This last week was a struggle for me. And not for any particular reason. Everything is actually going pretty well, minus COVID. But every single day this week from Monday to Friday I found myself dragging my feet, waking up late, missing work outs, and with general low energy.
Laying in bed late one night, YouTube in her infinite wisdom decided to recommend a video titled, "Dopamine Detox" to me. As most good 2AM decisions go, I clicked. The 15 minute minute video surprised me, giving me an exact reason for my crap week. Almost as if Google is listening...
Dopamine is a little different than what I thought it was. I always thought it equated to pleasure. Dopamine = pleasure. But actually, dopamine is more akin to craving than it is pleasure itself. It's definitely part of the pleasure and reward mechanism, but dopamine is the brain's way of incentivizing a particular action. It creates craving, not just pleasure in an activity. Gambling, drugs like cocaine, and other bad substances give you a dopamine rush, and then the brain craves getting back into that state.
All of this made sense, but the part that really interested me was that you can become desensitized to dopamine, which results in craving more and more stimulating activities. Think adrenaline junkies. You're hooked needing a greater rush, so when you do something less exciting, it's actually less interesting too. It's boring.
So much of our world revolves around creating dopamine rushes now. It's common place. Our inboxes and social media notifications are carefully engineered to be variable reward systems. Variable rewards release far more dopamine than predictable reward systems, because the variability causes more excitement, and thus more dopamine. It's that unknown that's exciting and tantalizing for humans. That's what leaves us wanting more.
All this dopamine flooding our daily lives makes it easy to become desensitized to lower dopamine activities. Reading a book, working on a side project, or even something as "boring" as studying releases dopamine too, just in lower doses. The problem is that the released dopamine from these "good" activities doesn't compare to more exciting things. That's why when choosing between playing a video game or writing a blog post...well, the brain will be pulled towards the action with stronger craving. Toward the stronger dopamine reward.
I think this is why my week was shitty. This past week I got obsessed with a video game and spent many hours binging. While I still got roughly the same sleep (I just slept later), but my days seemed to drag. I was unmotivated and uninterested in work, even though I normally find work stimulating.
After learning more about dopamine I planned on doing a dopamine detox on the weekend. To do it, you cut out all high dopamine activities. With nothing else to excite your brain, the "boring" activities end up being more interesting. So when Saturday morning rolled around, I turned off my phone and swore off my computer and the TV for 24 hours.
It was weird to say the least. If you're like me, I live in a very media rich environment. I'm on my computer or phone 24/7, doing something. Learning something. Checking in on "life" or reading the news. I gave up social media a few years ago, but there are plenty of other things to keep me occupied, like video games, checking email, and listening to podcasts.
So Saturday I found myself staring around my apartment trying to figure out what to do. I started reading the book I hadn't finished yet. I drifted off to sleep, though I usually don't nap. I went for a walk. I read some more. I chatted with my wife. The day kept going and it was weird–it felt like I had some sort of secret on the world. I was living differently than everyone else. Oddly, time dilated and I felt like the day lasted longer and was more fulfilling and engaging.
When the evening came I turned out the light early and rested more easily than I had in the previous week.
Don't get me wrong. I love media and I'm not some anti-tech person advocating to give up your phone. But it was interesting to step back from all of it and just be. To think more, reflect more, and consume less.
The frenetic need to maximize every single waking moment–to sleep less, to do more, to achieve more–I don't know if that's actually helpful. Bill Gates is famous for taking one week every year for reflection. He isolates himself from the world, and reads, writes, and reflects.
Coming out of Saturday I feel refreshed. I feel more balanced and more interested in what I'm doing. Less automatic and a little more intentional, and I definitely plan on doing another detox in the future.
If you plan on trying this exercise yourself, strip out all "overstimulating" activities. You'll know what that is for you, but some common ones are, drugs, alcohol, sex/masturbation, screens, video games, TV, and indulgent foods. Then replace these activities with reading, writing (on paper, not digitally), reflection, conversation, and observation.