When I lived in Colorado, I spent many days out hiking in the Rocky Mountains. When I first moved out there I was quite naïve to the dangers and pitfalls of hiking and climbing in the mountains. And after years of living there I would have scolded my younger self for how foolish I was in my adventure seeking. There were many things I learned on those hikes that are still helping me to seek adventures and great heights today in my craft, my hobbies, and my relationships. One lesson that I learned when hiking in these mountains was that I needed to seek out a firm footing in order to continue climbing higher; and the higher I climbed the more important the footing. The question I am asking today, is how does this lesson of footing that I learned hiking in the Rockies apply to the productivity, enjoyment, and adventure of each week?
Have you ever found yourself getting back to work or learning at the beginning of the week and felt lost for motivation? The mind wanders, and it remembers the experiences that have just passed from the weekend. The friends you enjoyed connecting with, or the excellent dinner that you all shared. Perhaps you took a small trip to a new place and are still longing for the sights and sounds of that adventure. When the week begins in this way, it can feel quite discouraging. The lack of motivation can feel like a sink hole under your feet, or like loose rocks on the edge of a cliff (depending on your situation at the time). I cannot tell you how many times I have struggled to motivate, or even failed to do so. So how do you find that firm footing? What steps can you take to see that you have a strong jumping off point?
Before I dive into these questions, let me take a slight Segway, and then we will be able to see how to lay that foundation: daily, weekly, and so on.
Dopamine. This is a word that is being used much more in the world today, and by understanding what dopamine is, and how it functions, we are understanding the polarities of motivation, enjoyment, and reward. While there is so much to unpack around dopamine, I will not aim to do that in this post. I would however highly recommend a deeper investigation for anyone who has not studied dopamine before.
For this post all you must know is that dopamine is responsible for motivation, reward, and enjoyment (at least in part), and that your body constantly works towards a state of homeostasis (balance). Dopamine is released when we want something, and also when we obtain that thing. Think about your phone for a moment. How many times throughout the day do you think to yourself, "I really need to check Facebook because of...." Or "I wonder where my phone is, maybe someone is trying to get ahold of me." Each of those thoughts will produce a dopamine release, which will motivate you to go get your phone. Once you check your phone, you will get another larger dopamine release to reward you for completing the task. Now think about all of your vices. Think about highly stimulating events (movies, concerts, substances) that you enjoy. This is all related to your dopamine system.
We also know that the body is always working towards balance. So if you drink a lot of coffee, then your body will not be satisfied with this hyper-stimulated state. What your body does is it down-regulates your dopamine and caffeine receptors so that the larger amount of caffeine actually feels like a lesser amount. This is why we develop a tolerance to caffeine. Now a caffeine tolerance is helpful, because it allows us to function when we do have too much caffeine in our system. It is not helpful, however, when caffeine is abused to the point where you can no longer feel the stimulating effects of caffeine. This same phenomena happens with our dopamine system: our system of motivation and reward.
So thinking back to Monday. Perhaps you went on a trip over the weekend. You drank extra coffee so that you would not get tired and could get the most out of your weekend. On Saturday and Sunday morning you enjoyed mimosas as well at breakfast, and Saturday night you went to a concert where you drank a significant amount of alcohol. At the concert you made lots of new friends, and had a lot of fun seeing an artist perform with bright lights and loud speakers. You finally arrive home Sunday night, and think to yourself, now THAT was a great weekend as you sip on a glass of your favorite wine to celebrate. Now you wake up Monday, and you find your morning coffee isn't quite as effective. You go to work, and struggle to stay focused and get your work done. You daydream about your weekend, and by Wednesday you are starved for the next weekend.
Those Monday blues could also have something to do with your work situation, or some other challenges going on in your life. We all know that some days are just harder than others. However, when we apply what we learned about our dopamine system, we can understand that our forces of stimulation are also playing a role in how we feel.
So how do we find our footing on that Monday? The harshness of reality is that we usually don't. And the gentleness of compassion says that that is ok. If we want to have a firm footing on Monday, then we have to go back to our strategy for the weekend. Maybe we plan a relaxing weekend when we have a highly stimulating concert on Saturday. Maybe we skip the concert because we would rather stimulate ourselves in a different way. Or maybe we take Monday off to give our systems a chance to balance out.
The reality is that you cannot have your cake and eat it too.
I sit here writing this blog post knowing that I have had plenty of these types of Mondays, and I know I have more to come. However, when I understand my system, I can engage with my plans strategically and I can see my situation with compassion. I know that when I have very important work to do, that it would aid me to have a period of low stimulation leading up to it. Just think back to your first cup of coffee... with that kind of energy I might be able to do an entire week's worth of work in an hour!
Regardless of where you are in your current levels of stimulation, just remember, you are in the drivers seat. And the better you know how the vehicle works, you can operate it with greater skill. You CAN create a footing for yourself, and strategically navigate the trails of your life, your week, and your day.