Dopamine Fast: Boost your Focus & Motivation in 24 hours
“I have lived a long life…but I wish I had gotten more Instagram followers.”
Nobody has ever uttered these words on their deathbed. And yet most people are living their life as if that’s the only thing that matters.
Are you feeling anxious? Are you lacking purpose? Are you addicted? There’s a reason.
- Video games.
- Social media.
Modern society is frying your brain like a Mcdonald’s french fry.
You think you’re using these technologies as tools, but instead they’re using you. This is no conspiracy – these tools were designed to addict you.
You have been trained to seek instant gratification – whatever you want, you want it now.
The result? An onslaught of endless noise. A damaged brain. A loss of meaning. A numbness to sensation.
But it’s not a lost cause. Like a car, you just need an oil change.
Ever heard of a dopamine fast? Well, that’s your oil change. It’s the antidote. It’s your “f**k you” to modern society.
Read more to learn about what dopamine fasting is and how it will give you back control of your life.
What is Dopamine?
You know when you get that Instagram like and it feels good? That’s dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical in your brain responsible for motivation and reward. It’s a messenger between your brain cells, emitting a signal to the brain whenever it expects or receives a “reward.”
Stare at this photo below. Does it make you tingle inside?
What about this one?
This is modern day cocaine. Even something as simple as these photos can prepare your brain for a dopamine hit. If only it would get you to focus on this article like you do on your Instagram…
Let’s be honest. Despite all our human progress, we’re still fairly simple creatures. At our core, we are primal. We do things because they feel good.
That is how habits are created. Your brain is incredibly neuroplastic. Reward and reinforcement condition you to act in specific ways. If you do something once and receive a positive response, your brain will want to do it again.
But in our pleasure-addicted world, the search for the ultimate dopamine hit can become a nightmarish treasure hunt for nothing but fool’s gold.
Dopamine Gone Wrong
Dopamine itself is not the culprit here. Without dopamine, you’d have no motivation. They can be genuine and beneficial. They’re evolution’s way of saying you’re onto something good, promoting your own survival or even propagating the human race (or, as we like to call it, sex).
Dopamine is the whip that your genes use to get you to do things.
Until fairly recently, dopamine hits were always coupled with some evolutionary benefit. It took hard work and accomplishment to get a dopamine rush.
The Instagram notification of hunter gatherer times was the appearance of an elephant to kill for lunch. The pornography was a woman in bed. Both of these things increased your likelihood of survival. And as we well know, surviving is great.
The problem is that dopamine can be hacked for the wrong purpose.
Today, most dopamine hits bring no real benefit.
Instead, they are exploited as a mechanism to suck more time and revenue out of you. Facebook uses neurochemical techniques to make you more addicted. For example, they vary the frequency of notifications to keep you surprised and coming back for more (brain science shows that variable reward increases the addictive potential) [*].
Yes…this is why you keep getting random notifications when your Crazy Aunt posts a new photo.
And because dopamine hits today don’t produce a biochemical benefit, you never reach satiation. Here’s an example:
Hunting for a juicy cut of steak would give hunter gatherers both a dopamine hit and nutrient satiation.
Going to the nearest convenience store and bingeing on sugar only gives you the dopamine.
Because the hit is so easy to obtain, you never feel satisfied and Over time, you tolerance threshold increases, which makes it even harder to satisfy yourself next time you’re seeking a hit. And just like that… a vicious cycle that turns you into a dopamine addict.
Like a toddler with a lighter, this is a recipe for disaster.
Slowly but surely, you begin losing your ability to feel happy and motivated by real, meaningful things. Why make love to your partner when you can update your instagram profile to boost engagement?
Congrats: you have officially discovered the easiest way to destroy a society.
“Dig up the root of thirst so that Mara the tempter may not crush you again and again.”
One of the most prevalent themes in religion is demonic temptation. Evil things approach you under the guise of innocence, tempting you with fruitful rewards.
This was Satan in Christianity and the arch tempter Mara in Buddhism.
Modern society is back to tempt you to eat the apple: “Just try a little, it’ll feel good.”
