You probably don’t have a problem playing video games or browsing social media on your phone. In fact I have no doubt you could sit in front of a screen and do both of those activities for 2 hours, or even longer without breaking your concentration. But what about half an hour of studying? That might be too hard. How about working on your side business for another hour?
Doesn’t sound too appealing. Even though you logically know that studying, exercising, building a business or something equally productive, will bring you more benefits in the long run, you still prefer watching TV, playing video games and scrolling through social media. One might argue that it’s obvious why. One activity is easy and doesn’t require much effort, while the other activity is difficult and it requires you to apply yourself.
But some people seem to have no problem studying, exercising, or working on their side projects, regularly. Which begs the question: Why are some people more motivated to tackle difficult things? And is there a way to make doing difficult things, easy? To answer this question, we need to look at this brain neurotransmitter: Dopamine. Dopamine is often considered a pleasure molecule. But that’s not quite what it does.
What is dopamine detox?
Dopamine is what makes us desire things. And it’s that desire that gives us the motivation to get up and do stuff. If you’re not sure how powerful dopamine is, let me introduce you to a few experiments neuroscientists did on rats. The researchers implanted electrodes in the brains of rats. Whenever the rat pulled a lever, the researchers stimulated the rat’s reward system in the brain.
The result was that the rats developed a craving so strong they kept pulling the lever, over and over for hours. The rats would refuse to eat or even sleep. They would just keep pressing the lever until they would drop from exhaustion. But then the process was reversed. The researchers blocked the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center.
As a result, rats became so lethargic that even getting up to get a drink of water was not worth the effort. They wouldn’t eat. They didn’t want to mate. They didn’t crave anything at all. You could say that the rats lost all will to live. However, if food was placed directly in their mouths, the rats would still eat and enjoy the food. They just didn’t have the motivation to get up and do it themselves.
You would think that it’s thirst or hunger that motivates us to get food or water. But there’s also dopamine that plays a key role here. Those rat experiments might be extreme cases. But you can see similar effects dopamine has in humans and in our daily lives.
In fact, your brain develops priorities in large part based on how much dopamine it’s expecting to get. If an activity releases too little dopamine, you won’t have much motivation to do it. But if an activity releases a lot of dopamine, you’ll be motivated to repeat it, over and over. So which behaviors release dopamine? Any activity where you anticipate there’s a potential reward, releases it. But if you know there are no immediate rewards with the behavior, your brain won’t release it.
For example, before you eat comfort food, your brain releases dopamine, because you anticipate that the food will make you feel good. Even if it actually makes you feel worse. That’s because your brain doesn’t even care if the high dopamine activity is damaging to you. It just wants more of it. A stereotypical example would be someone who’s a drug addict. He knows that what he’s doing is not good for him. But all he wants is to get more of that drug.
Besides getting you high, cocaine and heroin release unnatural amounts of dopamine, which in turn makes you crave them even more. Of course it has to be noted that nearly everything releases some amount of dopamine. Even drinking water when you’re thirsty, does. But the highest dopamine release happens when you get a reward randomly.
One such example is playing on a slot machine in a casino. Even if you’ve only been losing money until that point, you eventually expect to get a bigger reward. You just don’t know when it could happen. And in today’s digital society, we are flooding our brains with unnaturally high amounts of dopamine on a daily basis, even if we don’t know it.
Some examples of high dopamine behaviors include: scrolling through social media websites, playing video games, watching internet pornography, etc. We anticipate some sort of reward with each one of those behaviors. That’s why we’re constantly checking our phones. We expect to see a text message or some other notification. And we know that eventually we’re going to receive it. We’re becoming like those rats pulling the lever, tying to get a new dopamine hit. And you might think, “Oh so what?” “It’s not like it’s harming me in any way.” But you’d be wrong.
Our bodies have a biological system called homeostasis. It means that our body likes to keep internal physical and chemical conditions at a balanced level. Whenever an imbalance occurs, our body adapts to it. Let me give you an example: When it’s cold outside, our body temperature falls. And as a result, we start shivering to generate heat and warm the body. However when it’s hot outside, our body temperature rises. And we start sweating to lose some of that heat.
Essentially our body is looking to maintain a temperature of around 37 degrees Celsius or 98 degrees Fehrenheit, no matter what. But there is another way homeostasis manifests itself. And that is through tolerance. For example, someone who rarely drinks alcohol, will get drunk really fast. But someone who drinks on a regular basis, will have to drink more alcohol, because their body has developed a tolerance to it.
Essentially it takes more and more alcohol to make them drunk, because they’ve become less sensitive to its effects. And it’s not much different with dopamine. Your body tries to maintain homeostasis, so it down-regulates your dopamine receptors. Essentially your brain gets used to having high levels of dopamine and those levels become your new normal. Thus you develop a dopamine tolerance.
This can be a huge problem, because the things that don’t give you as much dopamine, don’t interest you any longer. And it’s much more difficult to motivate yourself to do them. They feel boring and less fun, because they don’t release as much dopamine, compared to the things that do release it in high amounts.
That’s why people tend to prefer playing video games or browsing the internet, compared to studying or working on their business. Video games make us feel good and comfortable, as they release a lot of dopamine. Sadly things like working hard or reading, releases it in lower amounts.
This is one of the reasons why drug addicts who try to quit, have a hard time adjusting to a normal life. Their dopamine tolerance gets so high that normal life isn’t able to match it. They become like those rats from previous experiments who have no motivation to do anything if there’s not enough dopamine release.
