Why can’t you get things done?
When I was a teenager I loved to hang out at TGI Friday’s because they had an infinite ice tea refill. Ice tea was my favorite drink and I loved to have as much as I could. I could easily drink 3 to 4 ice teas in one sitting. I usually felt like shit after my ice tea binges. But next weekend I´d come back for more.
You can’t get things done for the same reason I couldn’t help ordering the third ice tea at Friday’s. Because it’s hard to say no to things that feel good. You can´t get enough of the dopamine that short-term pleasure brings you.
When someone consumes too much undeserved dopamine the baseline level of dopamine they need rises exponentially. It becomes hard for them to enjoy going for a walk, reading, or focusing on only one task.
When you are too used to “feeling good”. You will only do the things that make you feel good. This is why there are so many wantrepreneurs and wannabes out there. They are perpetually on the dopamine treadmill. They just want to feel good, and not get the work done (which might feel bad at the moment).
When you have been consuming dopamine all day and you have to do something that requires concentration it seems like torture.
Not a good state to be in — especially if you want to get something done.
What makes us feel good?
A hug, our dog welcoming us after a long day at work, getting a compliment, an achievement we worked hard for.
A cigarette drag also feels very good. So does eating a Belgian chocolate ice-cream, watching porn, and snorting cocaine.
All of these have something in common. They trigger a hormone in our brain called dopamine. Although dopamine is also linked to learning, sleep, movement, and other functions. Here we will focus on dopamine as a reward.
Everything we do is a pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. The catch is that generally, short-term pleasure can lead to long-term pain. And short-term pain can lead to long-term happiness and fulfillment.
So not everything that feels good is actually good for us.
Let’s say you prepare for an interview for your dream job, you nail it, and get the job. This gives you a massive dopamine rush. Feels like bliss. Or let’s say you are a guy and you meet a woman. You are very attracted to her–all of this produces massive amounts of dopamine for you (and her).
So you start dating and eventually have sex. You attracted and showed enough value for each other– massive production of natural dopamine that you deserve. This is very powerful. It’s what keeps the world moving. This is why people go out and do extraordinary things, this is why businesses are created, books are written, and athletic records broken.
Now, picture this. You come back home after work on a Friday night. You are tired. You are alone. So you open up your laptop, watch porn, and masturbate. This also triggers massive amounts of dopamine. But this is undeserved dopamine, the type of dopamine you do not deserve. It feels great but can be detrimental if you abuse it.
Deserved dopamine comes from writing 1000 words or going for a 5-mile run. These can be very hard to do. But heavily rewarding. Undeserved dopamine is like an infinite Pez dispenser that we carry around at all times. We just have to press it and we get shitty candy whenever we want.
The idea is to avoid this as much as possible.
We live in a dopamine dumpster
Modern society is like a Friday´s ice tea refill for dopamine. Everything is programmed for us to maximize the amount of undeserved dopamine that we get. In such a reality refusing to indulge becomes an act of rebellion.
We live in a blur of constant dopamine. Making it almost impossible to reach the state of introspection necessary to know yourself and live a life of fulfillment.
We are just following the dopamine trail and wherever it leads us. And it generally leads us to feeling like shit.
But we can escape it.
This is the goal of the dopamine detox. Instead of following the never-ending dopamine trail, we carve our own path.
Instead of being distracted we consciously choose not to be distracted.
It’s easy to do what feels good. Watching Netflix after a 9 to 5 is easier than writing your book, training, or working on your passion.
When you mindlessly lay in bed scrolling social media you are following the dopamine trail. When you decide to hide your phone you are opting out of the trail.
The 40-day dopamine detox is doing this on a massive, life-altering scale.
My 40-day dopamine detox
Throughout my 20s I went on an all-inclusive dopamine cruise. I drank too much, I smoked too much, I consumed all sorts of low-value entertainment late into the night, ate whatever was placed in front of me. I didn’t choose, whatever felt good at the moment I did it.
When it comes to being “conscious” I was only conscious of where my pack of cigarettes was.
My work days were a constant stream of checking phone notifications and checking social media instead of focusing on what I had to get done. On weekends I was either drunk or hungover.
I couldn’t focus, couldn’t get things done, and had a hard time controlling myself. My lack of discipline was a pivotal problem in my life.
I recently came across a book called A 40 Day Dopamine Fast by Greg Kamphuis. He writes about how he decided to build discipline by denying himself the “easy” dopamine rewards for 40 days.
The challenge immediately resonated with me (I had already done a 1-day dopamine detox) so I decided to try it.
So after not drinking coffee on a Sunday, I decided to “test” the challenge for a few days. Eventually, I got momentum and committed to it. (I prefer to “ease in” into these things instead of pressuring myself).
