The Goldilocks Zone and Productivity

She broke into the house that belonged to the Bears.  Remember that children’s story? Goldilocks breaks into a house, is hungry and finds three bowls of porridge. One bowl is too hot, one bowl is too cold, and one is just…right. She sits down to eat but one chair is too big, one is too little (she ends up breaking it, so add vandalism to the charges of breaking and entering if she’s ever caught) and one chair is just… right. Porridge has tryptophan, which becomes serotonin and makes us sleepy, and so Goldilocks goes looking for a bed. One bed was too hard, one bed was too soft and one bed was just…right. She falls asleep, but then the Bears return. She awakes, jumps out the window (evading Bear justice) and is never seen again.  The moral of the story has always been up for debate.  What has always stuck with me (setting aside her crimes) is the reality that perhaps there is a zone, a sweet spot, that strikes a balance between extremes. NASA scientists even have a name for it, the Goldilocks Zone. There, the “zone” is how Earth is just right. Were we humans on Venus, it would be too hot for living conditions as we know it, and life might not exist. Were we humans on Mars, it would be too cold and life (again, as we know it) might not exist. Earth is just…right.

The Goldilocks Zone is useful to apply to just about anything. Never jogged before in your life but want to take up running? Running a block might not be enough of a challenge, and a marathon might be too much of a challenge, but a 5k? Now that might be just…right. We want a challenge that is enough of a “stretch” for our capabilities but we also don’t want to be overwhelmed. Same with productivity and achieving results. There’s a Goldilocks Zone when it comes to productivity that strikes a balance between motivation and laziness.

Neuroscience indicates that certain neurotransmitters are needed to be at the right level to achieve optimal results. The three neurochemicals that seem to be the key in unlocking our ability to be productive are: dopamine, noradrenaline and acetylcholine. Neuroscientist Dr. Friederike Fabritius created a simple framework to remember what each of these neurotransmitters do: dopamine impacts the level of fun we are having, noradrenaline regulates fear, and acetylcholine relates to how well we focus.

When it comes to productivity and achieving results, it is all about the Goldilocks Zone and finding the right level of these neurotransmitters in our brains. For example, if we don’t find a specific project or task at work fun or interesting, then our levels of dopamine aren’t at the right level. Ever done something you really enjoy doing? Sure you have. Think of a sport, hobby, job, task, something that in short fuels you. In other words, doing something fun easily motivates you. The key, in the workplace, is to find a way to either do work we find engaging and fun, or to make it rewarding in some way.

Same with fear; it’s a great motivator. Ever wondered why procrastinators are able to crank out that project, paper or task at the last possible moment? The emotional pain of not accomplishing something, the fear of what failure might mean, can really motivate people. If we’re not terribly worried about the consequences of something right now, then the emotional drive isn’t there to take action. Similarly, if we wait too long to take action and then fail to meet our goal. But – we wait just the right amount of time and presto…the fear is just right. We don’t often think of fear as a positive emotion, but the reality is that it can serve us immensely.

Finally, there’s a sweet spot with having the right level of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that impacts our ability to focus and stay alert. Research indicates that eating foods rich in choline such as salmon, kidney beans, eggs, green beans and broccoli increase our levels of acetylcholine. Too much of this neurotransmitter has been associated with Parkinson’s disease as well as anxiety and depression. Too little acetylcholine results in memory problems, weakness and fatigue. Again, Goldilocks is what’s needed.

Here's a few starting questions we can ask ourselves to start creating the just…right level of these certain neurotransmitters:

  • How can I make this project, task or job more engaging, fun, and interesting in the moment?
  • If I can’t find a way to make this job fun, what’s a specific reward that I can give myself when I finally accomplish this project, task or goal?
  • If I delay completing this project, what will it cost me professionally?
  • Is there a way that I can create a timeline or certain milestones I must achieve to I create just enough pressure that I stay on track to complete the overall job?
  • Am I eating foods high in choline (what the body needs to make acetylcholine) that will help me perform at an optimal level?

If you’re interested in exploring more these, and other, “mind-hacks,” join the University Ombuds Office for our summer virtual “Mind-Hack Series: Creating Results with the Brain in Mind.” Sessions will be the last Wednesday of each month June, July and August at 12 noon. For more information or to register for free email