And it’s not just drug addicts. People who are addicted to video games, social media or internet pornography experience the same thing. Once their dopamine tolerance gets too high, they simply aren’t able to enjoy low dopamine behaviors. Which begs the question: Is there anything that can be done to prevent this? The answer is you need to perform a dopamine detox.
How to dopamine detox?
By now might already have an idea what dopamine detox is going to look like. What you’re going to do is set aside a day, where you’re going to avoid all the highly stimulating activities. You’re going to stop flooding your brain with high amounts of dopamine and you’re going to let your dopamine receptors recover. Just a disclaimer: If you’re suffering from a drug addiction, then I suggest you seek professional help, as you’ve probably formed a physiological and psychological dependence. And I don’t want you to experience any extreme withdrawal symptoms.
Now back to the detox. For 1 whole day you will try to have as little fun as possible. You won’t be using the internet, or any technology like your phone or computer. You’re not allowed to listen to music, you’re not allowed to masturbate or eat any junk food. Basically you’re going to remove all sources of external pleasure for the entire day. You’re going to embrace boredom. And trust me, there will be a lot of boredom.
You are however allowed to do the following: Go for a walk. Meditate and be alone with your thoughts. Reflect on your life and goals. Write down any ideas you get. Not on your computer or phone, but on a physical piece of paper. All of this might seem quite intense. But if you want radical results and you want them fast, you need to be able to take radical action.
Now you might be asking yourself: Why would this even work? You can think of it this way. Let’s say that you’ve been eating every single meal at the best restaurant in your town. As a result, what happened is that those fancy meals became your new normal. If someone offered you a bowl of plain rice, you would probably refuse. It simply wouldn’t taste as good as your usual restaurant meal.
But if you suddenly find yourself stranded on a deserted island and you’re starving, suddenly that bowl of plain rice doesn’t seem so bad. And that is what the dopamine detox does. It starves you of all the pleasure you usually get, and in turn, it makes those less satisfying activities more desirable. To put it simply: Dopamine detox works because you become so bored, that boring stuff becomes more fun.
Now if you don’t want to take such extreme action and starve yourself of all the pleasure, you can perform a smaller dopamine detox. You’re going to pick one day of the week, where you’re going to refrain from one of your high dopamine behaviors completely. Whatever that behavior might be. Maybe checking your phone all the time, playing video games on your computer, binge watching TV, eating junk food, watching internet pornography, whatever. And from now on, every single week for one whole day, you’re going to avoid that activity. You can still do other things, but the behavior you pick is off limits.
Yes, you will feel slightly bored, but that’s the point. You want to let your dopamine receptors recover from the unnaturally high dopamine that’s been flooding your brain. And boredom is going to propel you to do other things that day. Things that you would normally put off, because they don’t release as much dopamine. And because you’re bored, it’s easier for you to do them. Of course avoiding high dopamine behavior once in a while is good.
But ideally you should avoid those behaviors altogether, or at least as much as possible. Instead you want to connect more dopamine to the things that will actually benefit you. And what I found is that your current high dopamine activities, can serve as an incentive to pursue things, that actually give you those long term benefits.
In other words, you could use your high dopamine activity, as a reward for completing difficult work. And this is exactly what I do myself. I track all the difficult, low dopamine work I do. Cleaning my apartment, practicing the piano, reading books, doing some sort of exercise, creating these videos, etc. After I’m able to get a certain amount of work done, I reward myself with some amount of high dopamine activity at the end of the day.
The key words here are: after, and, at the end of the day. If I indulge in high dopamine behavior first, then I’m not going to feel like doing the low dopamine work. I’m simply not going to be motivated enough. So I always start with the difficult things, only then I allow myself to indulge in high dopamine activities. To give you an example: For every completed hour of low dopamine work, I reward myself with 15 minutes of high dopamine behavior at the end of the day. That means that for 8 hours of low dopamine, I allow myself roughly 2 hours of high dopamine behavior.
Of course, these are my ratios. You can tweak them to your liking. Also it has to be noted that if you’re addicted to something that’s damaging to your health, then you don’t want to treat that behavior as a reward. Instead find a different reward, that’s not as damaging. One that you still think is worth the effort. And if you’re wondering what my guilty pleasure is, it’s the Internet. I can easily get lost there for hours without doing anything else.
That’s why I have this system. It’s so I’m able to control my addiction. But make no mistake, even with this system, I still plan days where I abstain from high dopamine activities completely. To conclude this video I want to say that it is possible to make doing difficult things, feel easier. But when your brain is getting so much dopamine all the time, you won’t be as excited about working on something that doesn’t release much of it.
That’s why you might want to limit your phone and computer usage, along with other high dopamine releasing behavior. And I can tell you that it’s definitely worth it. So if you have motivation problems, start dopamine detoxing your brain as soon as possible. Separate yourself from the unnaturally high amounts of dopamine, or at least expose yourself to it far less frequently.
Only then will normal, every day, low dopamine activities, become exciting again and you’ll be able to do them for longer. We are all dopamine addicts to a certain extent. And that’s a good thing, because dopamine motivates us to achieve our goals and improve ourselves. But it’s up to you to decide where you’re going to get your dopamine from. Are you going to get it from things that don’t benefit you? Or are you going to get it from working on your long term goals? The choice is yours.
Credit: Better Than Yesterday