Why does this theme recur over and over again? Because many of these pleasures are in our genetic interest in the short term… all at a severe cost in the long term.
This is the evil trick of genetic selection.
It lures you in with an external reward, telling you that your life will be complete if you get it. Just one more raise. One more job promotion. One more house. Then everything will be perfect. You work and work, and finally you get it…until you realize the joke’s on you!
You’re like a hamster on a wheel, on a mad dash towards the next pleasure. Just when you think you’re making progress you realize you’re back where you started.
A hamster on a wheel thinks it’s in control. But it has no free will. It exchanged it for the next dopamine high. You have too.
Who cares that you got a promotion. Who cares that Tom over in sales got a bigger bonus. Or that you didn’t get enough likes on your last post. There’s more to strive for.
External pleasurable things tend to be ephemeral. They disappear faster than Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Rewiring Your Brain: Monkey vs Human Brain
Every time you get a dopamine hit, you’re rewiring your brain.
Willpower is a muscle even if it’s weaker than Charles Barkley’s golf game for most people.
You know that voice in the back of your head telling you not to do drugs? Not everybody has that.
There are two main neural systems that regulate decision making:
- Your Monkey brain – dominated by the amygdala (if I got a fancy degree from Harvard, I’d refer to this as the A-System [*])
- Human brain – dominated by the prefrontal cortex (sometimes called the I-System [*])
The Monkey brain is concerned with maximizing immediate reward, while the Human brain is focused on maximizing long-term reward.
This ability to consider the long-term ramifications of our actions is indeed what sets us apart from the monkeys [*]. It’s the reason why you’re able to make it this far in the blog post instead of throwing poop at people on the streets like our herbivore ancestors.
But this monkey brain still lives inside of you. And if you don’t tame it, it will master you like Gepetto mastering Pinocchio.
Imagine you’re staring at a candy bar. The internal struggle begins. The battle between your monkey brain and your human brain. The monkey inside of you sees the candy and all it can think about is the rush of sweetness you will get as soon as you bite into it.
“I need that candy. I need it more than anything in the world,” you say to yourself, “that candy bar will change my life.”
On the other side of the spectrum, a properly trained human brain will fight back: “Fuck that. I’m going to feel like crap after. It’s not worth it. I need to stick to my diet.”
You thought Evander Holyfield vs Mike Tyson was a big fight…? This is bigger. More than just an ear will be bitten off…
But if you don’t train your brain, it will lose. The brain is a muscle like any other. Without the proper regimen, it will have no strength to fight..
Instead of exercising self-control, most people are pounding dopamine bars. Instead of building the willpower muscle, they’re causing it to atrophy away. It’s like showing up to the gym and stuffing your face with donuts in the locker room instead of lifting weights.
Too much dopamine causes the balance to shift too far in the monkey direction: the amygdala is hyperactivated and the prefrontal cortex is hypoactivated. Every time you do this, you’re strengthening the strings of your monkey puppet master.
The short term-focused systems dominate. You’ve muted your human brain, and this creates massive feedback loops. The more you give into the monkey brain, the stronger it becomes.
And if you’ve seen Planet of the Apes strong monkey is a scary sight because it has NO reservations. It wants more. And it wants it now.
This is why if you struggle with willpower in one aspect of your life, it’s unlikely you’ll have pristine discipline in another.
Can you remember the last time you saw a cocaine addict reading books and meditating?
Other Side Effects of a Dopamine Addiction
Man’s worth can be measured by things upon which he sets his heart.
––– Meditations 7.3
This shift towards the monkey system has massive consequences. It doesn’t just create addictive behaviors – it reshapes your whole life.
Just like physical obesity is from junk calories, mental obesity is from too much dopamine. You’ve stuffed your brain with junk and it’s incapable of functioning properly.
According to AJAC, a veteran personal trainer and mens self improvement writer:
“Mental obesity is dopamine addiction, the mind is trained to say “yes” to everything that is presented to it. This inevitably slows down and halts higher level thinking, and turns people into social media addicted zombies.
