Conversations with College Principal ft. Head of Secondary

To succeed at school and maintain a positive sense of well-being, many of our teens need to spend less time on social media, watching Netflix, and playing video games and more time working on their schoolwork or doing healthy activities. But how do you motivate them to do this?  Interestingly at the end of last year, when we surveyed our current year 11 and 12 students, they recognised their motivation was a problem for them. The great news was, they were very keen to know how to improve it.

Over the coming weeks in our Effective Learning and Beacon courses, we will teach students about the importance of understanding dopamine.  We will be showing them a 14-minute Youtube video called ‘How I tricked my brain to do hard things.’ I encourage you to watch it (link below).  This video outlines that it is the neurochemical dopamine, released in the brain, that is responsible for feelings of motivation (desire).  This chemical is released in larger doses, generating high motivation, when people anticipate and participate in activities that they deem positive. This includes computer games and scrolling through social media.  It is the dopamine released that makes these activities desirable, enjoyable, easy to do, and additive.  Activities such as completing schoolwork, release lower amounts of dopamine.  If our teens do a lot of high dopamine activities, their brains generate tolerance to dopamine. This effectively reduces their desire to do low dopamine activities.  This explains why work can seem more boring to some teens than others.

We will empathize with three applications as we seek to help our students improve their motivation to do hard things.

1.      Planning to do low dopamine activities (e.g., work) first and then rewarding yourself with high dopamine activities, will increase motivation.  For example, plan to do repeated cycles of 40 min work and then 15 min of computer games.  Use a phone timer to help limit and put a boundary around your reward time. 

2.      Dopamine Detox – Having a day, half-day, or evening without high dopamine activities will reduce dopamine tolerance setting in and increase the motivation to do low dopamine activities like work.

3.      Dopamine is released when the positive activity is anticipated/desired.  We can break large tasks into smaller goals and anticipate the achievement of each goal. This increases the dopamine released as each goal is achieved, rather than just anticipating finishing the whole task.

Tim Oates
Head of Secondary