How can we bounce back and snap ourselves out of a rut? We feel busy, yet unproductive. Life pulls our attention in many directions like a skein of yarn unraveling from both ends. Sometimes we feel like we are spinning our wheels, sinking deeper into the mud.
I felt this struggle a month ago. Not only was I slumping in my own creative pursuits (I hadn’t written a blog post in nearly two weeks), but I was slipping in my own morning routines as well. I was slapping the snooze button, skipping morning workouts, and scoffing at morning writing. My energy and motivation were sliding down the tubes.
At that time, I recalled a Youtube video I watched several months prior. Improvement Pill, a popular self-development channel, explained an intriguing ritual he uses to lift himself from slumps – The Dopamine Fast.
His logic seemed intuitive. Phones, emails, books, audiobooks, podcasts, music, television, Youtube videos, and countless other media sources inundate us with never-ending stimulation. The addictive nature of these activities stem from the release of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine, a “wanting” neurotransmitter, surges when we anticipate pleasure – the joy of new knowledge, a “like” on Instagram, an ice cream waffle sundae, or a newlyweds’ hot night.
However, if we activate the release of dopamine all day everyday (as is often the case with on-demand digital-age media), our brain slip into dysregulation. We seek more and more stimulation for an equal or weaker dopamine release. This is not too different from how drug addicts fall into desperation and depression when their fix dries up. We chase daily dopamine highs.
To be fair, this explanation of dopaminergic brain pathways is over-simplified. I am no neuroscientist. Perhaps pedants could refer to a “dopamine fast” as a “stimulation fast” for peace of mind.
So what is this “stimulation fast?”
Just as one deprives the body of food during a physical fast for physical benefits, one can deprive the body of dopamine-releasing stimulation for mental benefits. In short, a dopamine fast is the intentional denial of fun.
In Improvement Pill’s dopamine fast, the following activities are banned for 24 hours:
- Movies and TV
- Sex and Masturbation
- Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco, and Caffeine
- Hanging out with friends
People can be flexible as needed. Some people may carry their phones in case of emergencies. Others may be unwilling to go 24-hours without food. In such cases, “no food” can become “no tasty food” or “only bland, organic food.”
So what can you do?
- Drink water
- Walk around outside
- Light exercise
- Write with a pen and paper
Why would anyone do this voluntarily? Improvement Pill produces two arguments in favor:
1 – A dopamine fast “starves the donkey.”
We are of two minds – a thinking mind and a feeling mind. The thinking mind, driven by cold reason, loves to make plans and dream up the ideal routines and habits on the road to perpetual badass-ery. The feeling mind, in contrast, runs on red-hot emotion. While the thinking mind loves to design the future, the feeling mind remains rooted in the present. The thinking mind understands the sacrifice of pleasure today for greater rewards tomorrow. The feeling mind zeros-in on what would feel good right now.
As many of us know, the feeling mind tends to overpower the thinking mind. It’s rarely the reverse. Sure, waking up at 4:30 a.m. and springing into the ideal morning routine sounds wonderful to the thinking mind. But the bleary-eyed feeling mind will mash that snooze button unless it has an emotion-driven motivation to do otherwise. In other words, the donkey needs a carrot.
We can force our donkey-like feeling mind to bend to the thinking mind’s will with the right incentives. (Others compare the feeling mind to an elephant).
“If we go to the gym now, we can enjoy a hot shower afterward.”
“If we read the rest of this chapter now, we can go on Facebook for ten minutes after.”
However, with easy access to hyperpalatable food, addictive media, drugs and alcohol, and educational resources, our donkey feasts at a carrot buffet. The incentives lose their potency. Our “feeling” donkey grows bloated and demotivated.
If we can practice the art of denying our donkey, then carrots regain their strength and our thinking mind can assume greater command of the reigns.
2. A dopamine fast forces us to face pain.
What is the purpose of pain? When we touch a hot stove, pain is an indicator that something is wrong and change is required (e.g. moving our hand away from the stove.)
The same holds true for emotional pain. Sure, anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders involve a degree of unbalanced brain chemistry. Some of this may be genetic. A small percentage of the population require lifelong psychotropic prescriptions to function in society. But the majority of us do not. Rather, our emotional pain serves as an alarm for change. These feelings tell us that something in our life is amiss and demands our attention.
However, we humans are averse to change and the pain that accompanies it. While confronting our anxiety-provoking problems may hurt more at first, that temporary spike pales in comparison to the protracted pain that comes from denial and self-medication.
We numb our pain with all sorts of dopamine-provoking activities – food, sex, drugs, work. While these can serve as healthy outlets for some, many others indulge to mask pain that they would rather not confront. I struggle with such vices to this day (mostly food and work). Numbing is the path of least resistance, but it is not a sustainable path to emotional or spiritual fulfillment.
When we choose to deprive ourselves of these numbing agents, we force our minds to confront pain and uncomfortable truths – truths that we can suppress for years. When we confront that pain, we can choose to rectify our problems, or let things go. This can be a painful, yet powerful consequence of a “stimulation fast.”
Leading up to my “fast”, I felt an unrealistic sense of excitement over the prospect of doing nothing. I tend to feel a gnawing hunger for productivity and a crushing guilt when I fail produce enough. This stimulation fast was my permission slip to sit down with my mind and let go of the restless drive toward busyness.
I also looked forward to enforced daydreaming. Every day my unhealthy hustle toward learning and growth leads me to drill audiobooks and podcasts into my ears hours-upon-hours a day. Rarely do I sit back and allow myself to listen to the birds or people-watch.
At the time, I was also mulling over a challenging decision. I faced the prospect of leaving my comfortable, enjoyable job teaching English at a high-level high school for an instructor position at the Provincial International Education Institute. The new position would incur a salary boost, but also a slathering of new responsibilities and challenges. I reasoned that 24 hours of pure thinking time came at just the right time.
As a result of my overly-optimistic outlook toward my upcoming “stimulation fast,'” I came to a rude awakening the following morning as I abandoned my headphones and books, grabbed a bottle of water, and ventured into my quiet Korean suburb.