The path to success has always seemed to me ill-defined. Is it grit, luck, planning? I’ve started so many ventures ever only to give up or to lose motivation & momentum. Sometimes I’ve brought projects to fruition, but I have been hard pressed to see why they have been different to the ones that have fallen by the wayside.
I’m a big fan of Dr Andrew Huberman, an American neuroscientist and associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He relates topics like success and quitting to neuroscience, and gives clear, fact based answers about what is happening when we choose to continue or choose to give up. His explanation of the path to success is worth understanding, and has certainly made a difference to the way I operate.
First of all when we start something new or attempt to bring something we’ve committed to to fruition, the initial stage of the process is always one of agitation. The motivation to start is driven by adrenaline. The bigger the magnitude of the task at hand, the more we are flooded with adrenaline. This means that we become fearful, agitated, find it hard to focus, and, in fact, may never start. Quitting occurs when the levels of adrenaline in our brain get so high that it closes down things like motor function and we quit.
As uncomfortable as this initial phase is, it is a gateway – you cannot circumvent it. Dr Huberman suggests practising higher states of autonomic nervous system arousal (ice baths, Tummo breathing, stress positions) so we are better able to sit with periods of discomfort. Success is linked to focus. If we can navigate this initial period of adrenaline and confusion, we can start to use the adrenaline to heighten visual focus (pupils dilate) which in turn leads to better mental focus.
Focus for Success
Mental focus is an elusive thing in our society – so much is sent to distract us. In addition to harnessing the neuro-chemicals, we can take practical steps to boosting our focus. Meditation, pratyahara in particular, is a great practice to develop this. Getting sunlight (not filtered) into your eyes within an hour of waking, limiting social media & notifications, looking up at your screen not down, sleeping well, good nutrition and hydration – all of these practices can help.
Additionally bringing a sense of urgency or meaning to what you’re doing can help focus. That’s how deadlines work. Whether you are motivated by fear or love isn’t important. Urgency / meaning plus focus leads to brain plasticity, and gets the acetylcholine flowing.
Dopamine for the Win
If quitting is linked to high levels of adrenaline in the brain, then a strategy to keep adrenaline levels down is helpful. The dopamine circuit does just that – dopamine can push adrenaline levels down. Dopamine is released whenever we achieve a milestone or think we are on the right path. Self-reward is thus a great way to release dopamine. Falling in love with the process and celebrating tiny wins each day will trigger the release of dopamine and keep quitting at bay, giving us more space and time to keep going. And remember, reward must be internal – just you and you – not external. If we seek rewards from external factors, we will find it hard to keep going if they are removed.
Ultimately getting through something simply comes down to not quitting. Finding something we can control in a situation that seems out of our control. Focus, meaning, and self-reward all provide us with useful strategies for this.
In Kundalini Yoga we often use stress positions to develop resilience and the ability to sit with high levels of autonomic arousal. These can be great, simple practices to work with the path noted above.
For example, an easy way to work with this is a 3 minute challenge (you will need a timer). All you need to do is sit comfortably with a straight spine – this can be on the floor, or in a hard chair (feet on the floor). Before you begin, be mindful of how you feel about the challenge ahead. Do you relish it, dread it? Are you ready to quit already, thinking “what’s the point?”?
(If you can’t even motivate yourself to give it a go, perhaps consider that you may be hypo-aroused. Try some practices to self-generate adrenaline – cold showers, Tummo breathing, running up a hill etc).
Start the time. stretch your arms out to the side, parallel to the floor, fingers and thumbs together, palms down. Hold. Observe what happens as the body comes under pressure. Look for any agitation, heat (as adrenaline is released), thought patterns especially around quitting. This is you sitting with discomfort. Remember this is a gateway to success – get good at it, learn your habitual responses.
Now, see if you can develop focus – maybe turn your attention to the breath, or focus on a mantra, or maybe the floor / chair beneath you. Be mindful of the things pulling at your focus? What, if anything distracts you? Remember focus is enhanced by urgency or meaning – be clear why you’re doing this, perhaps relate it to a difficult endeavor or project you need to complete. Work out what motivates you.
And finally, see if you can activate the dopamine circuit with self-reward. Maybe mark the halfway point, or the 2 minute mark. Acknowledge small wins, perhaps micro slice the practice into 10 second intervals when it gets really tough. And, of course self-reward at the end, noting a job well-done, and take time to soak up the rewards as your body moves to a parasympathetic state of deep relaxation.
Once you can do 3 minutes, try the practice with no set time (obviously aiming in excess of 3 minutes). When the brain doesn’t understand the duration, it cannot plan adequately the allocation of resources. This ramps up the discomfort levels and is far more indicative of a real life scenario.
If you liked this, check out Huberman Lab podcast.