Dopamine Detox | Destroy your phone addiction before it destroys you

Are you losing your ability to focus? Does it feel like you have your mind always thinking about what was on your phone? Dopamine detox may be the answer for it!

Dopamine Detox | Destroy your phone addiction before it destroys you
Photo by Adrian Swancar / Unsplash

Whatever you are doing or wherever you are, you crave your phone too many times, like your mind is always thinking about what is in it. You lost your ability to focus. Your brain wants something novel, something highly pleasurable, all day long. And so, you keep giving it, you keep opening Twitter for no reason, you keep watching those 15s amazing youtube videos, that give you nothing in life but some laughs, you keep checking your email for some cheeky productive newsletter. Hey, Twitter is great (for the most part), laughing is amazing and productivity advice is even better, but the problem is that you're doing all of this when you should be working or just being with your family. You're doing it at the wrong time. You're doing it because It feels like you kinda lost control over your behaviours, like reaching your phone for some novelty is very impulsive. Well, if this describes somewhat your behaviours, you probably have impulsive behaviour, in this case, impulsively checking your phone.

The realization

For a long time, I've realized that for most of my day I would have urges to pick up my phone to check for new notifications or messages. Part of the reason is that I have my girlfriend 500km away, but the other part is because phones and the apps inside them are designed to make us addicted to them. So don't feel so guilty about it, it's not entirely your fault.

But how do they do it? They exploit our brain features to induce habits through our dopamine pathways. Dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that plays a starring role in motivating behaviour, and it gets released in anticipation of delicious food, sex, successful social interactions and other activities.
See, the way your phone notifications are delivered, the colours on the screen, the content suggestions on youtube, Instagram or Twitter, all are carefully designed to steal your time and attention and ultimately, induce a habit through short-term dopamine release.

How do you get out of these short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops? One of the answers might be through a Dopamine Detox.

What is a Dopamine Detox?

Scientifically speaking, it is impossible to do dopamine fasting (detox), as your brain continually produces dopamine. Rather, dopamine detox is about reducing as much as possible the activities that induce the short-term release of dopamine. The theory is, anecdotal (although there is already some research backing it), that by doing this your brain starts to prefer to do the long term dopamine activities and eventually, eliminates the habits related to the short-term induced dopamine activities.

For example, you might find that you have a hard time doing your work in a flow state or reading a book for 2 hours because you can't put your mind only on what you are doing. Your mind is always calling for activities that release dopamine in the short term, preferring highly pleasurable activities in the short term, rather than meaningful activities that are often associated with hard work.
So, what are those activities that induce a quick and short release of dopamine?

  • emotional eating
  • porn/masturbation
  • Social media
  • Phone
  • TV
  • Gaming
  • Drugs
  • Gambling

These are some of the categories of related activities that are often associated with a short term release of dopamine and that, consequently, could create a compulsive behaviour.

How to do the Dopamine Detox

There are two distinct periods for this dopamine detox. The first is the Hard Reset and the second is the Long Term Detox.

It's worth noticing that this article is very directed to the impulsive use of social media and phones, as you´ve noticed by the introduction. But, you can use a dopamine detox for any of those categories.

The Hard Reset

This is a 24h period where you reduce as much as possible all the activities that induce a short term release of dopamine and that are negative to you.
But, is my brain going to "rewire" itself? Will my compulsive behaviours just disappear? No, almost nothing changes in your brain at the deeper level (but, from personal experience, on the days that follow, your urge to do those activities will reduce greatly). Rather, this will be a period of awareness of some of your compulsive behaviours. It will help you break those bad habit loops. Identify them, probably destroy them. It's also a period where you'll be alone with your thoughts. Try to understand them. Journaling can be a great tool for that. Revisit them later on to make sense of them.

The Hard Reset rules:

The most important thing that you should understand is: whatever the rules are, DON'T BREAK THEM. Breaking them will say to your brain "Oh, you're not capable of doing this. You're addicted to those behaviours and that is fine." It's not, and you know that.
You should choose the rules that are exciting to you and hard, but not so much that they are almost impossible for you to do. You need to eliminate almost all of those impulsive behaviours categories.
This is what I DID and what I DIDN'T DO:
-   Phone (only 1 call with my girlfriend, coach and alarm clock)
-   Computer
-   Gaming
-   Porn/masturbation
-   Drugs
-   Stimulating Food
-   Music
-  TV
What I DID DO:
- 1-morning espresso (caffeine is only associated with ~30% increase of the dopamine baseline level, and I love coffee)
-   Talking with people
-   Reading books
-   Food
-   Journaling
-   Walks
-   Exercise

Choose your rules based on these activities or others that induce a short term release of dopamine. Choose as many as possible and DON'T break them. If you feel like you can spend the day like a monk, don't do anything, except for drinking water and meditate. I don´t even know if monks spend days like that, but you get the idea.

To increase your chances of success, consider:

  • Writing the rules: write them and place the paper where you see it first thing in the morning;
  • Finding an accountability partner: share it with your family, friends and dog. Very important to share it with your dog, as he needs to recharge his batteries for the long walks that await both of you (if walks are one on your CAN DO list);
  • Changing your environment: hide, turn off or give every digital device to someone; hide stimulating food. Change your environment so you don't get the trigger for the things you can't do.

What I realized from the experience

I realized the number of times I was interrupted from reading a book or meditating for a long period by my social media craving. Notifications didn't need to ping. I just had the habit of thinking about checking my phone, constantly.
Being alone with my thoughts also gave me mental clarity about some things in my life.
But the biggest realization happened the next day. Early in the morning, I started to analyze what happened the day before, to understand what could I do to eliminate my compulsive behaviours, and, therefore, make this a Long term detox, which is the most important.

Long Term detox

By Long Term Detox I mean rebuilding the way you interact with what was triggering the impulsive behaviours, to possibly eliminate it.
It is not a one-step process, but rather an iteration process. Self-awareness is the key.

You will start by eliminating almost everything for one day (Hard Reset), intending to restart your brain and recognize some of the compulsive behaviours. You will Analyze what you have and do while trying to bring intentionality to your life. Armed with this new information, you will build new systems that will help you eliminate compulsive behaviours. Then, periodically, you reassess how you are doing and, if necessary, you reanalyze and rebuild your system. The final goal is to eliminate the compulsive behaviours induced by the short term dopamine-induced activities and focus on what brings meaning to your life.

To do this you should be aware of how to build good habits and break bad habits and what tools (aka apps and other stuff) are available for the job you want.

For example:

  • Using social media while working/studying -> Tools? -> Block social media access using i.e Freedom for a defined period.

Soon, I will write about the best way, in my point of view, to approach this long term detox, regarding the use of social media and phone. At the moment, I'm still exploring the strategies and systems and because of how subjective it is, I want to be sure that I build a system/framework that clearly explains how to do it.

Start from the Hard Reset, as I'm sure it will be a life-changing experience and from there, think about the Long Term Detox and how you can reduce the use of your phone, especially during work and family time, which are the most critical times. The feeling of being present in what you are doing is something you'll love and sooner than later, you'll build habits around it.