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Why Do We Always Slack off?

Why Do We Always Slack off?

Life Hackers, have you ever paused to think why hacking your habits and behavior occupies you from time to time? Or why doing things better and faster will always earn you the respect of those around you?

Let’s take a minute to take a closer look at our evolutionary past and and the first human hackers.

In the past, we were part of a hunter/gatherer society; all were working to get an edge in an unforgiving environment. The tools we used and the techniques we invented gave us an advantage over rivals and made our existence more bearable, sometimes even triggering the next evolutionary leap.

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Take for instance the story of fire…

In the beginning (about 1.7 million years ago), humans discovered they could use fire. They didn’t know how to control it at first, but little by little they learned its advantages, how to manipulate it, and ultimately even how to create it from scratch (no pun intended).

Before we knew how to create fire, we used to “harvest it” from our environment which required a great deal of effort. It doesn’t grow on trees; quite the opposite, it sets them ablaze. Tribes would fight each other to own it and would invest considerable time and effort to maintain it.
…And then, someone found how to create it themselves.

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Just imagine the Eureka moment in which humans learned how to create fire and were able to reproduce the process. Imagine the ensuing era and the leap we’ve all made as a result. Those same feelings/hormone surges/thoughts the cave men and women felt back then are the ones you’re experiencing today when you hack a need.

Hacking was a trait that was developed in us through years of trial and error, or in other words, evolution. It was a trait driven by necessity. One can argue it is the key to our evolution. For me, hacking is much more than just about inventing or changing the functionality of a tool or behavior; hacking is about me masting my environment, but I, as most of you, also find myself slacking from time to time (i.e. not doing the things I need to do when they need doing). This brings up an important question: if my ancestors developed the hacking trait, why do I experience behaviors today that hold me back? Or, in other words, why do I slack?

Well, two reasons that come to mind:

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#1 Distractions over time

From the discovery of fire to maintaining it, and eventually creating it at whim took time; a lot of time. Why? The first hackers had an unstable environment with many threats and distractions, and it was a challenge to simply survive; we just didn’t have the brain capacity and ability to focus only on fire creation.

Just as our ancestors struggled with their environment, we too are constantly battling our environment. Granted, there isn’t a saber-toothed tiger roaming our backyard to distract us, but the seemingly constant distractions over time eventually break our willpower and lead us to slack.

We must learn to commit and focus. Distractions will never go away, so we must learn to control them, and fend them off so we can hack and make our leap forward.

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#2 Our success is the reason we fail

Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fischbach from the University of Chicago explain in their research that the reason we slack is because we can’t focus in the “here and now”: we are often distracted by things that we’ve done or the benefits we’ve derived from those accomplishments, which they call “to-date thinking”. Instead we should be focusing on the job we need to do or “to-go thinking”.

You might say that we start as good hackers, accomplishing a thing or two, only to finish as slackers. We pass time by reading about other people’s hacks, trying to copy rather than invent new ones. That’s why serial entrepreneurs are scarce (they don’t stagnate on past success) and repeat Nobel Prize winners are rare; the discovery of maintaining fire postponed the discovery of how to create it.

What’s it to you, you ask? Don’t rest on your laurels, and keep the saber-toothed tigers at bay!

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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