In his best-selling book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work, Shawn Achor writes, “In physics, activation energy is the initial spark needed to catalyze a reaction. The same energy, both physical and mental, is needed of people to overcome inertia and kickstart a positive habit” (Achor, 2011).
Achor goes on to describe what he calls the “20 Second Rule” which states that a mere 20 seconds often makes all the difference in whether or not we will take action. When preparing for that action takes more than 20 seconds, the energy needed to start the action (activation energy) often overwhelms us and we remain stagnant.
On the other hand, when the activation energy is less than 20 seconds, taking action seems much easier. In his book, Achor describes trying to get himself to play guitar for 21 days in a row, and realizing that after only a few days, he had failed to play every day. The problem was that the guitar was in his closet and the activation energy needed to get up, walk to the closet and remove the guitar, outweighed his reasons for wanting to play. So, he moved his guitar out of the closet and lowered the activation energy. Then he played for 21 days straight (Achor, 2011).
So to take action, we start with lowering the activation energy. Yet the results of research done by researchers at Iowa State University shows that we should also find an “instigation cue”.
In a first of its kind study, Alison Phillips, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State and Benjamin Gardner, from King’s College London, explored the difference between the strength of execution habits – knowing what routines to follow – and instigation habits – cues that get us started on the routines – in predicting exercise frequency. First they asked 118 healthy adults to rate their exercise instigation and execution habit strength. They then tracked how often they exercised over the course of the month.
Of the participants studied, approximately 25 percent were overweight or obese, around 5 percent reported not exercising, while nearly 50 percent said they had regularly exercised longer than 12 months.
What Phillips and Gardner found was that, as much as fitness gurus like to tout the importance of fitness routines, they have no effect on actually getting us to go to the gym. What does, is having a strong instigation habit (Phillips & Gardner, 2015). As Phillips explains, “From a health perspective, we want people to engage in physical activity frequently, and so instigation habit is the type of habit to promote that to happen. Regardless of the type of exercise you’re going to do on a particular day, if you have an instigation habit, you’ll start exercising without having to think a lot about it or consider the pros and cons” (Phillips, 2015).
For some people, Phillips notes, an instigation habit might be the end of the work day (signaling that it is time to go to the gym) while for others it might be their alarm clock going off in the morning (signaling that it is time to get up and go for a run). What works best for each person may vary, but these cues are most often external. Internal cues (like feeling that you have been sitting too long and need to move), Phillips says, are often stronger than external ones, but are much harder to develop. What is most important is that the cue is given substantial time to automatically trigger a behavior, which takes about a month (Phillips & Gardner, 2015).
Lowering the activation energy and using an instigation cue are to keys to getting ourselves started, but new research into the role of dopamine also tells us that dopamine also plays a role in activating habits. While it was previously thought that dopamine levels increase when we engage in reward seeking behavior, dopamine seems to be an important part of starting the habit in the first place.
Reviewing data from several investigations, including those conducted over the past two decades by the Castellón group in collaboration with the John Salamone of the University of Connecticut (USA), on the role of dopamine in the motivated behavior in animals, researchers from the Universitat Jaume I of Castellón found that dopamine acts as a core neurotransmitter to initiate action and that low dopamine levels consistently occurred with symptoms such as the lack of energy that often characterize diseases like depression, chronic fatigue, and fibromyalgia (Correa & Salamone, 2016). Lead study author, Mercè Correa explains, “Depressed people do not feel like doing anything and that’s because of low dopamine levels,” (Correa, 2016).
“It was believed that dopamine regulated pleasure and reward and that we release it when we obtain something that satisfies us, but in fact the latest scientific evidence shows that this neurotransmitter acts before that, it actually encourages us to act. In other words, dopamine is released in order to achieve something good or to avoid something evil,” (Correa, 2016).
These results also explain why, on the other side of the spectrum, sensation seekers – people who are highly motivated to act – frequently have an abundance of dopamine. For this reason, too much dopamine may be involved in addictive behavior problems, leading to an attitude of compulsive perseverance (Correa & Salamone, 2016).
The good news is that dopamine levels can be built, and that the more we engage in rewarding actions – such as taking that walk we planned to take, finishing that chapter, or checking off 21 days of playing a guitar – the more dopamine levels grow. Through lowering the activation energy required to start something, using an instigation cue to remind ourselves to do it, and following through on those habits, our habits begin to act in a positive feedback loop, where the more we engage in them, the more we start the fire of motivation.
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