For the whole of last year and more, I have been obsessed with productivity. I have read books, watched videos, listened to podcasts, read articles and studies. I have been in online forums, comment sections, and random blog sites. I was trying to answer several questions at the same time:
How can I become more productive?
How much work is the human brain capable of doing?
How do I maintain high levels of energy?
What methods work best?
You can almost sense the desperation in these questions.
I have been treating myself like a guinea pig, trying out various methods and to activate my beast mode. I tried a long list of strategies. Some I made myself, and some I learned from online productivity gurus, psychologists, and sites like Lifehack. During all this time, I had a time tracking app on my computer, where I do all my work. The app would help tell if I had become more productive or less productive. I want to share what my experience has been with various productivity hacks in a series of posts. In this one, I will discuss the productivity technique said to trick your brain into doing hard things.
There are various answers given to this question, but the most relevant one today is the dopamine detox method (I will discuss the other later).
What is the dopamine detox method?
Whenever we do something good and enjoyable, our brain gives us a dopamine hit. That is where this feeling of pleasure comes from. The more stimulating something is, the more effective it is at releasing dopamine. Dopamine motivates us to do things that give us more of it.
Have you ever asked yourself why you can game or scroll down social media for hours, but you can’t study or do mentally heavy work for hours? That’s because activities like social media and gaming are build to be addicting. They overstimulate us, meaning they are much better and quick at releasing dopamine.
But the more of these things we do, the more our brain adjusts to those levels of stimulation. So we go out looking for more stimulating things switching between highly stimulating activities. This may be watching movies, TV, different social media apps, YouTube, games, and so on. Our brains get accustomed to that high level of stimulation that reading a book is much harder to do because books don’t give us an easy dopamine hit. You have to work at it.
That’s the theory, anyway. Not my words.
There is some fact and there is some myth in there.
People like Andrew Kirby call our addiction to these overstimulating activities a “dopamine addiction,” but this does not make sense. Despite this thumbnail from one of his videos (Yes, I watched the whole thing):
An addiction to a neurotransmitter that you need for basic human functioning and is present in almost any activity you do, does not make sense, at least to me. I am not the only one who thinks this. In the question section of his blog, Sam The Man echoes that kind of confusion and doubt.
But even Sam The Man gets it wrong. For instance, he says the “dopamine detox removes almost all dopamine from your body.” As if dopamine is a toxin. Let me just say, you don’t want dopamine out of your body.
And no amount of cutting back on things you love will lower your dopamine to dangerous levels. The body needs that dopamine for movement, learning, motivation, pleasure, healthy function of blood vessels, heart rate, kidney function, and more.
I am not saying that phone apps, social media, and other things like that aren’t addictive. They are made to be addictive, and this has been well documented.
The theory behind a dopamine detox is that if you fast from these highly stimulating activities for a few days, you will adjust your dopamine to normal levels. And something like reading a book will be very pleasurable because your brain would have been starved of it for so long that it will take what you can get it.
As Andrew Kirby puts it: “You see, when you fast from from food, you get hungry, and, finally, when you taste food again it tastes absolutely incredible…whatever the food it is, even if it is absolutely boring.”
The idea is that our brain works comparatively. If you have to choose between reading and watching TV, you are more likely to choose TV. If you have to choose between reading and a hundred pushups, you will probably open that book. That is true.
Our brain anchors experiences and chooses the option with the least amount of friction unless we are very motivated. By staying away from all those other activities for a few days, our brain changes its referential frame to a few mundane things. It has fewer things to compare to reading books, studying and the like, so these activities seem more appealing than they would have if you had the option to do any other highly stimulating activity. And just like that, you have tricked your brain into loving to do difficult things.
Does it work?
Kinda. I really don’t think it is sustainable. You will have to go online and do those activities for one reason or another. They don’s say you shouldn’t but abstinence from potentially distractive activities is suggested. I haven’t consciously tried this method, but I have lived it.
When I lost my smartphone, I felt lighter. I had nothing demanding my attention at all hours. I was able to focus a lot on other things. I didn’t lose three to four hours on social media. I read more. I wrote more. I learned to code. But this wasn’t a fix-all. I still gamed a lot, and I really found it hard to write for this blog.
About every month, I go a day or two without internet, which generally means I have nothing to watch, websites to read, etc. I spend a lot of my time doing things like writing and reading. But without the internet, I am impeded from doing some tasks that are important to my work.
There is nothing about doing this that helped me change my routine or make me more productive or enjoy my work more. I could say that doing a dopamine detox can help you reflect on your routine, priorities and help you recalibrate. But I don’t think anyone can live this way for long and the benefits are limited. There is benefit in limiting your time on highly stimulating(addictive) activities. I think having offline hours, taking a walk or doing something replenishing has plenty of benefits that can boost your productivity.
There are better ways of enabling ourselves to perform at our best. These include forming healthy, simple habits that go a long way. Even in the midst of highly stimulating things, we can leverage our habits to be more productive.