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Struggling with a lack of motivation, focus and energy?
[New Reddit Article] - I've been there, and there is a way out.
As someone who procrastinates on basically everything, it’s normal to think that your issues lies with your brain’s ability to generate motivation.
If each time you sit down to do some work you get pummeled by that "ugh, I just don't feel like it” sensation... it’s easy to assume your brain's simply broken; unable to produce the neurological chemicals needed to have you act on what you know is important.
But here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with your brain. It’s functioning exactly as it evolved to function.
If you truly had clinical issues with generating motivation, (as would be the case if you suffered from a rare disorder called Athymhormia) you wouldn't do anything at all. You wouldn’t check your email a dozen times before lunch. You wouldn’t randomly get up to scan the fridge or pantry for a snack. You wouldn’t mindlessly type “r-e-d” or “y-o-u” the second you sat in front of a keyboard.
Your problem isn’t that you have zero capacity for motivation. It’s that you’re motivated for the wrong things. And the reason you are motivated for the wrong things has everything to do with the flow of a little chemical called dopamine.
I can’t think of that word without recalling an old Jimmy Kimmel clip where sends a film crew to interview folks claiming to be on a “gluten-free diet". When asked the simple question “so what is gluten?”. Their answers, as expected, are both cringe and comical.
Today, if Kimmel had the same crew interview folks doing a “dopamine detox”, you’d probably get similar results.
Yet, I don’t mean to be all snide here. Us humans evolved to perk-up to anecdotes; to tune into unusual bits of advice that promises quick and easy results—more so than heady studies and government guidelines. Those who implement the advice and do well, the “survivors”, propagate the ideas on social media through a mix of survival-bias, pseudo-science and broken-telephone.
So, in the case of the “Dopamine Detox”, what started as a nuanced CBT technique, devolved, for better or worse, into the dopamine fads we see today.
Ok, so what then is dopamine?
Dopamine is not the molecule of pleasure, as is commonly inferred . It’s not the thing we want to feel; the high addicts chase so feverishly.
Dopamine, rather, is the chase. It gets us to anticipate and desire a reward, which then fuels us to take action to satisfy that desire.
In short, while it serves other purposes in the brain, dopamine is responsible for feelings of motivation.
So now, because of the internet and our phones, we are stimulating way too much of it. We need a "detox" from all the dopamine in our system, right?
Dopamine is not a toxin. It doesn’t accumulate. It doesn’t need to be flushed out.
What matters for us here on this subreddit, trying to be more disciplined and productive, is the context of its activation: from where in the brain is it flowing and to where?
In other words, what matters is which dopaminergic pathway is being stimulated throughout the day.
You see, dopamine doesn’t just drive the pursuit for easy-to-reach rewards. It’s not just about you grabbing your phone to open up YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, Tinder or DoorDash. It drives all pursuits, including or you finishing up that report you’ve been procrastinating on.
Light up the mesocortical pathway—or use Control Dopamine as Professor Daniel Z. Lieberman calls it in his book “The Molecule of More”—and your motivation will be directed towards executive functions. You’ll be driven to put in the time and effort in the pursuit of long-term goals and accomplishments. You’ll hit the gym. You’ll grind out that report. You’ll do stuff now to get pleasure later.
But ignite the mesolimbic pathway—or use Desire Dopamine—and you’re grabbing at what’s right in front of you and immediately gratifying. You’ll reach for your phone. You'll grab a bun from the bread-basket. You’ll do stuff now to get pleasure also now.
This distinction is key from a clinical perspective. According to Lieberman, people who suffer from ADHD tend to experience remarkable improvements in their behavior, in their ability to effect controlled, healthful actions, when they are given stimulants that boost the Control Dopamine action of their mesocortical pathways.
But this distinction is also super key for us here in our quest to get disciplined. To change our habits—to become people who can simply set long-term goals and execute on our plans without A) being ceaselessly harassed by urges and cravings for our vices, and B) being stifled by feelings of laziness, lethargy and demotivation… we need to reorient the flow of dopamine.
Simply put, we need less dopamine acting in the mesolimbic (Desire) pathway and more of it acting in the mesocortical (Control) circuit.
That sounds promising. So how? How can I control which dopamine pathway gets activated?
This is tricky.
There’s no valve we can directly access that will divert the flow of dopamine from one pathway to the other. There’s no weekend self-empowerment seminar you can attend that’ll have such an effect; no motivational rara speech I can upload to YouTube that'll do the trick.
Because here’s the core of the problem: our tech-vices—so everything from streaming TV, to porn, dating apps and video games—are in essence shortcuts.
Our vices are shortcuts to us feeling survival affirming rewards. And survival affirming rewards are mental indicators that we just acted in ways that will help us survive in a dangerous world of scarce resources.
For the reward of sex… we have the vice shortcut of porn.
For the reward of adventure and acquiring a bounty… we have he vice shortcut of video games.
For the reward of competition and winning… we have the vice shortcut of televised professional sports.