The next 40 days were the most difficult of my life. And not because of the challenge.
Rules of the 40-day dopamine challenge
This is not an Olympic sport so you make your own constraints depending on what you want to achieve. (I took mine from the A 40 Day Dopamine Fast book).
So for 40 days:
- No alcohol
- No coffee (I still had decafs and teas)
- No smoking
- No porn / fapping
- Social media only twice a day maximum for 10 minutes
- No processed sweets
I don’t recommend doing this challenge if you have a serious addiction to any of these (coffee or sweets doesn’t count).
Quitting smoking or drinking by itself is extremely difficult and doing all this together can render you useless. Also, I wouldn’t recommend entering in this type of challenge if you are going through a very stressful period (as I did). Outlets such as coffee and smoking can actually help you overcome these intense periods.
Think of yourself as a water tank that is suddenly overflowing with water. You want to have a few holes to let the excess water flow out. If not, the water tank can burst. And nobody wants to see you exploding.
40 days without Alcohol
If I would have done this challenge in my early 20s I would have most likely failed 30 minutes after a friend called me and offered me to meet up.
Thankfully I’ve lowered my alcohol intake considerably over the past 4 years. I am amused by how my new group of friends marvel at my discipline. I am usually the least drunk among them.
People who knew me from before were used to me being the drunkest of the group (and the party). Times change. I was tired of being the drunk “funny” guy whose highlight of the night was to make a few people laugh and then lock myself in the bathroom for an hour / and then pass out.
But in this challenge, not drinking was a breeze. Alcohol was the easiest thing to let go. The only time I wanted to drink was the first weekend while with friends who were drinking. Afterwards, I never even thought of having a drink– although I had people drinking next to me several times. It was great to forget how a hangover feels like.
Not drinking makes your life much simpler. There are all these minutiae related to drinking that I am glad I didn’t have to deal with. Like waking up the next day not feeling as good as you should despite only having 2 beers, calculating how much you can drink so this doesn’t happen, the logistics of not being able to drive, queues at bars, dealing with douchey bartenders, overpaying for watered down-drinks, figuring out if you can mix X with Y, knowing when to stop, not texting Samantha after your third drink. To hell with all of that.
Will I drink after the challenge? Yes. But I´ll keep it for the big events. Boozing has consequences. And if I am going to get drunk it will be with a gin and tonic served by a finely dressed gentleman at a wedding, not by some moody hipster with a forest tattoo on his neck at a sweaty bar. This is my definition of drinking responsibly.
Days without alcohol: 40 🤘
40 days without coffee
Matt D’avella exaggerated in his 30-day no caffeine video. The first few days don’t feel so bad. Yes. I felt sluggish and slower than usual but I wasn’t dragging my feet either. I need coffee to give me a kick, not to put me back to life. But I will not lie. Not drinking coffee for 40 days was very hard. (The worst part was the looks I was getting when ordering decafs in Europe).
The first few days dragged on endlessly. They had me questioning whether I should pack and just move to the mountains (I think of this frequently but more frequently when I am not on coffee). I was cranky and hated everything.
The thing with coffee is that it adds intensity to your life. So when you are on it you can feel super sharp for like an hour and then bam! you are sucker-punched. You need another “lift” to get back up. When you are not on coffee you don’t get that intensity but you can go on with moderate energy for longer. This is a major reason to quit coffee or drink it with moderation. You never experience these super-low energy drops.
Quitting coffee gives you a good insight into how much you really enjoy your workday. It’s similar to measuring how much you enjoy someone’s company when you are sober. Every drinker has drinking buddies he wouldn’t even greet sober. It’s hell running into them at the mall at like 11 am. “Shit I hope this fucker doesn’t see me”. The worst part is he is thinking the same. But at 11 pm and 5 gin tonics later you are best friends again.
The same type of reflection that not drinking does to your social life, avoiding coffee does to your professional life.
We tend to drink coffee around professional activities. Your first coffee will typically be around 8 am when you arrive at the office, your second after lunch, then maybe in the afternoon to get that final boost (ie survive).
So even if you hate filling up that weekly multi-channel marketing performance report that nobody will read; filling it while drinking coffee is not that bad. Because you are having coffee – which feels great.
Now, when you are off coffee, everything changes. You no longer have that nice buzz so you realize how much you really hate filing that report.
So avoiding coffee in your professional life can make you realize how much you love or hate your daily tasks. Of course, you already knew this. Not having coffee just made you feel it.
This is another hidden benefit of the dopamine detox. Since your mood is not altered by any substance you can have a more honest appraisal of your life. You can look straight into your soul — if you want to get more poetic.