Their minds become controlled by infotainment, and the same way a physically obese person obsesses over food, they obsess over checking every feed and have intense anxiety over missing out on anything.”
Some other side effects include:
- Short attention span – Studies show that the attention span of an average student has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. Chimpanzees have an attention span of 20 seconds. There you have it – humans are less focused than monkeys.
- Cluttered mind
- Anxiety – Constant dopamine makes you upset when you’re not getting it. Do you feel a constant state of depression and anxiety? It may be because your dopamine bar has been reset too high and your brain is addicted. You’ve got a heroin addict living inside your head.
- Instant gratification addiction – Only looking for immediate results.
- Dysfunctional personality styles: Excessive social media has been shown to lead to dysfunctional personality styles: narcisissm, shyness, need for confirmation, constant negativity and low self esteem [*]
What is the antidote?
What is a Dopamine Fast? Fasting Is Ultimate F*** You.
“Nature has intermingled pleasure with necessary things — not in order that we should seek pleasure, but in order that the addition of pleasure may make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes. Should it claim rights of its own, it is luxury. Let us therefore resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart.” —Seneca
If your monkey brain is beating the shit out of your human brain, it’s time to wake up.
You need to start taking your brain seriously. Your brain is the most powerful weapon in the world, yet you’re not taught to use it properly.
Imagine handing a monkey an iPhone without any training. Do you think it would read the kindle? Or watch videos of monkeys throwing poop at each other all day?
If you’ve never been trained, you’re no more capable than a monkey… How do you expect to one second float around in a warm goo in your mother and the next to sit down, shut up and obey?
Without an instruction manual, you’re completely lost. All you know is you want some damn cake.
If there were one, page 1 through 100 would say in large letters: DON’T SCROLL THROUGH SOCIAL MEDIA ALL DAY OR EAT SUGAR. Then page 101 would say don’t be a vegan. The end.
Like going to the dentist to clean plaque off your teeth, you need to clean the plaque off your brain. You need to rewire your brain, reset your habits, and put yourself back in the driver’s seat.
How do you do that? Through the dopamine fasts.
As you’re about to learn, the dopamine fast is the antidote to this hedonistic lifestyle. It is the ultimate reset button you’re looking for.
According to Dr. Cameron Sepah, a clinical psychologist and professor at UCSF Medical School who’s helped to popularize this new Silicon Valley trend, “taking a break from behaviors that trigger strong amounts of dopamine release (especially in a repeated fashion) allows our brain to recover and restore itself.”
“Dopamine Fasting 2.0” is based on the behavioral therapy technique of ‘stimulus control’ for addictions, and is much more practical to implement, since it doesn’t require total abstinence.
It’s time to take back control of your life and attack the problem head on.
How Do I Dopamine Fast?
A dopamine fast requires that you abstain from activities that release dopamine. To do this, you pretty much have to do the exact opposite of what you’re used to. No phone. No internet. No clothes. (Kidding, you’re allowed to use the internet.)
If a behavior is problematic, you need to cut it out.
How do you know it’s problematic? If it’s causing you:
- Distress (you’re bothered by how much you do it)
- Impairment (interferes with your optimal social or school/work performance)
- Addictiveness (you want to cut down, but cannot consistently do so)
There are a number of ways to integrate this practice into your life. My favorite way: a monthly dopamine fast.
It is a day you mark on your calendar. If you don’t have a calendar, tally it on your wall like a prisoner. One day a month, you will fast from all dopamine.
Dr. Sepah’s “Dopamine Fasting 2.0” approach recommends the following schedule:
- 1-4 hours at the end of the day (depending on work & family demands)
- 1 weekend day (spent it outside on a Saturday or Sunday)
- 1 weekend per quarter (go on a local trip)
- 1 week per year (go on vacation!)
Activities to Cut Out
This isn’t going to be fun. In fact, it has to not be fun. This is why there’s no roller coasters in prison yards. You’re supposed to cut out anything that stimulates dopamine. That’s right, folks – it’s time to cut the strings of the monkey that are controlling your life.
There are two approaches.
(1) go cold turkey on ALL possible dopamine hits.
(2) just cut out the problematic behaviors.