For the reward of status and connection… we have the vice shortcut of social media and dating apps.
For the reward of gossip… we have the vice shortcut of sitcoms, movies, reality TV, YouTube and TikTok.
For the reward of acquiring vital information… we have the vice shortcut of Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle.
For the reward of contribution… we have the vice shortcut of slacktivism and online virtue signaling.
Today, for the first time in our specie’s existence, every single one of our survival affirming rewards can be felt through the shortcut of a vice. There are artificial and vicarious versions of every pleasure imaginable. No stone has been left unturned by the tech and media giants. And many of them tick several boxes at once.
On the surface, this is great. What used to require a huge cost of time, effort and risk—what used to require the activation and sustaining of Control Dopamine—can now be experienced in a flash and with zero work—with the action of Desire Dopamine.
But, in the end, its all vicarious. It's all fake. There’s no substance.
By consuming your vices, you’re not actually making any inroads towards your survival. In fact, the opposite is often true as it can have you waste tons of precious time. So when the distraction runs its course and you surface back to a reality where…
No, 4-hours on Reddit didn’t actually help me survive by learning about the ills of the world… no, flicking through Instagram didn’t actually mean I was part of an entourage of cool and popular people… no, there are still existential threats—climate disaster, inflation, AI robots, polarizing political movements—coming at me from all angles…
It then hits you that you really do need to do something for your survival. You get stressed and anxious. You think, ok, now I really need to get disciplined and get productive. Now I really need to get my friggin report done already.
You try to solicit your Control Dopamine to do the work, but then, well, you can’t. You just can’t. You get nailed with resistance—with that “ugh, I just don’t feel like it” feeling—and you find yourself unable to even open up your work document, let alone focus for several hours straight.
Why? Because the deep, Control-Dopamine-gating part of your brain is like:
uhhh, heyyyy buddy. Like, why are you asking me to burn precious calories on, *checks ticket* “write the stupid effing report”? Don’t you know that all our survival affirming rewards can be had now and with zero effort? All we gotta do is pick up the magic rectangular rock and tap at some shiny buttons. So let’s do that again, while I prevent motivation for anything that uses more energy for the same result…
Bottom line is this: when the same reward can be had both through Desire Dopamine and Control Dopamine; you will always, quite understandably, be driven to use the Desire kind.
You will be compelled to your vices.
So… we’re all screwed then?
Well, I have some goods news and some bad news.
Bad news is we don’t have an “unlearn” button. Our subconscious preference and reflex towards vices for our survival affirming rewards have congealed into habits. And these habits are now so deeply ingrained and heavily reinforced—their neuronal links are so exceedingly myelinated—that resisting and attempting to override impulses towards them will be difficult and strenuous. That's assuming you can catch them in time before you act.
It will require the right combination of tools (website and feed blockers), pre-commitment actions (deleting apps, relocating devices, talking with your spouse and/or a therapist), practices (mindfulness) and sure, a heaping teaspoon of willpower.
The good news is, we are, at the end of the day, survival machines. And we evolved to survive through sustained, long-term focused work. That’s the “normal” state of affaires for our species and why we’ve become so dominant. Our brains are thus wire-for, and perfectly “okay” with, consuming lots of time and energy to build things to better survive—so long as it’s clear there isn’t an easier alternative (which has only been the case in recent times).
Therefore, if, through a prolonged period of abstinence, we “show” our brains that the party’s over and we no longer have access to that magical all-you-can-eat buffet of rewards… motivation will slowly return. The resistance will lift as the flow of dopamine shifts, by necessity for survival, from the Desire kind to Control.
In short, we need to place ourselves back in an environment in which we evolved in; one where opportunities to use Desire Dopamine were few and far between and so our Control Dopamine was essential for survival.
So how is this different than a Dopamine Detox?
What the Dopamine fads gets right is that this process starts with a deliberate period of abstinence.
What it gets wrong—or what it fails to adequately address—is how you should both approach the intervention and how you should continue on living after.
To use an analogy, a “Dopamine Detox” is like a fad diet to lose weight. It’ll work by brute force assuming you can stick with it, but all the weight will return (and then some) as soon as it ends and you revert to your old ways.
What you need is permanent lifestyle change.
In that light, I’d like to propose a few extra nuances to the dopamine interventions you've been hearing about.
1. Give your intervention a new, more accurate, name.
What we're striving for is a change in the dopamine pathway we tend to activate. We don't want less dopamine; we want to alter its trajectory. You can call the intervention a "Dopamine Reorientation."
2. Think of it as trial-run towards a permanent lifestyle.
Don't view it as a "get-in, get-out", 14-day or so intervention. Think of it as a trial-run; an unbiased experiment; a test of what life would and could be like without your tech-vices.
Be open-minded, like a scientist with a clipboard ready to collect data. It might be challenging, it might be rewarding. Maybe it’ll suck. Maybe it’ll be wonderful. Maybe it’ll suck… before it becomes wonderful. Who knows. Just be ready to experiment and collect data.