To measure the quality of your life, simply do nothing, and see how it feels.
— Nav.al (@naval) April 18, 2020
So without coffee, I started feeling a lot of this with my work. I found some of the stuff I do meaningless and uninteresting. My performance also dropped a bit. I felt lazier and unmotivated. The first few days I just felt like throwing myself on the couch like a sack of potatoes, lighting up a cigarette and staring at the ceiling and doing nothing.
Coincidentally the performance of most of the Facebook ads accounts I was managing dropped. I almost gave up on the challenge. I had that voice in my head saying: “Hey man. Choose. Either you complete this dumb challenge or all your clients drop you. What’s it going to be?”. And I almost, almost, gave heed to the voice a few times during the first two weeks.
It was especially hard to keep away from coffee because it’s freaking everywhere. If you stay at home after 6 pm or just avoid bars and clubs you don’t get exposed to alcohol. But coffee has more reach. The smell of coffee pursued me everywhere. Malls, at the airport, coffee shops (I know I should have avoided). Others were drinking it and offering it to me. I looked at them as if they were offering me heroin with breakfast “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?”
I love coffee. The smell, the ritual, the taste, the effect. Everything. Having an espresso in a ceramic cup in a nice coffee shop makes me remember I am civilized. This is what I missed the most about coffee. Not so much the performance enhancement. But the ritual.
Anyway. I knew I was going to jump back on it as soon as the challenge was over. When I did I felt like superman. I could take over the world. I had endless energy and enthusiasm for life. I would have filled 3 of those multi-channel marketing reports with a smile. This is how you feel on coffee when you drink it seldom. Perhaps this is what I should do to take advantage of the effects of coffee… Nah, I’ll just drink more coffee instead.
Days without alcohol: 40🤘
*I did have teas (which contain caffeine) and a few decaf coffees. But never had a real coffee.
40 days without masturbation/porn:
I´ve been on Nofap since December 2019 so this was not an issue. Also, not drinking makes it easier to avoid messy situations in this regard.
Days without: 40+ 🤘
40 days without smoking
Although I quit smoking and consistently buying cigarettes in August 2018 I still smoke cigars, e-cigarettes, and cigarettes occasionally. I love smoke coming out of my mouth.
Now, under normal circumstances quitting smoking for 40 days would have been easy. I’ve had much longer smoke-free periods since 2018. Before starting the challenge I didn’t have a cigarette for months. But this time it was extremely hard.
During week 2 of the challenge, I got the news that my dad was taken to the hospital. He was in Panama and I was in Europe at the moment. This was August 2020, and the pandemic made it very hard for me to reach Panama–the country had been on full lockdown since March. But I miraculously got a flight for the 24th.
My trip started on a Monday, my dad died on Wednesday, and I managed to reach Panama only on Friday because of COVID restrictions. He had struggled with cancer for a few years. A fellow passenger was kind enough to offer me a cigarette upon hearing the news.
This triggered a smoking spree that lasted all the way through the end of the challenge and about three more weeks.
The curious thing is I didn’t buy a single cigarette. This goes to show how important the environment is when trying to avoid something. No wonder James Clear talks extensively about the environment in Atomic Habits. My smoking was sponsored, not by Marlboro but by the most generous people of them all — other smokers.
Days without smoking (during the challenge): ≈14 😟
40 days without sweets
When I was stuck in the airport for 5 days trying to reach Panama I had one Starbucks cookie. And I might have had a few pieces of chocolate, I don’t remember well with how crazy those days were. So I failed this one as well. Even though I didn’t crave sweets at any other stage of the challenge.
40 days without social media
I didn’t monitor this one as closely, although I should have. Recently I´ve caught myself spending too much time on Twitter. Although I did follow the regime up to when I had to travel back to Panama. Afterward, with everything that happened, I probably checked social media more often.
I noticed something. When I feel great I rarely check social media by impulse. But when I feel bad I can’t control it. I find myself on Twitter or Facebook automatically. I follow a lot of non conventional self-improvement accounts on Twitter so that may be a reason why.
Anyway, I was feeling quite bad during this period so I did more of these “automatic” social media checks.
Takeaways of the 40-day dopamine challenge
Reprogramming your brain
You teach your brain to pursue the highly rewarding dopamine. So instead of getting dopamine hits from a doughnut or some sex pixels. You get them from high-quality sources. Work, relationships, learning, moving forward on a project you have, working out.
Going 40 days without all these delicious things is a test of your self-control. Everyone struggles with something they are doing that they know they should do less off. This could be something obvious such as smoking or something less apparent like day-dreaming, procrastination, or maybe consuming too much info and not taking enough action. Whatever it is, you will have more control over it after the challenge.
