How to increase your motivation and get back in control of your life
Everything I learned from my two-week dopamine detox (and why you might want to try this yourself!)
A few weeks ago I was scrolling through YouTube, lost in the endless stream of recommended videos before one particular title caught my attention. The video I saw out of the corner of my eye was called How I Tricked My Brain to Like Doing Hard Things.
I was intrigued. At first, I thought — “what could that be about… probably one of the many clickbait self-help videos that cycle through people’s YouTube feeds regularly.”
But the title caught my attention just enough to make me curious. After all, the only possible downside to watching the video would be wasting another few minutes.
Considering I had been sitting down watching videos for a few hours, that didn’t deter me so I clicked and I was met with this video:
It turned out that clicking that video was well worth it as I ended up coming away from the quick 15-minute clip with a completely new outlook on motivation and discipline.
So now you might be wondering, what was so great about the video? Why don’t we talk about it…
The problem: dopamine
The video starts off with a discussion of the effects of dopamine on our lives. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain (which is just a fancy way of saying it sends signals in our brain) that is often associated with pleasure.
However, to take it one step further, dopamine is not only responsible for pleasure but is also one of the driving forces behind our desires.
Dopamine functions as a reward for actions that we take. From an evolutionary standpoint, this mechanism was designed to motivate us to do activities that would be beneficial for our own survival.
For example, the body releases dopamine when you eat, and most notably during sex. The purpose of this was to increase your motivation to do these activities in the future because it would be beneficial for you from the perspective of making you and your genes survive longer.
However, in the modern-day, this mechanism has been hijacked by a number of unproductive activities and it ends up harming us in a number of ways. Different activities like watching YouTube videos, scrolling through social media, and playing video games all cause high amounts of dopamine to be released in our brain.
While there is nothing inherently bad about some of these activities (if taken in moderation), frequently partaking in them can cause the situation to easily spiral out of control.
The issue with constantly getting the dopamine rush from activities like watching videos or playing video games is that our brain starts to develop a tolerance to dopamine. As we get these dopamine hits more and more often, our brain starts to need more dopamine to maintain a given level of satisfaction.
This mechanism causes higher dopamine activities like playing video games and browsing the internet to become more and more important in our lives, while lower dopamine activities, like reading, doing work, working out, and other such tasks slowly become less prevalent.
This situation can easily spiral out of control to the point where we are so dependent on high dopamine activities without even noticing and our motivation to be productive drastically declines.
When this happens, and normal activities do not give us enough dopamine to merit doing them, it can often be easy to get addicted to these high dopamine activities like video games, social media, and internet pornography.
Once this happens, our tolerance can build up to a point where nothing, not even these activities, can get us to the point of dopamine that we are used to, causing us to lose all motivation to work towards any goals or do anything productive.
Moreover, we can get to a point where we almost lose control of ourselves and our actions. This is not a complete loss of control (obviously you are still completely thinking and functioning), but your subconscious desire for dopamine constantly influences your decisions, keeping you trapped in a loop of seeking out high dopamine activities, reinforcing the problematic situation.
One thing I want to point out is that this can easily happen to ANYONE, without you even realizing it. It’s not about being smart or this will only happen to you if you are a certain type of person, it's just a natural biological mechanism which everyone is susceptible too.
Before you step back and consider yourself the exception, think carefully about your daily life. Are there any unproductive activities that you might be dependent on for dopamine?
Especially during the time of writing this article (during the global coronavirus pandemic), many people have turned to high dopamine activities like video games to pass the time. In this type of situation, it is very easy to fall into the dopamine trap.
Now that we have established this issue, which is incredibly easy to fall victim too, let’s talk about what we can do to fight this.
The solution: dopamine detox
After establishing this problem and making it clear that it affects almost all of us, the video goes on to describe a solution to the problem (which I personally think is amazing).
The solution involves taking part in an activity called a dopamine detox. A dopamine detox is essentially a way of scheduling your life and blocking out harmful activities to get back to a point where you are in full control of your actions.
When partaking in a dopamine detox, the idea is that you set aside specific days where you actively do not take part in any unproductive activities/activities that release high levels of dopamine.
Especially at the very beginning, it is often helpful to set aside an entire week where you completely avoid these unproductive activities. After successfully avoiding them for a week, you can start to slowly ease them back into your schedule, but you have to very careful about this to make sure that you don’t get back to the point you started at.
Any habits that were purely destructive should be completely kept out of your routine while some activities with mild benefits, like short term pleasure, can be carefully allowed in small amounts. It is also beneficial to set aside one day every week where you do a dopamine detox again to stop yourself from getting back into old habits.
The stages of a dopamine detox
The chart above illustrates the trajectory of what will likely happen after a dopamine detox. Before getting used to unproductive high dopamine activities, you live at an ordinary level of pleasure.
Then, once you start to take part in higher dopamine activities, you start to experience higher and higher levels of pleasure. The issue is that this level of pleasure doesn’t last long. In fact, after a short period of time, the levels of pleasure you experience will drop back down, even though you are continuing to take part in high dopamine activities.
This is the state we talked about before that can often cause us to lose motivation and fall into a trap of unproductivity. This state will continue to plague us unless we actively make a decision to avoid it (like deciding to take part in a dopamine detox).
Once you start a dopamine detox, everything is going to be very boring. Your pleasure levels will usually drop to below what you are used to and it will be a struggle to figure out what to do. This is where you will realize how much you actually depended on the activities that you stopped taking part in.