If you cut out all dopamine hits for one day a month that means:
- No food.
- No caffeine.
- No phone.
- No internet.
- No computer.
- No substances.
- No making fun of vegans.
This sounds like a drag. You’re cutting off the monkey in your brain, like a parent cutting off their kid’s allowance. It will rebel.
However, Dr. Sepah’s modern version of Dopamine Fasting is a bit more practical. His “Dopamine Fasting 2.0” is based on the behavioral therapy technique of ‘stimulus control’ for addictions, and doesn’t require total abstinence. All it requires is abstaining from the problematic behaviors you identified above.
The choice is yours, but I like to mix in both.
What to Do During the Fast
The only thing you’re allowed to do all day….Read my blog posts….
Alright, actually…so you’ve cut the fun stuff out and you’re ready for your hard reset. What should you do during a fast?
My day is usually centered around walking, light exercise and meditation.
If you’re looking for more ideas, sign up below for a PDF of all the things I like to do during a dopamine fast (& 15 Stoic Journal Prompts).
6 Things to Do on Your Dopamine Fast (& 15 Stoic Journal Prompts)
Benefits of Dopamine Fasting: Why Do it?
#1 Discipline is Freedom
It’s a paradox. The more disciplined you are, the more freedom you’ll have. They seem like opposites, but in reality they’re tied at the hip.
Want to be a slave to big Pharma in 20 years? Eat “freely.”
Want to be a slave to your iPhone? Download games freely.
Want to be a slave to your mind? Succumb freely to impulses.
Everything worthwhile takes time and effort. By giving in to dopamine, you’re reprogramming your brain to focus on the opposite.
Over the last hundred years, freedoms have increased immeasurably. The battle for freedom has in many ways been won. But at what cost?
Instead of being imprisoned by culture, people are imprisoned by their own brains. You’re free to protest, but you’re locked in a prison. You’re free to complain about anything… but you can only complain by writing it on a wall locked in a bathroom stall.
That’s how free you really are.
Fasting from dopamine and building better habits will strengthen your discipline and allow you to truly be free.
#2 Break Your Addiction to Comfort
The pursuit of dopamine will shrink your comfort zone to the size of a microwave. Today’s pleasure-addicted world is using dopamine hits to mask their pain.
Dopamine is a medication. But a medication with more side effects than what is listed in a standard pharmaceutical commercial.s.
Dopamine hits are used to avoid unpleasant experiences. Instead of living with your own thoughts, experiencing boredom or dealing with anxiety head on, you retreat to your phone.
When’s the last time you’ve even taken a shit without looking at your phone? Now you’re playing Candy Crush with double pink eye.
Of course, this is bound to backfire. Avoiding the problem only amplifies it. It’s like allowing a homeless person to sleep outside your home because you’re afraid of saying something. And then the next thing you know he’s sleeping with your wife.
Slowly acquiescing to dopamine trains your addiction to comfort, eroding your discipline. You cede control. You can’t find the motivation to do the important tasks.
Things that are uncomfortable do not produce the same dopamine spikes, so your craving brain avoids them.
Basically, if everybody is trained to experience pleasure, after a while you can’t put up with any discomfort. But discomfort is the only way to grow. Discomfort is a call to arms. A pleasure addicted society is a mediocre one: A society who’s greatest accomplishment is their Fortnite score, instead of their 100 year Cathedrals.
What starts merely as avoidance of pain turns into full-blown addiction to comfort, trapping you in a comfort cage.
A dopamine fast is the long, shit covered crawl that will break you out of this comfort prison.
After all, everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.
#3 More Resilience
“Here’s a lesson to test your mind’s mettle: take part of a week in which you have only the most meager and cheap food, dress scantily in shabby clothes, and ask yourself if this is really the worst that you feared. It is when times are good that you should gird yourself for tougher times ahead, for when fortune is kind the soul can build defenses against her ravages. Seneca
The reason you can’t be alone with your painful thoughts is the same reason you can’t motivate yourself to go to the gym. Or meditate. Or eat beef liver. Or stand up to that coworker that constantly takes credit for your ideas. You’re afraid of the pain, and you’ve trained your brain to avoid it.
