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The Reward Is the Problem

The true meaning of a Dopamine Detox.

A few weeks ago, while procrastinating (admittedly), I stumbled upon a piece of content on Dopamine Detox. Google wanted me to see it, so I went along. The concept is simple but not necessarily easy for anyone to put in practice.

The idea goes as follows: by removing all sources of “excitement” usually linked to procrastination, e.g. social media, Netflix, gaming and so on, an individual can rehabilitate their dopamine management system.

Regulating the dopamine response is believed to help us get rid of our technological addictions and the ultimate enemy of creativity: procrastination.

As we all found out, the apps we use daily on our devices are designed to get us addicted. They employ scientifically researched reward systems to reinforce our behaviour.

The variability of when and how we are being rewarded seems to be where our dopamine management goes wack.

B. F. Skinner, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, ran famous experiments on animals to study the different types of behavioural reinforcement.

“Skinner found that the type of reinforcement which produces the slowest rate of extinction (i.e., people will go on repeating the behavior for the longest time without reinforcement) is variable-ratio reinforcement.” [source: Simply Psychology]

In other words, the unpredictability of the reward makes the user come back. That’s where algorithms are instrumental to the success of an app but also detrimental to our sanity.

Renaming the Devil.

So I’ve tried the Dopamine Detox for one month, and what came out of it is not a pros and cons list but more of a reflection on the notion of reward.

First, I didn’t like the idea of demonizing the word dopamine (which is an essential neurotransmitter in the brain),so I renamed the experiment: Procrastination Zero. It was much clearer then, what the enemy is.

I started looking at the various ways I was procrastinating throughout the day and decided to apply drastic measures. I blocked social media websites (by turning off javascript for specific sites in my browser) and deleted non-essential apps on my phone. Additionally, I cancelled my Netflix subscription.

Every time I had the impulse to watch a YouTube video on my laptop, as a way to reward myself for having completed a 2-hour session of deep work, I would end up on a blank page.

Because the solution I used was to remove access to the object of my procrastination, there was no inner struggle or appeal to my willpower. It’s much easier to make peace with something when you don’t have to fight with it. Adapting my environment to my goal was the gist of it.

Removing the addiction.

It was clear to me that the ideal way to spend my free time was reading printed books. So that’s what I did. Every evening, I sat on my couch with a hot drink and opened a book. No self-talk, no argument, I sat down, and I read.

The only other pieces of content I allowed myself to consume were online lectures and courses. If I wasn’t in the mood to be intellectually stimulated, I trained outdoor with a friend.

The whole experiment was unexpectedly easy. The kind of easy revealed when you realize that the gate is scarier than the space it encompasses. Or when the cold water of a lake feels like hell on your big toe, but is refreshing and invigorating once you’re in.

After a full week of Procrastination Zero, I started to reflect on how much of my attention I was giving away, without questioning it, every day.

Questioning the notion of reward.

I came to see that rewardsare a way to compensate for our lack of self-confidence and self-love. When we promise ourselves a recompense for a certain behaviour or completion of a task, our effort comes with the risk of a potential detriment. It can easily lead to self-sabotage.

Let’s be real; our rewards are rarely healthy. They sometimes can be an effective way to develop new habits, I concur, but it’s not a long term strategy.

So I got rid of self-rewards all at once. I realized they only served me as a crutch while attempting to accomplish my goals. The alternative was simple: to do my work, to complete my tasks (i.e. target my aim), without any self-negotiation.

Choose the hard things; don’t let them happen to you.

I have nothing against entertainment. If you love binge-watching series, browsing the web without an aim or play online games, more power to you. Having the ability and freedom to do what we love is a gift, and we should cherish it.

My intention here is simply to reflect on how we tend to integrate the things we enjoy into a reward system instead of taking them for what they are.

When it’s time to do the hard work, we shouldn’t see the effort we need to make, but the choice we are making. That’s where we consciously move from a passive to an active position.

So drop the self-negotiation and the shiny reward. Do what you know to be true and choose the hard things; don’t let them happen to you.

Nicolas
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