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Understanding - and Maximizing - Your Brain's Reward and Planning System

How anything that gets done, gets done.

Many thanks to the folks over at LifeHacker for picking up this post!

The Brain's "Silent Lobes"

There was a time when the frontal lobes of the human brain were called the "silent lobes."  We weren't sure whether they actually did anything useful.  In fact, a lot of the brain's heavy lifting happens behind the frontal lobes.  In the tissue we share in common with lots of other animals.  The "back" of the brain facilitates our appraisal of "what is."  Like....the room is a bit cool. after-tax income doesn't quiet cover my expenses. 

The "front" of the brain is in control of something very different:  considering "what might be."  I could adjust the thermostat to warm up the room.  I could ask for a couple of double shifts this month to increase my income.  So the frontal lobes deal in magic - imagining and creating what might be.

And various elements of the frontal lobes are intimately connected, in neuronal loops, with other important areas of the brain.  Essentially, the "what is" parts are in constant communication with the "what could be" parts.  One of those loops - the corticostriatal loop - is of particular consequence for the concerns we handle in this blog - things like motivation, focus, time- and goal-management.  For the purpose of this discussion I'll refer to this loop as the reward-and-planning system.

Motivation and Imagination

The reward-and-planning system associates your brain-based motivational system with your imagination.  Most good relationships, most cool inventions, and most academic degrees are the result of dreaming which turned into planning which turned into a certain amount of hard work carried out over a period of time.  Basically the reward-and-planning system comprises five cognitive elements. 

From inception to brass ring, these elements are:

  1. Anticipate the end-goal
  2. Identify the tasks and subtasks
  3. Sequence and problem-solve around likely obstacles
  4. Block out distractions
  5. Get the reward

#1 - Anticipate the end-goal

I reviewed in a previous posting the idea that dopamine - the neurotransmitter of motivation - is associated with bodily feelings unique to each of us.  What motivates and rewards you might not work for me.  The important thing is to know your end goal.  What do you want to feel?  Nobody wants a hunk of red metal.  But some people do want what they think they will feel when they're driving their very own bright red convertible.  It's that feeling which I'm referencing here as the end goal.

#2 - Identify the tasks and subtasks

You want the feeling of ease and choice that comes with having enough money.  So you want to increase your earnings.  What could get you to that point?  You've ruled out a bank robbery for lots of good reasons.  A good friend is a nurse and his work sounds interesting to you - so getting a nursing degree is a strategy for increasing your earning potential.  But that takes a long time and you don't do it all at once.  What are the subtasks?  The phone calls or research or conversations you want to have first?

 And what will be a likely second step?  And third?  What order of tasks makes sense?  What if this doesn't go smoothly?  What are the probable roadblocks along the way to a nursing degree?  Do you have other commitments, like a job or parental responsibilities?  Who are the key people in your life who are least likely to support your plan?  And how will you navigate around these obstacles to get to your goal anyway?

#4 - Block out distractions

Once you've determined the sequence of tasks to get you to your endpoint, and you've figured out how to steer around the roadblocks, how will you persist with the day to day requirements of this goal?  What if some parts of the nursing program are hard?  Or dull?  How will you do those parts of this sequence when there is always something fun and easy like TV or your phone?  Lots of really smart people with really good goals get distracted en route - what exactly will you do differently?

#5 - Get the reward

Once you've figured out what you want to feel, and determined a way to get there, and done the hard work, the final step is to savor the success.  To go ahead and feel, in your body, that specific way that you register happiness.  In fact, before you even get started on step #1, fast-forward to the end and get inside how it's going to feel for you.  Before you invest your valuable time and life energy, get crystal clear that this is the thing you really want.  Then ask the question again, a little deeper this time, is this really what I want? And is the path I've sketched out for myself likely to get me to that?

So Why Am I Not Getting Exactly What I Want Every Moment of the Day?

If every step of the reward-and-planning system were to go smoothly, we'd all be getting exactly what we want all the time.  So, what could possibly go wrong with any of this?  Actually, there are a number of common and predictable difficulties.  And that will be the theme of my next post here.   If you teach or coach or parent people with attentional or executive challenges, you could probably write that next post yourself. 

In fact, let me ask you to help me with that.  If you have important goals and tasks that you aren't knocking out easily, why do you think that is?  Contact me, and tell me what you think are the specific obstacles that are getting in the way - right now - of your key to-do items.  Thanks!





photo:  victory and chess players in dupont circle