I Tried A Dopamine Detox To Have A Productive Sunday
With anxiety at an all time high and the urge to get lots done, why not reset?
With everything that’s going on in these times and some added free time in our hands, one might think that there’s no time like now to sit down and get productive. However it’s tough to buckle down and finally work on that side project, or that book or even that cake you want to bake. Even in these times.
Recently, I stumbled upon the term ‘Dopamine Detox’ and I did my first one this past Sunday. It felt like an experience worth sharing.
What Is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which creates motivation in the brain for various activities such as exercise, talking and TV. It rewards us for behaviours which we find enjoyable and so tells us that they are worth repeating
Every behaviour or action we take, gives our brain dopamine. Right from that glass of water in the morning, to using the bathroom, to watching Netflix or even completing that presentation! And our brain craves it, like a drug.
A simple example that really helped me understand the concept was about this experiment conducted with a mouse and a lever. Each time the mouse pulled the lever, the pleasure centres of it’s brain were activated and that released dopamine. The mouse, enjoying the kick of dopamine, ended up pull the levee until it was exhausted and nearly dead.
That’s exactly how human beings react. Don’t believe me? Answer truthfully: how many times have you cheated on your diet for a cheeseburger, knowing fully well you’re going to feel horrible after it? That’s your dopamine fix. Companies knows that. They design each of their products to give you your dopamine fix with every bite, click and view!
Now you don’t even have to make too much of an effort for your dopamine fix. Just pull out your phone. Every app is designed to give you your dosage. You just have to sit there and keep soaking it in.
However, that’s where your dopamine addiction starts to interfere with your life. You’re now using the time you could have spent more productively, to get a hit of dopamine. Here’s the interesting part: your addiction will never fully be satisfied. If you needed 2 hours of Netflix today, you’ll need 2.5 next week. It rises, as your thresholds start to settle.
It’s crucial to note that dopamine is not all evil. In the very same mouse and lever experiment, when the flow of dopamine was blocked in the mouse’s brain, it just gave up. It wouldn’t push the lever, it wouldn’t eat or drink water. It just lost the will to act. The only thing it did do, it chew and swallow if food was directly placed in its mouth.
So the issue is not dopamine, it’s about rewiring to take in the right kind of dopamine.
What is a Dopamine Detox?
A dopamine detox is essentially stopping yourself from doing activities that provide you with a hit of dopamine for a fixed timeframe. Usually about a day. There are variations to this concept. Some schools of thought prescribe a total shut down, while others prescribe a digital detox primarily.
I came across a wonderful video series on YouTube by Andrew Kirby and he spoke about three levels:
- Beginner: In simple terms, this is primarly a digital detox. You cannot use your phone, computer, gaming console and you also cannot indulge in pleasuring yourself, drugs or stimulating foods. You can consume tea/coffee, food and can indulge in walks, exercise, reading books, journaling, music and conversations.
- Intermediate: In addition to the inclusions of the beginner level, this level cuts you out from consuming coffee/tea, talking with people, reading books and music. You can still journal, eat food, take walks and exercise.
- Time Theorist: In this level you are allowed nothing. The objective is to sit in a room for a day and completely isolate yourself with your thoughts. You are attempting to bore your mind into a hard reset
The purpose of the increasing difficulty of each level, is to leave your mind alone with your thoughts. Each level progressively seeks to bore you. Your mind is low on dopamine. It then gorges on whichever form of dopamine it gets then!
To start my practice, I went with the Beginner level. And while I may attempt the intermediate someday, I think the Beginner is exactly what I need for now.
My Purpose for the Detox
I consume a lot of self help content passively. And by lot, I mean a lot! My Medium History is either ‘How to Write Better’ or ‘How to Procrastinate Worse’. I also consumer a lot of YouTube content, other reading material and Podcasts on how to truly rise up and be my best self. However, consumption of content alone is not enough. There needs to be action!
Unfortunately, I am easily distracted by my gadgets. I love the sound of my notification bell and I absolutely adore looking at my phone for notifications. I’m the kind of person who takes my phone into the loo. And I’m also the person who unlocks my phone for Candy Crush notifications. My gadgets are my quick and easy dopamine fixes. I can’t read in peace or eat in peace. I have to have my phone on me at all times and my iPad by my bedside.