3. Hold off on good-habits
Many self-help resources insist that to break a bad habit, you must fill the void with a multitude of good habits. So, with the Desire Dopamine tap closed, we ready ourselves to pick up our neglected guitar, language learning app or running shoes.
This sounds good on paper, but it often backfires hard. Why? Because we simply can't expect the transition towards us having access to Control Dopamine to occur right away. So when suddenly find ourselves drained of energy; lacking the motivation to get any of that done... we come down hard on ourselves. We get frustrated and discouraged. And these are the precise negative emotions that, unsurprisingly, push us back towards the relief of our vices.
Instead, be patient with yourself and the process. The effects of your previous vice consumption will persist for a while. Resistance will linger like a petulant ghost, overstaying its welcome long after receiving its eviction notice.
And it's likely that you'll feel worse before you start feeling better, as you deny yourself your habitual coping mechanisms and are "forced" to confront all the negative emotions and sensations you've been escaping from through vices.
So what do you do with all this extra free-time?
Nothing. I give you permission to do a lot of nothing.
Spend some time sitting on the couch, observing what's happening inside you, experiencing whatever arises, and listening to your mind's inane chatter. This is mindfulness, the deliberate practice of experiencing your inner thoughts, sensations, and emotions from a detached perspective. It truly is the best way for us to manage and process all that's going on inside.
Of course, you can't be expected to do this for hours on end. So... go for walks. Spend time in nature or explore the city. At home, read books, listen to music or podcasts. Engage in activities reminiscent of the 2020 lockdown, like baking bread, reorganizing the closet or doing puzzles.
When you feel ready—when enough time has passed and you have that first hint of motivation to do some work—engage with it slowly and gently. Don't force it. If you can only manage 5 minutes, do 5 minutes. Come back to it later.
4. Seek help
Many of us would benefit from the guidance and support of a mental health professional throughout this experience.
I've done this, and it's surprising how little time my therapist, trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, spent delving into my past. It can sometimes feel like they're reciting techniques straight out of a self-help book (in a good way).
Their aim is simple: to equip you with tried and true mindsets and practices to deal with triggers, urges, and temptations in your daily life; ensuring you stay aligned with your core values rather than succumbing to base desires and your self-sabotaging habits. That’s how I learned about mindfulness.
5. Utilize tools
Don't assume that you'll have the willpower to power through as is. It's amazing how easily we can rationalize just taking a quick peek—or else it’s done purely on auto-pilot.
So use all the tools at your disposal. Install website blockers and set screen-time limits. Pre-commit by deleting apps and removing consoles or junk food from your immediate environment. Have open conversations with your flatmates or significant-other about your intentions and seek their support.
6. Pursue rewards
A Dopamine Reorientation isn't about sacrifice. Sure, much of it is about delaying gratification, but we aren’t trying to be monks, living a completely ascetic and pleasureless life. Gratification is good... but only when it's earned through a fair and balanced trade of time and work.
Plus, there’s so much joy to be had in the pursuit of our goals; not just in attaining them. From “runner's high” to the deep satisfaction of a productive day's work, we can genuinely feel good as we get stuff done. The anticipation and pursuit of goals evolved to feel good. The reward, whenever it arrives, is the cherry on top.
7. Don't concern yourself with moderation... at least not initially.
I’m not anti-pleasure. I’m not anti-social-media, video games, TV or even junk food.
What I am is pro-data.
If a week or so into your Dopamine Reorientation you find yourself lacking any desire to return to browsing r /all, then, well don’t. Fully abstain because you want to abstain.
If however, after a few weeks without video games, you feel ready to test the waters with an hour of gaming before bed on select weeknights, go for it. Try it out. Maybe you just can’t end it after an hour. Maybe you can. Assume nothing and gather that data.
Ultimately, a Dopamine Reorientation intervention is about embracing the pursuit of meaningful goals, over the endless pursuit of ephemeral and meaningless pleasure. It’s about reclaiming your agency, which can only happen by doing the work to rewire key parts of your brain.
If you decide to go down that route with the aim of living a better, more fulfilling life, just know that I and many others are rooting for you. Armed with patience, self-compassion, curiosity, and a willingness to challenge assumptions, I’m beyond certain that, for you, success is well within your reach.
You've got this.
- Simon ㋛
PS1: I also posted this to Reddit. If you found it useful, please take a second to vote on it there and drop a comment. You can also click on the heart icon, which helps with the Substack algorithm. :)
PS2: It’s been a while since I wrote an article for Reddit. I’ve just been a busy beaver working on my upcoming video course, which will be centered on stopping procrastination and time wasting. Hit reply if you want to be put on the pre-launch waiting list. You’ll get perks like a big discount as well as free 1 on 1 or group coaching sessions with me (I want to make 100% sure you get tangible results).
PS3: was the 5th and last console I had at home. We got this after original Nintendo (yeah, I’m old), Sega Genesis, PS1, PS2.