Finish your projects

Peter WalshPeter Walsh wrote 02/11/2021 at 15:04 • 4 min read • Like

Hack your Dopamine levels to encourage finishing projects

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with completing tasks (among other functions). When we complete an object of desire, it triggers a dopamine release that makes us feel good.

(It's really more complicated than this, but a good definition for an overview.)

The brain is also a correlation engine, so if you associate completing tasks with “nothing”, your brain can learn that completing tasks leads to "nothing", so... why do it?

Additionally, there is a trade-off between the good feeling of accomplishment and any pain you feel on the way, and the brain can correlate that as well.

Thus: be sure working at your bench is comfortable. If every time you work on a project you get back aches (or similar), your brain will notice even if you don’t. If you accidentally burn your fingers or hit your thumb with a hammer, take a break and do something else for a few minutes: don’t let your brain associate the pain with the project. (Eating a slice of cake helps.)

Thus: be sure your goals are clear, finite, and measurable. Set a clear end-point for a project, something where you can say “now it’s done”, put it on a shelf, and move on. Dopamine doesn’t respond to fuzzy, indistinct goals.

Thus: Put an emotional payoff into your project. Decide *why* you want to do a project, and if possible make the outcome more emotionally (not intellectually) valuable to you. Promise yourself that the money from sales will go towards that camping trip you’ve always wanted to take, and keep fantasizing about that trip and how good it will be. Fantasize about all the attention you will get at the next con while wearing the costume. That sort of thing.

Many times projects falter because they become too large. Dopamine is “future expected reward”, and if that future never comes your brain can learn to avoid projects.

This: Keep the project finite and focused. Don’t keep adding features or bonuses ad infinitum – focus on a specific end goal or end date. If you really want to add features, write them down for a hypothetical “version 2” and focus on completing version 1 for now.

This: For large projects, and projects that seem short but become large, break the project into clear, specific sub-goals. Version the different levels of complexity, or break the project into overall steps: finish the design, build one prototype, test the prototype, then take a specific amount of time thinking about the project. Are there enough bugs to update the design? Should you move to production? Should you send test-cases to friends to evaluate?

This: For each sub-task completed, celebrate! Promise yourself that if you complete such-and-such goal, you’ll do something you consider fun and rewarding. Tailor the celebration to the level of the goal (ie – smaller celebrations for sub-goals, big celebrations for major milestones). Go to a dinner theatre with your spouse, go to the arcade and play skee-ball for a day, spend the day nudist hiking – anything that you will find enjoyable and charged with emotion.

(The key here is emotion: find something that you consider fun, and meter it out as a reward for doing something useful.)

Check: Are you putting things off because you’re tired? Check your vitamin D level. Improve your sleep quality. Get some blood work and see if you’re deficient in something (maybe Iron) or have a low-grade infection. See if you can eliminate some stress in your life – stressful friends, for instance. Switch your project time to mornings instead of evenings.

There’s a lot of science behind goal setting that’s backed up by psychological studies. It’s not hard to learn, and it definitely can make a difference in attaining your goals.

Managing lack of energy after work

Many creative types (writers especially) have faced the same problem. Their solution is to get up two hours early and do all their creative stuff before everyone else wakes up.

Taking a look at “Daily Rituals” by Mason Currey shows that almost every famous creative type rose early and got their work out of the way first. Currey’s list covers sculptors, scientists, writers, painters, and all sorts of creative people. Only a small handful of people are night owls and can do this at night.

Creativity is at a maximum when you first wake up, and decreases throughout the day. Cognitive capacity is at a maximum when you first wake up, and also decreases as you use it throughout the day. Lots of people are simply too tired to do anything after work, and if it’s not physical tiredness but mental burnout. Their job is cognitively demanding and they use up all their cognitive capability during that period.

Managing lack of time

If you are serious about being a creative type, you will find a way to work it into your life. If you *cant* work it into your life, then this just means it’s not as important to you as other aspects – and you should bite the bullet and discard it as a life dream.

There’s nothing wrong with that – instead of imagining what you *could* do if you had the time, put the emphasis on what you *are* doing and being grateful for that.

Find a way to actually do it. Come up with a creative solution, or let it go.

It’ll work out much better for you in the long run.