In business, sports, or anything else, getting on a hot streak isn’t luck. It’s physiological. If you can understand how the brain processes success and failure, you can create your own winning streak, jump-starting your productivity.
The more times you succeed at something, the longer your brain stores the information that allowed you to triumph in the first place. With each success, our brain releases a chemical called dopamine. When dopamine flows into the reward pathway (the part of the brain responsible for focus, pleasure and motivation), it enables our neurons to process information more effectively.
That’s just one reason entrepreneurs need to set short-term, achievable goals. Your ultimate vision for your company can be a bit pie-in-the-sky, but if you don’t set short-term goals you can reach, you’re setting yourself up for a very difficult time. With each failure, the brain becomes drained of dopamine, making it more difficult to learn from what went wrong and more difficult to focus on the next attempt.
What You and Shane Battier Have in Common
The same principles and the brain chemistry affect us all, whether we’re entrepreneurs or NBA champions. In December 2011, when power forward Shane Battier signed with the Miami Heat, expectations for the team among fans, media, and the players themselves were sky high. In Miami, where all-stars like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James shine on court, the championship party started before the season even got underway. With expectations elevated, Battier played the worst he had since turning pro, shooting career lows from the field.
“In sports there is a scorecard every night. There’s a million ways to dissect if you are effective in pulling your weight,” says Battier. “And thanks to twitter, everyone has a voice. Every little thing you do is scrutinized, laughed at, second-guessed and cheered. It’s a lot of negative noise that can be detrimental to the game.”
“People were hammering me on my shooting percentages. ‘Why I am not doing this or that. What’s wrong with you, Shane? Have you thought about changing your shot?’ I was a ten year veteran of the league.”
Each bad game led to questions and scrutiny that increased the chances of failure in the next. Battier continued to have the worst season of his career. Nonetheless, Miami progressed to the playoffs. “I just needed one game, something positive to turn on the light,” says Battier. That’s exactly what he got in the Boston series.
“In basketball people always talk about how you feel good after making your first shot. That night, I hit my first shot; it was a three-pointer. Something inside just fires up, making you feel like this could be your night,” says Battier. That “something” is dopamine, released by the thrill of making that first shot. “Then I made the next shot. It really was my night. You start to really believe it. You stop thinking about form and mechanics. You just act. You do what you’ve trained endlessly in your life to do that seems second nature to you. The confidence I was searching for the entire year came back to me that night.”
From the Boston series on to the end of the finals, Battier had an amazing shooting streak. “Historical shooting in NBA finals from three-point-land is 35%. I shot 52%. I am not a player known to score a lot, but I scored a lot in the NBA finals and everyone was like, ‘Who is this guy? He’s been playing so badly the whole year.’ I had to laugh.”
Creating a Winning Streak
Collecting wins, no matter how small, can help you build the confidence and optimism needed to activate the brain’s reward pathway and launch you towards your goals. To steer yourself into a cycle of productivity, you’ve got to rack up those first few wins.
To create your own cycle of productivity, start by creating a strong vision for your company, and then set a few realistic short-term goals that leverage your strengths.
“Vision creates a picture for the subconscious mind,” says Richard Peterson, a psychiatrist and expert in neuro-economics. You don’t need to wait until you achieve your goals before your brain starts releasing dopamine and setting you up for a winning streak. Just visualizing your success can be enough. “Whether you imagine it or experience it, in large part, your brain looks at it the same way,” says Peterson.
Ideally, your short-term goals will be the motor that drives you toward your aspirations, little by little. To harness the motivating power of repeated dopamine releases, set a few short-term goals at a time. Each should ideally take no more than three months to achieve. The goals should be realistic and specific, and incorporate your strengths. Writing them down will help you stay focused. The idea is to increase the likelihood of experiencing a positive outcome, setting you on the fast track for repeated wins.