I first came across this concept on a YouTube channel called Better Than Yesterday. A little bit of digging took me to Andrew Kirby’s channel and some more digging took me to other videos and posts. Some brushed it off as hokum while others swore by it.
My main purpose with the detox was to see if I could get my gadget addiction under a little control and see if that helps me live my dream of a ‘productive’ Sunday. After having spent so many hours, days and months consuming self help content and trying a few things, I guessed it wouldn’t hurt to try another one.
The Detox Rules
My rules for the detox were simple.
- Gadgets: This included cellphones, iPads, laptop and also my Kindle
- TV: Even though we have a post dinner ritual of TV, I decided to not indulge in it for one night.
- Talking to people physically
My Detox Day
I started at 11:00 p.m. on Saturday night which was about the time I went to bed that night. My day on Sunday looked like this:
8:00 a.m.: Woke up
9:00 a.m.: Workout
10:00 a.m.: Started loosing track of time. Decided to wear a normal analog watch
10:15 a.m.: Time stopped moving so started reading
11:30 a.m.: Started feeling anxious. Couldn’t bring myself to read, so I decided to journal about what was bothering me.
12.30 p.m.: Journaled for an hour about my feelings which were usually repressed.
2:00 p.m.: Ate some lunch
2:30 to 4:00 p.m.: Took a nap
4:00 p.m.: Again started loosing track of time. Pulled out my book again to read
6:00 p.m.: Started work on dinner
8:00 p.m.: Dinner and conversation with the family
10:30 p.m.: Wrap up journalling and bed!
8:30 a.m. on Monday: I finally picked up my phone again to start work.
What happened after?
The First 48 Hours
Honestly, even after picking up my phone on Monday I wasn’t clinging to it as much as before. After a cursory notification check, I went about my way eating and showering before sitting down to work again.
By Tuesday, I could feel myself going back to the old patterns of clinging to my phone but I had the experience of Sunday in the back of my head, so I decided to download a productivity app for some self control called Forrest. You basically set a timer for the amount of time you don’t want to look at your phone and at the end, a virtual tree is planted in your virtual garden. It takes advantage of humans’ love for streaks. I used this app to do my version of the Pomodoro technique on Tuesday, planting a tree every 25 minutes!
Is it Truly Fullproof?
Truthfully, it did help me a little bit to combat my addiction with digital dopamine. I am able to put my phone away for longer durations now. However, it would be a little unwise to say that with one detox my life has been transformed. Yes, the journalling was extremely therapeutic and the entire day gave me a lot of perspective. Would I do it again? Absolutely! It felt incredible to cut off.
But the detox, is only going to get you so much. You’ll eventually learn to channel and get your dopamine hits more productively and it’ll all be for the better.
What really changed?
The detox slowed me down. Enough to try and smell the roses. And that’s constant even today as I finish Day 3 post the detox.
My true learning has been in the fact that dopamine is actually more so about the aniticipation of a reward than getting the actual reward. This means that it’s not as much about the instant gratification as it is about dangling the gratification in front of yourself. This realisation is especially helpful when you’re pursuing longer term goals such as becoming a writer, side hustles etc.
Why this is especially good right now?
We’re all trapped in. We have more time than ever now to consumer content and honestly we’re a little guilty when we don’t. This is the time to ‘transform into the life of our dreams’ and ‘get that side hustle into action’. So we’re consuming more self development content than ever. Probably to the point of exhaustion and definitely to the point of anxiety.
There are some of us who have never felt more overwhelmed before. The news, the content out there and the urge to ‘do something’. This detox of literally switching off, is exactly what someone needs in these times.
You cannot pick up your phone and surf through people baking cakes nor read about news that will just spiral you down further. You also cannot read/watch more content in the name of ‘self improvement’. You’re literally forced to sit down and confront your thoughts. You have to let the thoughts come and pass by. You can journal them, de-tangle all the ideas and actually plan for them. And that will be your upswing into action.
Your first detox is definitely not going to turn you into a productivity mastermind, but what it will do is get the ball rolling. You’ll have the breathing space to actually think your thoughts rather than brush them under the carpet plan. You’re not going to become a Ninja in the first go, but you’re going to get there soon enough.