However, if you have the discipline and will power to successfully complete this detox, you will be rewarded by getting back to a normal level of pleasure. The difference here though is that this level of pleasure is actually sustainable and it is not coming at the expense of your own health, happiness, or productivity.
Now that we have talked about what a dopamine detox is, I can talk about my personal experience and observations with it and my advice to anyone who wants to try it.
Everything I learned from my dopamine detox
After seeing the video, I decided to immediately cut out all of the unproductive activities which I had become so dependent on. I decided to do a two-week dopamine detox so that I could fully get used to cutting out everything that was harming my productivity and motivation.
My personal experience
I initially decided to do a dopamine detox because I realized that I was spending way too much time either scrolling through YouTube, gaming, watching TV, or doing other things where I could sit down for hours without doing anything productive.
The problem came when it got to a point that I would just finish all of the things that I had to do for the day, and then spent almost the entire rest of my time being unproductive. In my opinion, some fun through these formats is acceptable but it's problematic when it gets to the point that you don’t want to do anything else.
The day I started my dopamine detox, I woke up and I was immediately thinking about wanting to play video games or do something else entertaining but I knew that I couldn’t. This was probably one of the worst days of the detox because everything felt incredibly boring. This is also where I realized how much I actually depended on gaming or YouTube to pass the time. Without these mediums, I was incredibly bored and was not motivated to do anything.
I realized that in order to get through the day (which was very slow), I had to create a list of activities that I could do to pass the time which included some of the goals I had at the time (reading, working out, teaching myself full-stack web development). The first day passed by very slowly but I got through without
The second day of my detox was even worse than the first. For me, this is where I was feeling tired and even more bored than the first day. Not being able to do anything I considered fun was very difficult. This is also where I started to think about stopping the detox and just going back to gaming.
There were a number of times throughout the detox where I got incredibly close to breaking the detox and starting to game. I was at the point where I had opened up the game and decided that I was going to play and only forced myself to exit out at the last second. Those are the times where its the easiest to break the point of the detox but also when you successfully get through them you feel a sense of accomplishment.
During these days, I slowly started to get more used to the feeling of not playing games or wasting time on YouTube and I become a lot more productive. I ended up planning on daily goals for what I wanted to do each day and then I spent all of my free time working toward them (which ended up being several hours a day).
The level of productivity I saw during this time was something that I don’t think I have experienced before. I was able to work toward a number of my short term goals including improving my machine learning skills, working out frequently, and playing the piano. Additionally, I had a lot more time to read or learn about various topics that I am interested in like philosophy and psychology.
At this point, I had started to fully get into the routine of not playing any video games or watching YouTube videos. I was getting used to finding productive ways to spend time or finding other outlets for enjoyment like drawing and practicing piano. I also stopped actively wanting to end the dopamine detox (I think this was a good sign that I was getting used to a more normal level of dopamine) and I felt like I was in a lot more control.
Overall, here are some highlights of what I got done during the detox:
- I wrote the Ultimate Guide for Learning About Artificial Intelligence — This probably took around 10–15 hours to write and even more to research.
- I learned several new libraries for my main programming language, Python, including django, sklearn, and others.
- I worked with a team of students on a startup idea, creating the website for the company and working on the slide presentation and research as well.
- I was able to work out for an hour every day since I didn’t have anything else to do and I have gotten used to this routine now, working out 6/7 days every week.
- I practiced piano every day and practiced four songs: Nuvole Bianche, Adagio in D Minor (Sunshine), River Flows in You, and Una Mattina.
- I continued to learn how to produce music with FL Studio (a music-making software which is considered to be one of the industry standards today).
- I was able to get in a lot more reading time, reading books like Give and Take by Adam Grant and The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker.
Takeaways from my dopamine detox
- I think one of the most valuable aspects of doing a dopamine detox is that it pushes you to your limits of self-control. If you are able to get through it successfully, you will come out with much stronger will power.
- During the detox, there will be so many times when you are tempted to start doing something again. Because of the high levels of dopamine you previously got used to, when you are operating on far lower levels of dopamine, the high dopamine activities can easily become extremely tempting. However, the important thing is that you remember why you are doing a detox and you avoid them completely.
- It's extremely beneficial to get used to avoiding temptation and breaking habits. This is a skill that is very difficult to develop but very powerful if you have it. It will allow you to break bad habits that you develop throughout your life and constantly improve. The best aspect of this is that you are able to fully gain control over yourself again without external factors driving your decisions.
- You realize how much you depended on things that you didn’t expect. When I started my detox, it helped me to realize how many unproductive activities I depended on which I didn’t even acknowledge. Its also surprising how much time is wasted on these activities instead of other more productive endeavors.
- Finally, the feeling of getting back control of yourself and getting back your motivation to work toward your goals is refreshing. Even while you are completely cutting out high dopamine activities, the thought that you are working towards your goals and being productive is rewarding.
Summary: Why you might want to do a dopamine detox
Overall, taking part in a dopamine detox is an incredibly effective way of rooting out bad habits from your routine, building internal motivation, increasing productivity, and boosting self-discipline.
Furthermore, if you are able to successfully complete detox, you will come out with a much stronger control of yourself and greater knowledge of your own abilities and limits.
For these reasons, I would highly recommend trying out a dopamine detox yourself. You won’t know how much this could help you until you try it!
Wait… don’t click away yet!
I’m Adam, a 17 year old passionate about technologies like artificial intelligence/machine learning, blockchain, quantum computing, and much more.
I also enjoy writing about topics like philosophy, motivation, and self-improvement.
If you want to connect with me/reach out to me (I’m always open to meeting new people), you can do so at any of the following links: