One common problem most of us face today is the inability to focus and devote time to activities like studying or working, when compared to activities such as simply scrolling through social media. Why is it that we feel we spend too much time on activities that do us little good, but still do it anyway? Why do we prefer playing a game of Call Of Duty instead of dusting that bookshelf as we promised ourselves a week ago? Why is it that our phones have become our sole source of killing boredom?
To understand why these things happen, we need to understand the working of a certain neurotransmitter released by our brain- dopamine. Most of us are familiar with how pop culture has defined dopamine as the happy hormone, the main chemical of pleasure.
Dopamine is the brain’s reward system and confers motivation to the brain to take part in any activity. Even the anticipation of a certain outcome releases dopamine. In other words, it is the brain’s bargaining chip for a certain loathsome activity to be done. It is as simple as that.
Every activity we participate in (or simply the anticipation of its outcome) releases dopamine. However, the release of dopamine isn’t a consistent affair; different activities release different amounts of dopamine. Every time we drink alcohol, consume drugs, masturbate, scroll through social media, take a bite of that juicy burger, or do anything we love, our brains release high amounts of dopamine.
Our brains are inherently addicted to dopamine- which isn’t a bad thing. Like I mentioned earlier, it is the brain’s bargaining chip to get work done. So naturally, our brains like it when more and more dopamine is released. That’s where the dilemma arises.
When we’ve put up a post on Instagram or simply scrolling through our feed, or even the simple anticipation of the likes we are about to get on our new post, outranks the capabilities of the dopamine released by doing something like working or studying.
Dopamine becomes dangerous when we start developing a tolerance for it. We achieve tolerance when a certain quantity of a particular substance is no longer sufficient to satisfy the requirements of a certain task. That is precisely why someone who has been consuming coffee 10 nights in a row requires an extra glass on the eleventh night. Or why our friend who drinks every night takes a lot more booze to take down compared to someone who is an occasional drinker. This happens because our body develops a tolerance to these substances, and the threshold to feel the effects of the substance is a lot higher than it originally was.
This is the reason why people who suffer from addiction find it so difficult to motivate themselves to do anything and refrain from engaging themselves in their habits. That is also the reason we find ourselves often switching over to Instagram while we work, because the dopamine released while working cannot match our threshold set by our constant use of social media platforms.
Something we commonly see is how billionaires in movies often take a vacation away from work and pleasures in life. This has become a common trend in the Silicon Valley as well, where someone abstains from pleasures to lower their dopamine tolerance levels, commonly referred to as dopamine fasting or dopamine detoxification.
Dopamine fasting generally involves giving up highly pleasurable activities like eating junk food, sex, alcohol, drugs, electronics, reading, etc. This generally leaves an individual with limited options such as meditation, journaling, self-reflecting, and drinking water (yes, let’s not lie, most of are really bad at this one).
The principle behind this method is to exploit the brain’s craving for dopamine; since our brain is dependant on dopamine, even a loathsome task like dusting our table will be rewarding. A similar approach is used in drug deaddiction therapies as well.
This can be done by having a fasting maybe once a week or so. If such a task seems menacing, it is time to introspect and figure out if we are seriously addicted to certain stimulants.
Shigeru Miyamoto is a video game developer, who probably most of us are not familiar with, whose two most famous works- The Legend of Zelda and Mario, are household names. Shigeru succeeded with Mario mainly due to the sheer simplicity of the game. The game comes with no instruction manual or controls tutorial, and is very intuitive to play.
We pay a small penalty for failing (in stark contrast to how our education system functions) which makes the possibility of success a lot more rewarding than the anticipation of failure. This is a simple tactic of capitalizing on the mind’s thirst for gratification has made Mario one of the largest video gaming franchises in history.
If we are able to incentivize our work done after intervals with maybe a good snack, a movie, or even a party at the end of a week, work would be a lot easier. One thing that is often suggested by experts is to start the day with the more difficult tasks, and winding down towards the end of the day, rewarding ourselves for being productive. If we were to wake up and straight away start scrolling through our feed, it is pretty likely that we will use the ten more minutes excuse and build up the tolerance.
Now some of these things may sound very difficult to do, but I am sure that it is worth a shot. Feel free to slowly add your own restrictions, making it more challenging as you progress. I highly encourage you to try this out, and do let me what you think about this, and how it went!