Hack Dopamine to Increase Writing Productivity


Earlier this month, Kevan Lee on Lifehacker wrote an intriguing article on How to Harness Your Brain’s Dopamine Supply and Increase Motivation. It’s a very interesting article, and a quick read if you want to pursue it in more detail. But basically, he lays out that dopamine is connected to more things than just pleasure: “Dopamine’s impact on the body is felt in many different areas, including motivation, memory, behavior and cognition, attention, sleep, mood, learning, and oh yeah, pleasurable reward.” Where it gets interesting is that dopamine has now been shown to be high during stress and so its main function is now believed to be as a motivator. The takeaway here is this:

Dopamine performs its task before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve or avoid something bad.

He suggests that we can hack this by setting up incremental goals, training our brains to feed off the dopamine hits we get each time we complete the smaller task.

I think this makes so much sense and also made me wonder if this is why I, and others, find the #1k1hr twitter writing sprints (and other such type of writing sprints) so effective? I just thought it was due to peer pressure, but perhaps there’s some science behind it. Or the high you get during NaNoWriMo?

It gives more explanation for why folks advise you to break goals into smaller, tangible, pieces. Now knowing that dopamine could be a factor, it provides me with a logical reason for this, and means I’m more likely to implement goals this way.

Testing it out

I hate to say, but I took a hiatus in October from writing while I awaited feedback from Beta readers. At first, it was good, as it allowed me to focus on my health and to pursue this paleo/primal lifestyle. But after a while, it became hard to get back into writing. Beta feedback had returned, but still I procrastinated. Every weekend since November, I kept saying, okay now, I’ll start revisions. But it was just so daunting facing all that feedback (in the past I don’t think I’d had so much feedback all at once). Christmas came and went. Again, this weekend I had told myself to get started. After reading this article yesterday afternoon, however, I made the connection to the #1k1hr sprints and decided to just take it an hour at a time. So I hooked up with one of my writer friends on twitter who also needed a kick in the pants, and we did 3 1-hour sprints, and a half-hour one. Each hour accomplished, I found I wanted to tackle another. My friend also got a huge chunk of writing done (over 5000 words) and felt like she was back into her story after struggling for a while.

Anyway, I’m finally back to writing after taking the longest break since I started getting serious about writing 4 years ago.

Was This the Reason for My Prolonged Break?

All my life I’ve had this aspect of my personality where I get obsessed on something and I go full steam with it, making discovery after discovery, or project after project, but then if something else disrupts it–a life event, or some other distraction–it has been hard for me to find that focus again. When I discovered Paleo/Primal, it became my new obsession and knocked writing aside. So much so that I worried that that’s all my writing had been: a prolonged obsession.

But I knew it wasn’t, but I worried, and found it hard to get back into it, seemingly confirming my mild fear. However, this dopamine article has got me thinking:

Could I have been fixated on Paleo/Primal for the dopamine fix?

Lately, as the spate of new discoveries and things to try have petered out, I’d find myself down in the kitchen looking around going, now what? I wanted something else to try, to make. Anything.

I wanted my dopamine fix.

I think I’d retrained my brain to get these little hits of dopamine from Paleo/Primal! After getting back into writing yesterday–FINALLY–it’s all become clear. Now I just need to dig deep and find small goals to get me back into writing. I already feel it back–my mind thinking of plot problems and their solutions, just after one evening of going full bore.

So it’s kind of a relief to know this could be the reason I stayed away from writing for so long. And how to fix it.

What does this have to do with Paleo/Primal?

Besides it’s relation to my recent obsession? I think it fits perfectly–Paleo/Primal is really bio-hacking, finding out what works and what doesn’t for optimal health. And being happy and productive is healthy, so ergo, understanding how dopamine could help with productivity is totally Paleo/Primal 🙂

So, next time you’re faced with a huge goal, break it into incremental tasks and feel your dopamine kick in! There’s a reason people advise this method.

What about you? Do you find it easier breaking tasks into smaller goals. Have you felt good after? Has this changed how you look at goals?



  1. Reblogged this on Angela Quarles | Geek girl romance writer and commented:

    Most of the time, my posts on my health blog relate it to writing only tangentially, but I thought this post today was completely relevant for this blog too. So here you go!

  2. Interesting post! Tweeted.

  3. Carole St-Laurent · · Reply

    I so relate. I’ve been knocked off the writing habit for the whole of 2013 (don’t ask, it’s complicated) and it’s so hard to get back into it. But one hour at a time, doable and achievable.

    Thanks for posting.

    1. Or even 15 minutes if a whole hour seems unachievable! Hope it helps!

  4. I gotta say, Angela, I think you’re onto something here.
    Sprints work for me – and you know I always thought it was the competition thing too – but searching for the dopamine connection related to writing sorta validates why I’m not only attracted to Sprinting, but why it works so well for me.
    Small increments are absolutely doable. My productivity soars too.
    What a great post!

  5. barbarabettis1 · · Reply

    Stress releases dopamine you say? No wonder I always work better under deadlines 🙂 Back when I was a daily newspaper reporter, I could knock out words like nothing every day under pressure. Makes sense now why these incremental deadlines like x number of words a day or NaNo. Very interesting post!

  6. Hi Angela!
    I too read that article a while back and started implementing those small goals into my every day to-do lists. And I have honestly seen a marked increase in my productivity that I have never seen before. It’s so simple and so obvious yet so unknown.

    I hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing since I’m in the editing phase, but I can totally see how this would work and am going to implement it today. My brain loves the idea of breaking bigger tasks into really tiny ones that may seem insignificant or silly to some but really help trick my brain into keeping the motivation going.

    Great post! 😀

    1. Yeah I think it can seem harder for editing and I think that’s why I procrastinated. But just saying, I will edit for x time, made all the difference. So cool you are seeing the effects too!

  7. […] yesterday about dopamine and productivity led me to write a post today on my writing healthy blog: How to Hack Dopamine to Increase Writing Productivity. Basically, it now looks like dopamine is not just a pleasure-fix, it looks like its main function […]

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