The Powerful Secret Behind Your To Do List

Accomplishments feel good! Like cancelling a dreaded meeting, postponing a gym class because it’s raining, deciding not to write that first paragraph today! Love it! It feels good not to do something.

We all heard the advantage of using to do lists. You probably use it daily. But are you harnessing the real power of a to do list? What’s your VERY FIRST ITEM?


Yes! “Writing to do list” – DONE! Check! Already feeling good about ourselves, yeah! Every single check mark feels like we’re on sugar high! We feel accomplished and motivated to do the next task (somewhat). And when all done? Time for celebration! Cake by the Ocean!

It’s all your head!

Thing is, it’s all your head! Really! Thanks to a drug your brain is releasing, called Dopamine. Now, for a long time, I thought Dopamine was the pleasure drug. The happy dose I’m getting when I’m finished with a task, accomplish something like running a marathon, writing a screenplay or catching a Pokemon. After doing some research, sparked by this article, I found new appreciation for Dopamine.

[…]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.

Is it all about pleasure?

The article mentions how dopamine level rises in soldiers with PTSD when they hear gunfire.  That’s not pleasure! This made me think of dopamine differently as it comes to dealing with motivation at workplace learning. Gamification uses motivation as the underlying principal. Pleasure is a great motivator, so naturally, I wanted to get the bottom of what’s happening with dopamine. If dopamine is not about pleasure, then what? And how can I leverage that when designing learning activities or applying game thinking?

According to the article, the true purpose of dopamine might be actually motivation BEFORE the reward. Either motivating us to DO SOMETHING to gain the reward (pleasure) or motivating us to AVOID danger (like in the case of the solders with PTSD).

Maybe that’s why to do lists are crucial? You break down large tasks into smaller, distinct steps to get motivated by each completion. And while you’re enjoying the pleasurable moment of checking one off, you are motivated to move on to the next,  to repeat the pleasure? The higher your dopamine level is, the more motivated you are to work hard on the next challenge! Got it.

“Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”

Okay, so it’s about the dopamine level. If that’s the case, can we boost dopamine level at the workplace? How about training? If learners’ motivation relies on their dopamine level, is there anything we can do to boost it? HR-appropriately, of course.

Not so simple

After more research, the answer got a little more complicated. Apparently, another study showed that both “slackers” and “go getters” in a group had dopamine present, yet, their actions were completely opposite. Now what? It is not the dopamine level itself after all that determines our motivation to achieve?

What-if moment

And that brings to my aha-moment. Actually, it’s more like a what-if moment. What if we are actually given a choice? What if we choose the path to walk, and from there on, dopamine drives us? What if we must take that first step? What if our brain is wired to support, but it takes our lead where to go? That first step is our choice?

Did you ever have trouble, for example, going to the gym? Like you have high motivation early in the year,  you start going daily. But one day, when you get home, tired and it’s raining outside… You’re contemplating:

“I know I wanted to do every day but I’ll just work harder tomorrow.”

Sounds familiar? You’re making a decision where to go, standing at the fork on the road. Each choice will bring you pleasure. The choice is yours. And then you call a friend just to vent, maybe get confirmation that it’s okay to have a sofa night… And your friends says something like:

“Don’t go if you don’t want. But before you make your final decision, change into your gym clothes.”

Sounds stupid to change if you don’t go but why not. You know your decision. It’s a sofa night.

And then some magic happens. You now know that you’re allowed to stay home,  you allowed yourself a day off. Yet, after changing into your gym clothes, somehow you get a second wind of energy and motivation. Not enough to jump into the car and go, but…

“Fine! But now it’s now late, the gym will be probably packed and I might have to wait and I hate that. We’ll see. If it’s packed, I’ll come back.”

You get to the gym and it’s not packed. Why? Because of lot of people have not made that first incremental decision of changing into their gym clothes. You do your workout and feel accomplished, fresh and you can’t believe you even entertained the thought of not coming today. Sounds familiar?

Lessons learned

What’s the moral of the story for learning?

  1. Do not assume that writing up five learning objectives will catapult learners into the path of dopamine pleasure. Even if there’s a WIIF in each, they’re looking at the number of slides: 60???
  2. Help learners make that first choice! Help them choose the path! Give them a small task that requires some effort but just enough not to be a hurdle. It’s like starting with a to do list with the “writing to do list” item.
  3. Do not isolate them in an LMS bubble where it’s them vs. the machine. A workplace is a social venue. Make learning social. If it’s an eLearning course, find someone who is a role model, someone who has the knowledge and skills that the course is teaching about. Have them do a 30 second testimony in the beginning of the course: this is what I learned from this course and this is how it made my life easier. Done. Watch what happens!
  4. Give positive, constructive feedback frequently. Show them the to do list. Show their progress. Make them think and have them make meaningful decisions with consequences, followed by constructive feedback.

So, next time you create a to do list, you know how to start it! And cross that first item out right after you’re done with writing the list! Done.


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