The neurochemicals of productivity and procrastination

We all have goals. They can be big or small; professional or personal. But obstacles get in the way. External obligations such as social events, unforeseen additional work, and demanding customers can drain our energy, so there’s little left to focus on what really matters to us. If only that was the only issue.

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, and you have little control over the activity inside your brain. But those processes have a huge impact on how you manage your goals and how it feels to work toward your goals.

Understanding these mechanisms won’t magically allow you to achieve your goals, but it will help you be kinder to yourself when things don’t seem to go as planned, and you struggle to focus on your goals.

Your three frenemies

Three main neurochemicals have been identified in people experiencing a state of flow: dopamine, noradrenaline, and acetylcholine. As you’ll see, these are akin to little tricksters that can sometimes help you and other times work against you.

Dopamine is 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 encourage you to do more of whatever you’re doing. Research has found that behaviors such as sex, eating, and playing video games tend to increase dopamine levels in the central nervous system.

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 check how many words you wrote in the last hour, or finally get a new feature to work in your app. Boom, you get a hit of dopamine. But let’s say you get a notification on your phone and see someone liked your latest Tweet. Boom, you 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 way that’s aligned with your goals. This means putting your phone away, focusing on the task at hand, and designing ways to reward yourself for a well-done job. 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 productivity and procrastination.

The second neurochemical is noradrenaline, also known as norepinephrine in the United States. It’s a neurotransmitter that makes you feel “ready for action” — it’s involved in the fight-or-flight response and makes you more alert and vigilant.

Again, there is a tricky balance to find with noradrenaline. 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. But if you keep on waiting until the last minute to complete your tasks, the resulting chronic stress can be damaging.

Finally, acetylcholine is the third neurochemical of productivity and procrastination. 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.

Studies found that increased acetylcholine levels have a positive impact on performance. On the flip side, 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 observed in Alzheimer’s disease.

That’s a lot to remember, so how can you make the most of this knowledge in a practical way in order to achieve your goals without sacrificing your mental health?

A practical neuroproductivity framework

Dr. Friederike Fabritius created a handy framework to remember the three neurochemicals of productivity and procrastination based on the general areas of cognition they affect: fun, fear, and focus.

Neurochemicals of productivity and procrastination
  • Fun. That’s dopamine. 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 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. It also helps to design an environment that doesn’t include distracting rewards, for example, by leaving your phone in another room so you don’t see anytime someone likes your latest tweet.
  • Fear. Living in constant fear is not good for you, but just the right amount of uncertainty 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 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 help you avoid procrastination.
  • Focus. Finally, make sure to give your brain everything it needs to increase your levels of acetylcholine and, thus, your focus. Some ways to increase your levels of acetylcholine include eating foods rich in choline — which is needed to synthesize acetylcholine — such as lean meats, fatty fish, milk, yogurt, kidney beans, green beans, peas, and broccoli. You can also gently exercise before working, such as going for a walk. But don’t overdo it: research suggests that lengthy exercise sessions, such as marathon training, reduce your acetylcholine levels.

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. Prolonged procrastination is not your enemy — it’s a signal sent by your brain that something is not quite working well.

Join 100,000 mindful makers!

Ness Labs is a weekly newsletter with science-based insights on creativity, mindful productivity, better thinking and lifelong learning.

One email a week, no spam, ever. See our Privacy policy.