. That’s the dopamine part. As mentioned earlier, it’s a tricky one. It’s all about finding the right balance between having fun without getting distracted. The best strategy is to ensure there’s some sort of reward in the process of working on your project. Sometimes, the reward is intrinsic: you genuinely enjoy what you’re working on. But sometimes, you need to work on something you don’t find as interesting. It’s a good idea in these cases to create extrinsic rewards you genuinely care about. For example, promise yourself to go see a movie you’re excited about after you’re done with the project.
  • Fear. Living in constant fear is not good for you, but just the right amount will increase your levels of noradrenaline and thus your productivity. Instead of waiting until the last minute to start working on a project, create positive pressure by getting out of your comfort zone, for instance by publicly committing to shipping something by a certain date or working on something new. Or, if you’re working on documentation or something tedious, tell the team that you will present your work to them at your next stand-up meeting. This will trick your mind into feeling just the right amount of positive pressure and increase your productivity.
  • Focus. Finally, make sure to give your brain everything it needs to increase your levels of acetylcholine and thus your focus. Proven ways to increase your levels of acetylcholine include eating foods that are rich in choline—which is needed to synthesise acetylcholine—such as lean meats, fatty fish (like salmon), milk, yogurt, kidney beans, green beans, peas, and broccoli. You can also gently exercise before working—go for a walk, for example. But don’t overdo it: research shows that lengthy exercise sessions, such as training for a marathon, reduce your levels of acetylcholine. And of course, make sure that your environment helps you stay focused: phone in another room, desktop notifications turned off.

All combined together, fun, fear and focus will help you get in the flow. And if you really can’t seem to be able to be productive, consider taking a break. Staying busy for the sake of staying busy can give you the illusion of productivity and lead to anxiety at work.

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