You change your routine
The challenge helps you restructure your environment, which can lead to new insights and permanent habit changes. For instance. If your go-to plan for Saturday nights is to go to a bar and drink. With the challenge, you will most likely replace that with staying at home and reading or convince your friends to go wall-climbing instead. Who knows. You might emerge out of the challenge as a completely new person. By changing your habits and changing your environment you can tilt your life into a completely new domain.
I did a lot more writing, started working out on the weekends, and haven’t had more than two drinks since I completed the challenge.
A strange kind of happiness
It sounds counterintuitive but I feel happy when I can’t indulge in something that I enjoy. During the challenge, I always had something to look forward to. Despite everything that was going on I had the cup of coffee to look forward to in 3 weeks… 2 weeks…1 week. I had a nice beer with a friend to look forward to. Yes. These are tiny things but not allowing yourself something for a while helps you not take things for granted. Delayed gratification can be a very powerful (and wholesome) source of happiness.
Paradoxically I also realized how overrated some of these indulgences are. When you meet with a good friend a beer is just an accessory. It isn’t necessary. The challenge helped me see what I already knew. Who these people are and the reasons I enjoy their company.
You eliminate the veil of bullshit that comes when you are injecting dopamine into your system. The world becomes more raw and fulfilling.
You get off the roller-coaster
When you control your dopamine intake you eliminate the steep mountains and valleys of your life. You get off the rollercoaster with its intoxicating peaks and low valleys. Yes, a fun ride but one you don’t control. When you are on the rollercoaster there is someone else pulling the levers, and you can’t trust that guy to be looking out for your best interest. He just wants you to go for the ride, without caring for the consequences.
Now you are on the ground. You have more control. You can prove to yourself you don’t need that cheap roller coaster ride to have fun. In fact, you don’t want to have fun. You want something more profound, more meaningful than “fun”. “Fun” wears off quickly. Monday blues will come and get you no matter how much fun you had on the weekend if you hate your job. If your relationship is bad up you can stay at a 5-star hotel in Paris facing the Eiffel Tower and the cracks will still show. Next thing you know the Eiffel tower collapses. And you are on a 10-hour plane ride back to normalcy without saying a word.
With everyone telling us to consume, consume, consume. That more is better. That is the right thing to do is indulge our every 5 senses until we can’t feel any more. You are saying “fuck it” you know what? I’ll tune out. I’ll do my own thing. I set the calendar for my body.
Rebelling against this programming is fantastic. We should do it as much as we can. Choosing and following through is a great leap towards whatever you want to achieve. It’s reprogramming that you select to do.
Life becomes more simple
By subtracting things from your life, you make it more simple. And more enjoyable.
You look for the motivation somewhere else
I was at a friend’s apartment the first week of the challenge and drinking was happening; shots were poured, offers were made. But I didn’t drink. I told them about the challenge, and I felt respect. That gave me way more energy than a vodka shot.
When you opt-out of the hedonic treadmill. You prove you can operate without the external fuel — without the artificial audience cheering you.
When you can´t rely on coffee to give you that last push at 6 pm when you are completely exhausted you search for something else that gives it to you. Maybe a purpose, a song, doing pushups, or a cold shower. We all have that thing that helps us pull through when we think we cannot do something.
Or you know what? Maybe nothing will. Maybe you don’t need to. Maybe you shouldn’t be doing that heroic push at 6 pm. Maybe you should call it a day and rest. When you reset your brain you notice these things.
During this period, my confidence, energy, and resolution came from the inside. This is what matters. And that’s why you should do a 40-day dopamine fast.
If you are not ready for the challenge yet
If you are not ready to do the 40-day dopamine detox challenge there are “baby steps” you can take to relieve yourself from this constant need for dopamine.
- Turn off your cellphone one or two hours before bed and at least two hours after waking up.
- Quit one low-quality activity first. It doesn’t have to be the hardest, you could quit fast food, sugar, or porn.
- No coffee weekends are a great way to train for longer periods of coffee abstinence. (It’s harder to say no to coffee on workdays).
- If you are a guy, quit porn first. It is a very powerful source of undeserved dopamine and the one that will have the highest impact on your life. Start by unfollowing every single woman you do not know and realistically don´t have a chance of meeting.
- If you are consuming too many sources of undeserved dopamine quit one at a time. Don´t go all crazy like “Arghh I will quit smoking, drinking, sugar, at the same time” you will most likely implode. Start with the easiest one for you, and go step by step.
- Try a one-day water dopamine fast. So for one day you can work out, go for a walk, write, play a musical, talk to someone. The catch? You can only drink water, nothing else.