This week, I experienced the most incredible thing.
I was buried in work. I stayed up late and woke early. I researched and analyzed and drafted, then looped back, making huge and frightening adjustments to the project. Each time around the revisions became more nuanced and subtle, inweaving the finesse I had long-desired to see in this work.
With pride, I submitted the project. I was physically exhausted—my body battered by lack of sleep, caffeine saturation, and too many hours of eyeballs running over spreadsheets—but after turning in this piece of hard-fought work, my mind became nimbler and more luminous than ever. Instead of recoiling from the idea of more work, I sprang toward it. I was overwhelmed by motivation to build on the skills I had just proven to myself, to take on new projects, and to connect with people who could enrich my experience.
In the midst of snatching these inspired ideas from the ether and painting them onto a page, I stopped to wonder, “How can I experience this feeling more often?”
For answers, I turned to my friendly neighbourhood search engine. Unfortunately, the search terms required to capture this feeling escaped me, so “that great feeling when you finish a task” would have to do. This inspired me to coin my very own term to describe the sensation: ‘accomplishment bliss’.
According to neuroperformance expert Leslie Sherlin, accomplishment bliss may come as the result of small bursts of serotonin following the brain’s shift from an intensely engaged state to a relaxed one. The accompanying sense of satisfaction and calm associated with the burst is known to encourage confidence, which makes digging into your next task seem simple, even pleasurable.
When in the throes of accomplishment bliss, it is critical to use the feeling to your advantage. Dustin Wax of LifeHack explains, "The end goal is […] to capture the energy and momentum of one success and roll it into your next.” In other words, start your next project while you’re feeling unstoppable. In the 1920s, psychologist Bluma Ziegarnik found that humans recall unfinished tasks considerably better than completed tasks or ones that have yet to be started. In our minds, unfinished tasks stand out. So, if you are bursting with vigour (and serotonin) and can get the ball rolling on your next idea, research shows that you are more likely to see this idea through to fruition.
Online forums are brimming with advice that capitalizes on this effect, with bloggers extolling the merits of bite-sized tasks and approachable to-do lists. While many of these approaches were familiar, one concept stood out: accountability charts. For all tasks accomplished during productive intervals, productivity guru Gregory Ciotti encourages his readers to record the task’s name and when it was completed. At the end of the day, one can marvel at their accomplishments. Beyond acting as a reminder of daily achievements, accountability charts can help to reveal patterns in productivity. You may be able to correlate periods of high or low output with changes in diet, alterations in exercise regimen or prevailing moods. With strong enough correlations, you may look to optimize output by changing the way you work.
Accountability charts do sound effective, but they don’t sound fun. Human motivation is fickle. There has to be a goal.
Video game developers have long understood that people will not work for free, but they will expend tremendous sums of energy to achieve virtual rewards. 'Gamification’ is the marriage of gaming and motivation hacking that has taken the world by storm. By offering nothing but good feelings, companies like Foursquare and FitBit engage with the public on unprecedented scales.
With an understanding of this power, some individuals have gamified their daily lives. Eric Boyd of Sensebridge and HackLab.to discussed his tactics at Toronto’s instalment of the Future. Innovation. Technology. Creativity. (FITC) conference. Boyd works with a low-tech 'dashboard’ comprising a marker and a mirror to track data important to his personal progress. These data are always converted to points and these points are always associated with goals. For example, Boyd, a self-proclaimed introvert, aimed to ask 1000 good questions over one year; three per day. While pursuing the singular goal of boosting his score, Boyd simultaneously enhanced his social experience and was rewarded with an unparalleled degree of insight from his peers. “What gets measured gets managed,” says Boyd.
Scientists thrive on data, ever seeking to capture an elegant trend or pin down a causal relationship. Why not apply this hunger for numbers to ourselves? Why not use well-explored concepts of reward-based conditioning to hack our own motivation?
So, go ahead. Set up your whiteboard or mark up your fume hood window to track how many pipette tips you refilled today, or how many 96-well plates you’ve analyzed this week, or how many journal articles you have reviewed this month. See what those numbers add up to after six months, one year, or over the course of a PhD. Host contests with friends, colleagues and competitors. Mine the data to see if gamifying your life is encouraging productivity. Can you tweak your habits to optimize…everything?
Don’t expect equal degrees of accomplishment bliss to follow a great comprehensive exam versus a superb electrophoresis run, but the simple act of quantifying and celebrating achievements, whether grand or incremental, will ensure this mighty sensation’s frequent return.
P.S. For a beautifully rigorous example of ‘the quantified self’, check out Nicholas Felton’s ten years of annual reports.