Self Improvement

Hack Your Brain: 5 Ways to Use Neuroscience to Be More Productive

Dann Albright 12-05-2015

There are thousands of articles about productivity out there: the best office organization scheme, the best podcasts Let's Talk Productivity: 7 Podcasts You Should Listen To For Working Awesomely Let us talk about productivity -- or let these seven life hackers talk about the little things we can do to work awesomely. Plug in...sit back...and listen. Read More , motivation strategies, productivity habits 12 Productivity Habits To Finally Hack Your Life In The New Year A common resolution for most working people is to be more productive. In this article, we'll explore twelve bad habits that you can change -- one per month -- to drastically improve your workload productivity. Read More  — there’s no end to it.


But most of these are missing the crucial first link in the chain: your brain.

Before anything else, your brain has to be ready to be productive. But how do you make sure your brain is helping you achieve maximum productivity? Here’s what neuroscience says.

Establish a System of Rewards

When you feel rewarded, you brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter. It’s the same chemical that’s released when you feel pleasure — it’s related to things like eating, love, risk taking, and sex. Dopamine-related problems have also been implicated in addiction and depression. Interestingly, it also has an important job before we receive a reward in that it’s linked strongly to motivation.

Taking advantage of dopamine’s connection to motivation can have big benefits to your productivity. Having a system of rewards that you use regularly is a great way to get dopamine released into your system. The Pomodoro technique Cut Through Procrastination With These Pomodoro Technique Apps & Software Procrastination is a malady that pervades students and workers in all corners of the world and it infects amateurs and professionals alike. As a writer, I suffer from procrastination on a daily basis. Some people... Read More is a perfect example — after every 25-minute sprint of productivity, you’re rewarded with a 5-minute break. That 5-minute break isn’t much, and probably isn’t enough to rest your brain. But it could be enough to activate the reward system.



Your reward doesn’t have to be anything major; you don’t need to buy yourself a new set of golf clubs for completing a project. Even just being able to check something off a task list and hear the satisfying “ding” your task management app makes could be enough.

Psychologist Leslie Sherlin recently told Fast Company that even the simple act of saying “done” when you complete a task could signal a shift in your brain’s activity and help you prepare for your next task.

So break your tasks down into small chunks and give yourself a small reward after each — a quick break to check Facebook (just don’t get sidetracked!), a walk outside, a small snack, or just saying “done!” with a surreptitious fistpump.

Make a List

We’re big on lists here, both traditional and otherwise 3 Types of Lists That Actually Help You Be More Productive To-do lists are the ultimate productivity weapon. These to-do lists could give you all the power you need to get things done. Read More . And it turns out that there’s actually a good psychological reason to use them. Your brain’s working memory is used to store things on a short-term basis, and can be very important in helping you successfully deal with the things you’re working on. But working memory can only hold so many items at once, and if you ask it to store more than is optimal, your performance can suffer.


That’s where making a list comes in: when you write things down, you don’t need to keep them in working memory, and that frees up space for your brain to use on your current project.


You may not be “the list-making type,” but it’s a habit worth getting into! Even if you use a very minimal list-making app Stop Organizing, Start Working: 3 Simple To-Do Apps To Speed Up Your Workflow Are you a list lover? Stop using your to-do list as yet another excuse to procrastinate. Switch to a minimal task management system and focus on getting things done. Read More to record things you need to remember, that’ll help you use your working memory more efficiently. And if you decide that you want to go all out and use something like Evernote to keep track of everything in your life, that’s even better.

And, of course, crossing things off a list helps trigger the reward centers of your brain.


Be Accountable

A fascinating study recently reported in Cerebral Cortex looked at a process called social facilitation in which performance on tasks is improved when another person is nearby. The other person doesn’t have to be engaged in the process or even known to the person in question. And while you probably don’t want to arrange for another person to sit and watch you do your work, you can take advantage of this phenomenon in a couple ways.


If you’re the kind of person who works well in a shared coworking space Shared Offices & Coworking: How To Become A More Productive Freelancer Working from home might seem like a great idea, but I don’t see it. After more than a year of working from various places of residence I’m thoroughly sick of mixing business with pleasure. Home... Read More , spending more time there could be helpful; you’ll (consciously or subconsciously) want others to think that you’re being highly productive, and that will help you keep your attention on the task at hand.

Similarly, you can ask someone to hold you accountable for the amount of work you do. You could arrange to meet with a mentor 4 Tips To Contact Anyone & Ask Them To Be Your Career Mentor For those looking to develop in a field, mentors are essential. Alas, you can’t pick up a mentor from the shelves of Walmart. Here are a few tips when looking for career mentoring. Read More on a regular basis and have them ask you about how your work is going. You could agree with a few friends or colleagues to keep a public log of how much work you get done in a day and check in on each other. Making yourself accountable to others can go a long way toward helping you stay motivated and attentive.


Spend Time on Your Hobbies

This may seem a bit counterintuitive, but spending time on your own hobbies and interests can actually help make you more productive. An interesting post at the iNform Health blog discusses the role of the amygdala in productivity:

Your amygdala is your autopilot for emotional responses and subsequent physiological states. It is stimulated by external factors, and fires off a pre-wired series of chemical signals depending upon the nature of stimulus to produce a holistic state of mood.

Busy lives can leave us denying our personal pursuits in favour of keeping others happy, in various shapes and forms. The result of this is stimuli of similar nature repeatedly triggering the same internal responses.