This is so often how you are defeated, one seemingly small concession at a time. You don’t just wake up one day and become mentally and physically weak. Each and every time you give in, you erode your self-discipline.
A dopamine fast will give you more resilience. Like a vaccine, small stressors harden you to pain. The pain of giving up your biggest addictions will train you to deal with the real disasters when they come.
Deliberately putting yourself in uncomfortable positions prepares you for the inevitable unplanned discomfort. Whereas weakness leads to stagnation. So sleep on a bed of nails, put glass in your shoes… and remember that it’s not the end of the world the next time your barista forgets your half and half.
You obviously don’t need to go that far. But without any discomfort, you’ll never be comfortable.
You’ll never solve the biggest problems in your life if you don’t face them. Like a ticking time bomb, they explode in unexpected ways. The addiction to comfort is the fuse that ignites the nuclear explosion.
Most people live in fear of hard challenges, but you will not. You will become mentally and physically resilient.
#4 Tame Desires Before They Devour You
An addiction to hedonism will destroy your life.
The example of Marcus Aurelius and his brother Lucius epitomizes this. Marcus lived a life of philosophical inquiry and discipline, shunning parties and games in favor of studies and self improvement.
On the other hand, his brother and co-emperor Lucius was known for his extravagant parties. He once threw a party that cost the equivalent of the entire Roman army’s annual pay.
Marcus pored over books, Lucius poured drinks. Lucius dropped philosophy in search of more freedom and leisure, whereas Marcus was disciplined in search of fulfillment. Marcus rose early and studied. Lucius slept in and had a hair of the dog.
In the end, Lucius’ habits devoured him. His hedonistic lifestyle addicted him to the dragon of dopamine. Like a schizophrenic pendulum he swung back and forth between deep lows and very high highs. Lucius ended up dying early as an alcoholic, and Marcus ruled the Roman Empire and lived a life of fulfillment.
If you’re interested more in this dichotomy, check out Donald Robertson’s new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.
The stoics believe that entertainment is not inherently good or bad, but it is unhealthy when pursued excessively. It becomes a problem when you are more interested in doing what’s pleasurable than doing what’s good for you. When you scroll through Instagram instead of reading that book that’s staring at you from the shelf.
Time and time again, pleasure in the short run leads to pain in the long run. The road that seems the easiest never actually is.
Tame these addictions before they enslave you.
#5 Increase Your Long-Term Fulfillment / Meaning
There are two paths you can follow in life:
- A life where you’re addicted to comfort. You make decisions by avoiding short-term pain and seeking pleasure.
- A life where you seek self-discipline and reason. You attack discomfort and transform it into power. You use it to fuel you to accomplish great things.
One gives you fleeting pleasures. The other gives you lasting fulfillment.
It takes a Herculean effort to stay disciplined amongst the noise, to fight the siren call of the pleasures. But in the end, it produces something more satisfying than pleasure: genuine purpose and meaning.
As Marcus Aurelius said, “Real fulfillment comes from acts you do.” He also said “Check out my son Carnivore’s twitter account.” It’s not going to come from the shallow dopamine hits. To get real pleasure, you need to replace these superficial pleasures with better hobbies.
You need to achieve what the stoics called apatheia: freedom from harmful desires. Joy is a byproduct of achieving long-term goals, not ravenously snacking on quick dopamine hits. This is why Marcus was able to achieve much more pleasure than his brother who was more addicted to pleasure than I am to steak.
Epictetus underscored this point: “Freedom isn’t secured by filling up on your heart’s desire but by removing your desire.”
In today’s world, this is a challenge. We’re overstimulated from every direction, our attention spans whittled down from beautiful, long nails to bitten stubs of a madman.
All of this is echoed by neurochemistry. Low-level pleasures activate only one part of your brain, whereas higher-order pleasures engage broader neural networks [*].
#6 Fasting Teaches You to Be Grateful
Constantly pursuing pleasures only makes you need more. It’s allowing your base instincts to run the show, appointing your monkey brain CEO of your life.
