Insights

How to take the drudgery out of building a new skill

It is no secret that dopamine hits are seductive.

They trigger a very real and frankly delicious biological response that make us want more. This is why Facebook introduced ‘likes’. This is why gamification of social media is a major focus of all platforms. This is why success feels really really good.

Until recently, however, I had no idea how much this everyday hormone impacted my day to day work.

Why do I enjoy grasping new concepts? Why do I love finding new and different ways to help others grow as communicators? Why practising a new skill feel so boring?

It turns out that harnessing dopamine is hugely powerful in helping us persist so we go beyond knowing about something to doing that thing well.

Experience tells me I am not alone in this, so I wanted to share some simple and practical ideas that will help you master skills that matter to you.

Here are two suggestions to help you go from knowing to doing:

  1. Learn to ‘rig’ your own dopamine hits
  2. Magnify the ‘hits’ by setting milestone rewards
 

Learn to ‘rig’ your own dopamine hits

I have recently been refreshing my understanding of how people learn by completing an online course called Learning How To Learn by Dr Barbara Oakley and Dr Terrence Sejnowski of McMaster University & University of California San Diego.

One of the things that has stood out to me is the impact of our biochemistry on our willingness to go beyond just knowing about something to achieving mastery. Within that context, dopamine is the standout hormone for us to understand and harness. As recently as 1957 Swedish pharmacologist Dr Arvid Carlsson showed that dopamine controls our motivations.

Dopamine is triggered in many circumstances. It is triggered by ‘aha’ moments when an idea resonates with us and when a new idea ‘clicks’ together in our minds.

More importantly, it is triggered when we receive a reward or perceive that we will receive one in the future.

The excellent news about dopamine is that we can ‘rig it’ by setting ourselves future rewards.

All of a sudden, the seemingly simple idea of setting goals and breaking them into chunks not only helps us intellectually, it feels better.

Ticking off each chunk triggers a dopamine surge that we can influence with simple behavioural steps.

 

Magnify the ‘hits’ by setting milestone rewards

Until recently, I had never been big on rewarding myself for hitting milestones or achieving goals, believing that the achievement was enough in itself.

However, last year I took on a challenge to set some goals and on the advice of a coach chose a reward for a scary target.

If I hit a certain target, I would buy myself a special new handbag. (No, ladies: it wasn’t a Birkin. Not THAT special!)

In setting my goal and my reward, I very much enjoyed the process of choosing the one I would buy.

The interesting thing for me was that when I hit the target (and then shot past it by about 25%), I was tempted to not follow through with the reward.

I had enjoyed choosing the handbag and had achieved my goal: wasn’t that enough? Did I really need to spend part of that hard earned on a trivial gift for myself?

Well, yes. My coach was clear that I must follow through, so I did. And am I glad.

Every time I use it, I remember my success and am reminded of the importance of rewarding myself when I do succeed, which I have discovered is far less trivial than I had realised.

Now each time I use it I trigger a tiny dopamine hit as I remember the goal I reached.

So, a question for you: what goals do you want to set for yourself?

 

Davina Stanley is Managing Director of Clarity Thought Partners, and founder of The Clarity First Program. She and her business partner Gerard Castles collaborated to write the The So What Strategy which offers a simple strategy for communicating clearly as well as the seven most commonly used storyline patterns in business.