Intermittent fasting is big in tech circles, to the extent that--in the time-honored tradition of taking good things to the extreme--people like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey have graduated to OMAD (one meal a day) status.

Ice baths are still kind of a big deal. (Even though ice baths really, really suck.)

Since the relentless search for "next" is the only constant in Silicon Valley, there's a new trendy practice: dopamine fasting.

First a little science. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in your brain responsible for motivation and reward. But it does a lot of other things, too: helping to regulate movement, expand blood vessels, control your attention...think of dopamine as playing a part in how we seek rewards and pleasure.

On the extreme end, it's theoretically possible to be so stimulated so frequently that your brain gets desensitized to dopamine, meaning you need more stimulation to feel the same effect.

In a nutshell, that's the premise behind dopamine fasting: Taking a break from behaviors that trigger heavy, repetitive releases of dopamine allows your brain to reset itself.

Think of it this way: If you love chocolate and eat a candy bar every day, you get "used" to the taste of chocolate. But if you refrain from eating chocolate for a month...that first bite is awesome. (Side note: Science says eating half an ounce of dark chocolate a day can do wonders for your happiness.)

The idea is that doing something often enough, however stimulating it may be, desensitizes you--and causes you to chase that feeling even harder. Social media. Emotional eating. Shopping and gambling (which, oddly enough, are in some ways two sides of the same coin.) Thrill seeking (or its cousin, constantly checking to make sure other people aren't experiencing thrills that you are not.)

The list goes on, but the point is simple: Dopamine fasting involves not doing anything purely for the sake of stimulation. 

Which, if you think about it, makes it really tricky to actually go on a dopamine fast.

Stimulation Versus Gratification

Take exercise. Nothing about working out is fun; the act of pushing yourself to do more than you did the last time--lifting more weight, doing more reps or sets, upping the intensity, etc. is the only way to make gains--basically sucks. It's uncomfortable. It hurts.

Working out isn't fun--but accomplishing more is gratifying.

The same is true for what I eat. A normal lunch is tuna, rice, some greens, and a banana or apple. I don't love the taste of any of those foods. Don't hate it, don't love it. It's fuel. 

I love ice cream, though.

So I decided eating "fuel" foods was OK; eating tuna out of the can is far from stimulating, but it is gratifying to know I'm eating healthy. The same is true for working out; it's not fun, but it is gratifying. 

That's why I decided to focus on avoiding stimulation, not gratification. 

After all, in theory, it should be gratifying to go on a dopamine fast: By resetting myself, simple pleasures should be more pleasurable.

So what did I try to avoid for 24 hours?

My Dopamine Fast

Most dopamine fasts involve no screens: no clicking, no "Likes," no checking to see if others have liked or commented or responded...disconnecting from wherever you fall on the screen addiction spectrum.

That was fairly easy.

So was not listening to music. And not eating food simply for taste. 

I basically followed a list of rules I cobbled together from various sources:

  • No electronics: computer, tablet, phone, video games, etc.
  • No music, radio, podcasts, etc.
  • No reading (ugh)
  • No sex
  • No "taste" food. (Some people avoid food altogether; I decided it was OK to eat for fuel. To keep it simple--and bland--I went with the tasteless trifecta: tuna out of the can, lettuce, and brown rice.) 
  • No "fun" talking. (Some people also go cold turkey on talking; I decided to limit my conversations to practical matters.)
  • No caffeine or other stimulants. (Double ugh: My caffeine withdrawal headache was a killer.)

Of course the list could be endless. My list isn't right or wrong; it's just what I chose. 

But if you engage in a certain behavior too often...or a behavior affects your performance, productivity, or relationships...or you've tried to do something less often but failed...add it to the list.

Because you can do--or not do--anything for one day.

Add it all up, and my dopamine fast...

Left Me With Very Little to Do

Which is the point.

If dopamine fasting does result in some sort of dopamine reset that allows us to better control urges and behaviors, clearly a reboot is required. 

So I took a walk. I stared out the window until I realized I was watching for dolphins (love seeing dolphins), so I stared out a different window. Since screens aren't allowed but pen and paper was, I took some notes for a project I'm working on.

Got bored with that and took another walk.

Got bored with that and went to the gym. Almost decided to try a HIIT workout I've been considering but thought that might be chasing some sort of new sensation, so I did one of my standard workouts. Ate. Took another walk. Almost did some housework but realized I enjoy how it looks when a room is really clean, so I went back to staring out the window.

Which raises an interesting point about dopamine fasts. Some things are stimulating not in themselves, but because of the result. Writing something I'm proud of is hard...but it's rewarding when complete. Painting a room is not fun...but it's really rewarding to see the result.

Trying to do something hard, trying to something you don't know if you'll be able to do...the process is frustrating and nerve-wracking and anxiety-producing and, yep, zero fun--but when you pull it off, it feels great.

And that's what I learned from my dopamine fast. Unlike many, I didn't have an epiphany. I didn't feel incredibly still and focused. I didn't feel a sense of calm and peace. I didn't feel transformed.

Much of the time I basically felt bored.

But that's OK: The ability to not need a screen, or music, or conversation, or some sort of external stimulation is critical. Having the ability to just "be" helps you be steady while everything spins around you. To act with purpose when others simply react. To listen to everything, but only hear what needs to be heard. To slow down when others speed up.

To be a little more in control of your own destiny.

So while there is some science behind a dopamine fast, that's also taking a good thing too far. 

If you decide to try it, think of a dopamine fast as a stimulation fast. Intentionally avoid doing things purposely for a dopamine "hit," and focus on doing things that are gratifying rather than stimulating.

That means much of your day will be spent doing things that are hard, that require thought, effort, purpose, and determination.

Because accomplishing hard things--especially things that will make your life better--always feels good.

Not stimulating, but good.

And that's a feeling you can never get too much of.

Published on: Nov 11, 2019
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