When this response is one of stress, grumpiness, exhaustion, etc, we are logically compelled to work harder at the same stuff to make it go away.

The blog goes on to say that spending time on things that you love helps disrupt the pattern of stress, give you “some space from [your] dominant automated state, thanks to a shift in both conscious and subconscious focus,” and send “an altered feed of feelings, emotions and mood through your automatic control panel.”


Giving your brain this variety helps break you out of the stress-inducing, productivity-killing state that’s so often associated with our modern productivity-centric society. So take some time to get into electronics Beginner's Electronics: 10 Skills You Need to Know Many of us have never even touched a soldering iron - but making things can incredibly rewarding. Here's ten of the most basic DIY electronics skills to help you get started. Read More , learn the basics of programming, do some woodworking Beginner's Woodworking: 5 Skills You Need to Know Many people shy away from woodworking projects simply because they haven't done it before. Here's a rundown of the 5 most important woodworking skills to help you get started. Read More , or do whatever it is you love to do. It helps in all sorts of ways!

Do Some Daydreaming

Spending time on your hobbies makes a kind of intuitive — or at least semi-intuitive — sense when you’re trying to get your brain into a state that’s optimal for productivity. But daydreaming? How could that possibly help?

Turns out that a number of famously successful people — including Mark Twain, Richard Feynman, JK Rowling, and (supposedly) Albert Einstein — have had their most famous ideas while their brains were idle. And there’s evidence that the brain connects disparate ideas and thoughts when it’s in a relaxed state; it’s these unorthodox connections that result in truly creative, innovative ideas The Top 5 Websites To Spark Your Creativity Read More .


So don’t let productivity take over your life 5 Ways to Keep Productivity From Taking Over Your Life Are we, as a society, significantly more productive? And if we are, are we happier? Productivity is important, but it needs to be put in its place. Read More . Make sure that you not only take enough time to indulge in your hobbies, but also to just sit and let your mind wander. Even if it’s only for 20 minutes on a nice Sunday in a park, remember that time spent daydreaming with no particular goal can be very beneficial for your productivity (not to mention your mental health).

Use Your Brain!

You can use all of the technology you want (including games How Dumb Are You? 5 Brain Training and Analyzing Apps to Check Your Mind These brain training and analyzing apps show just how dumb you are, and teach you to sharpen your mind. Read More ), create all the systems and routines that you’d like, but if you’re neglecting the basics of psychology and neuroscience, you won’t reach your maximum productivity potential.

Use the above strategies to keep your mind and brain in the right mode for getting a lot done, and you’ll find that productivity comes easier.

Have you used any of these strategies? What other techniques do you find useful for maximizing productivity? Share your thoughts below!

Image Credits: Young man thinking, Woman enjoying success (edited), Thoughtful woman writing, Male architect working, Brain sketchy doodles, Portrait of a smiling woman via Shutterstock.

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  1. Art marr
    August 19, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    Here is another way of 'hacking' or naturally increasing dopamine and opioid levels in the brain

    Individuals who engage in tasks that have a consistent and high degree of positive prediction error or ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity) commonly report a feeling of high alertness and arousal that may be construed to be due to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, a significant subset of these individuals also report a feeling of pleasure or bliss, but these reports are characteristic only in non-stressed situations when the musculature is relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid and dopamine systems stimulate each other, blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that in the authors opinion are very easily achieved.

    In this way, both dopamine and opioid release can be increased in the brain.

  2. Toby Jensen
    May 13, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    Being accountable is a primary responsibility in achieving success through self-improvement.

    Having loved self-improvement most of my life I set out to find an exact method to producing change. Little did I know when I started what a development it would be for me. Over twenty-five years later I can finally describe how change actually takes place within us.

    Gutap – the system to achieving core level change of any limiting belief.

    If you were programmed you can now be reprogrammed.

    The self-improvement steps:
    1. Feel the feeling of your false belief to know it.
    You have to feel your feelings in order to change them.

    2. Find what the false or limiting belief truly wants you to know to be better.
    What does the false belief actually want you to know that is positive?

    3. Connect that feeling of the positive answer (not necessarily the concept or picture) to the negative feeling of the false belief to let it flow into negative feeling to change it.
    The positive feelings change it – you don’t.

    The example I use for proof of Gutap is anger. Forgive. Forgiveness cures anger almost instantly. When you are angry and you forgive them your anger is gone. It takes one feeling to heal another. Every “negative” feeling has its own positive healing feeling.

  3. Prateek Pandya
    May 13, 2015 at 4:12 pm

    Another extremely useful thing one can do is Meditation.

    • Dann Albright
      May 16, 2015 at 7:56 am

      Yes, meditation can be great! I don't know the psychology or neuroscience behind it, but I know that a lot of people have had a great deal of success with it.

      Thatnks for the tip!

      • Charles Caldwell
        January 28, 2017 at 3:54 pm

        Dann, in a nutshell the science is the same as what you've outlined above: meditation or mindfulness practices eases stress off of the amygdala region of the brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is where, basically, good mood lives. Meditation helps the brain release good physiological chemicals. The PNS (and other parts of the brain) are like emotional radiators that help the brain function under stress. More importantly though, when stimulated they create a context where the brain is more likely to spark insights. Meditation and mindfulness practices is akin to the difference between using regular water in a radiator or the manufacturer's recommended anti-freeze.

        • Dann Albright
          February 6, 2017 at 6:54 pm

          Cool! Thanks for providing some details on that. I love your anti-freeze metaphor, too. I'm going to have to use that one. :-)