From the perspective of your base instincts, you’re NEVER good enough. You’re never going on enough vacations. You don’t look like George Clooney. You’re not as wealthy as Bill Gates. But trust me, even George Clooney has felt self conscious about his gray hair.
The monkey ceo is ruthless. He won’t be happy until your head is on a stick and he’s eating bananas off your back.
But it’s not true. You have everything you need to be happy. It’s all in your control. It all comes from within.
An addiction to dopamine will tell you otherwise, but breaking that addiction will free you.
#7 Increase Productivity & Focus on Long-Term Goals
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, it better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” — Seneca
The ability to focus is a superpower, and a dopamine addiction is your Kryptonite.
The culprit: people have trained new habit loops and taught their brain to look for dopamine instead of doing long-term work.
Your monkey brain is always searching for the feeling of reward from the Instagram notification or the new text message until it can’t stand an hour without it.
Everybody has been trained to think for the short-term. But if you can break out of this paradigm, you will dominate.
You’re running a marathon, but most people are standing in place. They think they’re going faster but they’re really stuck in place on a treadmill. Meanwhile, you’re casually pacing to the finish line.
#8 Increases Creativity & Imagination
You can’t ever create anything if you’re never alone with your thoughts.
Your imagination is a muscle. If you’re constantly ingesting, you never imagine.
Being alone with your thoughts is the key to becoming great. If you slow down and give your brain time to create instead of ingest, you’ll be surprised by the genius you’re capable of.
Give your mind the silence it needs. Your brain is craving this fast.
#9 Rewire your brain: Dopamine Sensitivity
Your brain has been rewired by these demonic technologies and this addiction to comfort comes with crippling side effects.
Even if it doesn’t feel like you’re addicted, your brain has been rewired. As discussed above, the seesaw of reward has shifted more towards the monkey brain than the human brain.
You’ve trained your brain to focus on short-term instead of long-term goals, diminishing the impact of long-term thinking.
Every time you scroll through Instagram while working, you lay new habit paths in your brain.
You teach yourself that distraction produces reward. Not learning. Not skill acquisition. Not building things.
You give your thumb all the power. Our beautiful opposable thumb that evolved to dominate the world has now been reduced to a slave to the iPhone scroll. You’re focusing on the wrong things and pursuing vacuous rewards.
Once you learn about neuroplasticity, you’ll never use these menacing technologies again. Every thought and action you take literally rewires your brain, creating insidious associative behavior. It’s like you rip out the dash on your car and are plugging random wires into each other. Next thing you know, you try to turn on the stereo and your car starts driving in reverse.
The hyperactivated dopamine hits of the world also change the benchmark of your dopamine levels. It decreases your dopamine sensitivity over time. Meaning you no longer feel the same reward from a satiating, delicious steak. Instead, you need the sugar.
The scariest part is that this can eventually cause your entire brain to adapt. It rewires all your circuitry around motivation, inhibitory control, executive function and conditioning [*].
How You’ll Feel on a Dopamine Fast
Here are some things I experience on dopamine fasts:
- My mind is quiet but focused. Like an ocean with an oil spill, your mind is polluted. Once you lift out the dopamine it will be like a clear reef.
- At times, I crave the dopamine. It feels like the monkey inside my brain crying in pain. But weirdly it feels good. I meditate on it. I control it. And I starve it.
- I experience massive insights. About business. About life. About myself. I’m pretty sure I cured cancer but forgot to write it down. When you clear out weeds, you allow flowers to blossom.
- I realize how much of a waste of time these shallow pleasures are.
- I notice more beauty around me. Things I don’t usually experience when I’m glued to my phone. Even the plants were beautiful. This is also why I think it’s so unethical that vegans eat them…
Your brain has been hijacked.
Big food companies have created foods that addict you.
Social media companies have created notifications that addict you.
Scientists have created porn that you crave.
It’s time for the way out. And that way out is fasting.
If you’re interested in learning more about fasting, sign up for my newsletter below for weekly content and 6 things to do while dopamine fasting (& 15 Stoic Journal Prompts).