A fulfilling career is obviously a rewarding career, but not all rewards are created equally. It’s easy for Ninjas juggling dozens of projects to knock out a routine task and bask in the temporary glory—but that satisfaction is fleeting. Rewards that truly matter offer substance and long-term fulfillment. And yes, it requires hard work and patience, but we think you’re prime candidates.
Deep down, every professional knows that a fulfilling career means making actual progress. Still, that doesn’t make it any easier when we’re hardwired to go for the lowest hanging fruit. What’s to blame, you ask? The psychology behind productivity.
After all, there’s a difference between keeping busy and being productive—you just have to train yourself to recognize the difference.
Be Productive, Be Be Productive
Productivity means something a bit different when you define it in psychological terms. In this case, “productivity is a measure of performance focused on the quality and magnitude of a given accomplishment in relation to the time, effort, and resources expended.” Our minds tell us we’re being productive at work if we can complete a task by spending as little time and effort on it as possible. But is checking items off your to-do list all that counts?
It’s a double-edged sword. There are so many simple ways you can trick your brain into thinking you’ve been productive—like hiding clutter or delaying appointments. Shoving that pile of vendor contacts into a drawer can cause your brain to think you handled them, which feels good until you have to deal with it later.
According to Tim Pychyl, “Everyone knows what they should be doing. It’s how we choose not to do that thing that can be interesting.” The professor of psychology and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle also says that people tend to trick themselves with strategic procrastination.
How does that work? When we know we’re not being productive, we actively seek out little things that make us feel like we’re getting work done. Usually these are nothing more than distractions from actual progress. But when something feels right, how can it be so wrong?
Who Turned on the Operant Conditioning?
Completing little tasks that grant us quick highs is a dangerous game, especially for someone in the admin profession who’s constantly taking care of others’ needs or supporting projects from the inside. This mental trickery happens because our brains crave any potential for validation and reward.
A primary example is emptying out your inbox. But inboxes will never stay empty for long—it’s a vicious cycle that keeps you from making actual progress. By hovering over that screen and obsessing over “inbox zero,” you’re just chasing a quick high that offers the feeling of being productive.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner dubbed this operant conditioning. By testing the impact of behavioral reinforcement (à la, deleting emails and feeling great about it), Skinner found that rats were more motivated to work for a reward when there was no fixed amount of time or effort that would deliver it.
For better or worse, humans behave similarly. We’re motivated to work at something if we know there’s a possibility of being rewarded for the effort. So where does this motivation come from, you ask? It’s all just chemicals in your brain.
Neurotransmitters spark chemical messages that keep you alert and on task. One neurotransmitter—dopamine—plays a key role in the science of motivation. Depending on which route your brain tells dopamine to travel, it activates certain urges.
For instance, if dopamine takes what’s called the mesolimbic pathway in the brain, it activates a desire for rewards. An important pit stop down that mesolimbic pathway is the nucleus accumbens (bear with us). When there’s an increased amount of dopamine here, it triggers feedback for predicting rewards.
Essentially, this means your brain recognizes that something important is about to happen. Then, dopamine kicks it into high gear, encouraging you to be productive so you get your goodies.
Don’t Give in to Rat Brain Mentality
As operant conditioning proves, we’re addicted to receiving random rewards from menial tasks that aren’t productive in nature. In Skinner’s study, a rat pushes a lever hundreds of times waiting for that random moment when a treat drops out. Who can blame the poor rodent? It’s the tiny mammal version of “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”
As you may have guessed, this phenomenon’s been labeled the rat brain by Jocelyn K. Glei, a writer whose latest book Unsubscribe addresses email overload head on.
“The rat brain is most likely to take control when you’re feeling aimless. Those random rewards, mixed in with all the distracting junk, are what we find so addictive. They make us want to push the lever again and again and again, even when we have better things to do.”
Don’t let an adorable, CGI Ratatouille seize control! This common productivity pitfall is neither sustainable nor fulfilling. When your brain is jonesing for a reward, forget the random ones and go for the real deal.
Three Methods to Help You Avoid Random Rewards & Score Real Ones Instead
- Draft Essential To-Do Lists: Creating your own to-do list empowers you to start your workday with clarity and momentum. A comprehensive to-do list will identify and separate real tasks from busywork—especially if you take ample time to sort out what’s essential to making progress. When you make headway on a task, marking it off the list actually brings you one step closer to completion.
- Set Micro Deadlines: Staying entirely focused on one task at a time will force you to sit down and get work done. Ninjas regularly work on big projects that take weeks or months to finish, so breaking down these projects into chunks and setting micro deadlines helps you make serious progress.
- Share Results: Sharing is caring, especially for your reward-craving brain. Talking to other Ninjas about your results invites them to recognize the progress you’ve made. This feedback can keep you motivated to work toward the end-goal—while also helping establish yourself as a pro in specific areas.
Will the Real Rewards Please Stand Up?
To build a truly fulfilling career, Ninjas need viable long-term success and regular progress. That means learning and growing in your career, rather than coasting on small benchmarks.
“With today’s more complex business environment, learning is not just a nice thing to do—it is essential for staying on top of things … None of us can afford to remain stagnant in our knowledge.” – Joyce A.E. Russell, The Washington Post
Blanking on ideas? These just skim the surface—but they’re excellent starting points for Ninjas looking to layer meaningful actions onto daily workloads.
- Watch training videos or tutorials that will help you develop a new skill, like graphic design or coding.
- Take courses to better understand topics your company deals with to become more confident and knowledgeable when discussing them.
- Research new software that’ll streamline your team’s workflow and lead to increased overall productivity.
- Set up a training day where everyone devotes time to improve the way work gets done.
- Help co-workers when they need assistance with something outside your wheelhouse; it’ll show you’re a team player who can be relied on.
Productivity & Progress
Making progress feels just as good as the quick high of a silly, random reward. And Harvard research found that “of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
To take another step toward a wholesome career, you’ll need to remain focused and motivated—despite all that dopamine.
- Engage in deep work: Deep work means remaining focused without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Make an effort to set aside a chunk of time every day that you can drill away at a complex task.
- Quantify your tasks: Set mini goals for things such as phone calls, reports filed, and words written. Then, try to match or beat those goals every week. By assigning a number to a given task, you can easily quantify and track your productivity.
- Physically document your progress: Focus on results, not completion. Document the progress you’ve made by printing out your drafts so you have tangible proof that work was done. Doing this at the end of the day is a positive way to put a bookmark on your work.
- Take breaks: Breaks aren’t just OK they’re essential. Block off a little time every day to decompress. Plus, there are still ways to keep your motivation flowing while taking a breather. Foods with plenty of natural probiotics, like yogurt, help your brain produce more dopamine.
The Path to Feeling Fulfilled—for Real
At the end of the day, you’re only human (even if co-workers think you’re really a superhero). All this science says you’re hardwired to seek instant gratification and trivial rewards over slow and steady progress. Still, you can cut through that nonsense with some swiftly placed karate chops—now, back away from your inbox.
Lay it on us, Ninjas. Have you caught yourself doing work but not getting anything done? What parts of your career have truly been fulfilling?