Ever set your intentions for the day, but struggle to follow through with them? Do you lose hours scrolling through social media or playing video games without realising it? Do you get to the end of the day and think “is it seriously 11pm already”?
Trust me, I’ve been there too. And I’ve identified the problem. I call it ‘dopamine snacking’. Just like regular snacking, consuming ‘dopamine snacks’ is a slippery slope and can often undo your whole day and leave you feeling like you’ve failed. But snacking isn’t always bad. If your snacks come from a good source, you’ll find it a lot easier to stay on track every day.
I’m going to tell you how I reframed my thinking around dopamine without adding to my to-do list. You’ll learn how you can do the same to improve your focus, get more done and end each day feeling fulfilled, not guilty.
Dopamine plays a part in how we process pleasure. It tells our brain that we’re enjoying something. The release of dopamine is triggered by just about anything that you ‘enjoy’. It gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you finish a piece of work, or a sense of reward when you step back to admire a scrubbed bathroom. It’s also what keeps you glued to your phone into the wee hours of the night. It’s what makes you want to watch YouTube videos of people making ice-cream instead of whatever it is you’re “supposed” to be doing.
Addiction is a strong word, but it’s one that we need to get more comfortable with. We face addictions all the time, every day. All of us. Even you. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, it’s a universal experience.
Dopamine is at the root of a lot of addictive behaviour. Our brains want to seek out dopamine, we crave that feeling of reward and satisfaction. If left unchecked, your brain’s desire for dopamine can lead you to increasingly unhealthy habits.
Snacking too is a slippery slope. If like me, you generally try to eat a healthy diet then you probably know the dangers of snacking on junk food early in the day.
Think about the days that you end up ordering a takeaway for dinner. It’s usually on ‘bad days’ not ‘good days’. You’re more likely to order takeaway on days where you’ve eaten junk food already.
A biscuit with your tea in the morning turns into half a pack which replaces breakfast. A few pringles before lunch turns into an empty tin. Then you end up ordering a takeaway because you’ve opened the dopamine floodgates and a pizza is the only way to scratch that itch now.
Junk food literally releases more dopamine than natural, healthy foods typically do. Everything from the crunchiness, the smell, the sharp and exaggerated flavours. Everything about junk food isdesigned to release as much dopamine as possible. Our brains don’t really care where the dopamine comes from, they just want more- that’s why junk food is so much more appealing than healthy food.
The same thing goes for activities through the day. Social media, Netflix, video games. All these things are designed to give you the biggest dopamine hit possible, so that you’re more likely to fall down the rabbit hole. Once you start, they’re designed to keep you there. They’re designed to keep you snacking.
But just as food can be delicious and nutritious, your sources of dopamine can be healthy and fulfilling. Exercise, cleaning, spending time with loved ones, cuddling pets, reading books, walking in nature. These are all things that release dopamine, but they’re not engineered to keep you hooked like many of those ‘bad sources’. You can think of these as the fruits and veggies of your dopamine diet. Get as many of them into your day as you can, let them fill your time first, and put everything else in around that.
The idea of a “dopamine retreat” is popular these days. You hear about rich people secluding themselves in the woods with nothing but books to keep them company. They say they return feeling refreshed by their disconnectedness. That’s all well and good, but most working people can’t retreat into the woods for a couple of weeks. We have jobs and responsibilities which require our presence and even if we didn’t, we’d have nowhere to retreat to.
So how can you rehabilitate yourself at home?
Meditation, mindfulness breaks and walks in nature are great, but they all take time and for many of us time is just as scarce as money.
Here’s a few steps you can take to avoid dopamine snacking, without going anywhere or taking up any extra time in your day.
If you keep your phone charger by your bed, go and move it now. Plug it in at your desk, or in another room (wherever you spend most of your day).
When you’re at home, don’t take your phone into the bathroom. If you’re out it’s not that simple, but practicing this at home first will make it easier to resist the temptations of your smartphone at the office. Bathrooms are for getting rid of shit, not consuming more.
If you need some noise to drown out the sounds of life around you, try nature noises. Music can have a huge effect on your emotions. The right song can completely flip your mood. It’s a wonderful thing, but not all day every day.
Seriously. Just wait.
Next time there’s a long line for the checkout, or you’re early meeting a friend, take it as an opportunity to wait. If you start to see “waiting” as an activity that’s good for you (it is) you’ll find that life doesn’t just blur past.
You’ll be bored, at first. Don’t be afraid of that. Our lives have become designed to cut out boredom, but we shouldn’t fear it like we do.
Boredom is rest. Boredom is time to think, to appreciate. A bored mind is fertile soil for creativity. It’s green tea when you’re craving a snack.
Written by Josh Sultan, check out more of his work on www.sultanjosh.co.uk