Don’t dopamine detox, it won’t work
Are you considering doing a dopamine detox?
Do you feel like external stimuli, such as social media, video games and the other multitude of temptations that make up our modern digital world have hijacked your brain? If so, the idea of a dopamine detox, which attempts to reset everything, might be tempting–but it’s unlikely to work.
Yet, I have some ideas for other things that you can try.
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurological transmitter that plays a crucial role in many neurological processes, including motivation, learning and memory, punishment, aversion, and even voluntary movement. It is made in the body and you need it to survive.
In 1954, James Olds and Peter Milner conducted an experiment where they inserted electrodes into the brains of rats in order to disrupt their dopamine receptors. This literally killed the rats’ urge to live because without dopamine, they lost the desire to eat or drink.
Within days, the rats died of thirst.
Dopamine drives desire and desire ensures that we stay alive: the desire to eat, drink, socialize, to be accepted, to reproduce. These are the things that kept our ancestors alive and thriving, and our brain rewards us for seeking out and undertaking these activities.
That’s why dopamine is so important.
Hijacking Your Dopamine Triggers
Problems, however, start to arise when the modern world starts to manipulate our ancient brain, which has remained relatively unchanged for nearly 200,000 years.
Companies are actively manipulating our dopamine triggers in order to keep us using their products and services. Such products include social media, video games, streaming services, porn, junk food, and all of the other things that people find themselves wanting to over indulge in. These things are largely addicting because companies have designed them to be addicting.
Have you ever found yourself checking social media, but then realizing that you don’t remember why you got on social media, or even remember picking up your phone? I call this social media blackout.
If this has ever happened to you, it’s because the habit of checking your phone, which is driven by that dopamine feedback loop, has been repeated so many times that the grooves of the habit are worn so deep that they become automatic. They happen without you even thinking, and that’s a problem.
YET, a dopamine detox won’t fix it.
The (False) Promise of a Dopamine Detox
For those unaware, a dopamine detox might go something like this: for 24 to 72 hours you abstain from using social media, watching television, playing video games, listening to music, podcasts–really consuming any sort of digital media. There is no porn. There is no junk food. There is no caffeine. Some people go as far as fasting from food and remaining in seclusion.
The dopamine fast, created by Dr. Cameron Sepah, is based on the idea that by sitting in boredom and feeling lonely, we can start to take pleasure again in the simple task and be more mindful of what we do.
And this isn’t a new idea. I’m all for mindfulness and meditation retreats. But with a meditation retreat or mindfulness practice, there is more guidance, structure, and they are part of a larger, lifelong effort, not merely a 24 hour to reboot your system.
After you’re done with your dopamine detox, you’re likely gonna pick up right where you left off because you haven’t taken steps to break those bad habits and replace them with good habits.
The Relapsing Addict
Did you know that 40 to 60% of people who overcome drug addiction end up relapsing? People who seek professional help, who go into rehab, end up becoming addicted again!
Why? Because they go back to their old ways, back to a community where drugs are readily available or surrounding themselves with people who also use drugs. They return to the same environment that first caused them to use drugs. And these addictive drugs, just like those modern digital conveniences, play on the same dopamine receptors.
But, not all people relapse. During the Vietnam war, many us soldiers became addicted to heroin, one of the most addictive drugs. In Vietnam, heroin was readily available and cheap. Other soldiers were using it and they used it to cope with being at war in the jungles of Vietnam. But when they returned home, many of them quit using heroin without rehab or any treatment whatsoever.
How? Because heroin wasn’t readily available. Because they weren’t surrounded by people who were using heroin and their environment changed. Because they were no longer at war.
And that’s the thing: if you want to break an addiction, taking a short pause from it isn’t going to fix anything.
In a world that’s always searching for a quick fix or a productivity hack, I understand the allure of a dopamine detox. But, there is a better way.
Do Something That Works
To start, you must first define what bad habit are you trying to break. After you’ve defined the problem, we can start to apply the inverse of the laws of habit formation as described in the book Atomic Habits.
> make it invisible
The first thing is to make it invisible. You do this by reducing your exposure to the bad habit and removing the cues of your bad habits from your environment.
It’s hard to play video games when they aren’t there. It’s hard to eat junk food when it’s not in your house. You can get sucked into TikTok if you’ve removed it from your phone and then prevented your phone from downloading the app again (see: how I made my smart phone a dumb phone).
> make it unattractive
How can you reframe how you think about the habit? What does the habit say about you? Is the habit inline with who you want to be?
You need to make the idea of the habit unattractive and with who you are as a person. This isn’t easy, but who we are is a summation of the tiny habits we do every day.
Shifting your identity can go a long way to shifting your habits. This may require you to take a critical look at your relationships and who you spend the most time with (watch: can you have too many friends).
>make it difficult
Delete the apps. Lock your phone away in cookie safe (like this one). Maybe put the game console in the closet or after you’re done watching television, unplug the television and take out the batteries from the remote.
You want to do as much as possible to increase the friction between you and the bad habit, which isn’t easy since temptation is everywhere. But, things worth doing are often hard.
> make it unsatisfying
Consider having an accountability partner because we don’t like letting other people down and, even more so, we really don’t like failing in front of other people. If you really want to double down, put some money on the line.
Last year I lost 30 lb. To help with my weight loss, I used a program called Healthy Wage. For six months, I paid $100 each month to Healthy Wage. If I didn’t hit my goal at the end of six months, they got to keep my money. If I hit my goal, I got my money back plus a nice bonus.
I sure as hell wasn’t going to lose $600 and who doesn’t love winning money?! After six months, I hit my goal and I essentially got paid to lose weight.
If you don’t have a weight loss goal, consider using stickk.com.
> fill the void
At the same time, you’re breaking those bad habits, start creating new ones to fill the void ones that serve you and don’t hijack your brain and take control of your life.
If you want more information on breaking bad habit and forming good habits, I couldn’t recommend Atomic Habits by James Clear more.
A Dopamine Detox Won’t Work – I’m Sorry
I’m sorry that what I just described is a whole lot more ambiguous and difficult than a 24 hour dopamine detox. But if real improvement was that easy, we’d all be millionaires with six packs.
I’m slowly working towards joining the two comma club and getting closer to wash board abs one day at a time. I also constantly fuck up, but keep moving forward towards improvement.
Change doesn’t happen over night, but a lot of change can happen over a year.
I wish you the very best!