How Dopamine Fasting Feels as a Silicon Valley Chemist
Hi, I’m James Sinka, a dopamine faster, and the cofounder and CEO of SleepWell.ai, a Y Combinator W19 company. I chose to write about my experience after the positive replies I received when Janey Muñoz’s (YCW19) tweet went viral.
Here are some situations that might sound familiar — you find yourself watching another episode of Netflix instead of working or sleeping. Snacking while bored at work. Scrolling Instagram while waiting in line. Guilty!
I do these regularly. None are bad in isolation. Though, every now and then, it becomes a bad habit. I find myself scrolling longer than I should be.
Why is that?
It’s due to the pleasure response of scrolling, snacking, and snapping. The pleasure associated with dopamine. Dopamine reinforces “positive” experiences. It is released in anticipation of a reward, such as sugar, social media likes, or an adventure! And so, we get stuck swiping for our next adventure.
Companies like Facebook intentionally engineer drug-like addiction into their apps.
So, how do we reset this cycle & unhook from the dopamine loop?
I felt my first “bad habit” with the internet. I woke up one day and realized I had a habit of using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube, daily. I craved notifications and would be depleted when I didn’t receive one. I was stuck. I could feel I’d been trained like Pavlov’s dogs; excited and ready at the ring of my notification bell. (Ding!)
Then I read Hooked by Nir Eyal where I learned how companies like Facebook intentionally engineer drug-like addiction into their apps. (Ding!) So I completely cut out electronics for 2 days and it helped! (No ding…) It required force of will, but fasting helped me undo the trained behavior of jumping out of my seat at the ring of the bell. (No ding…) So to undo the hook (Ding!), we abstain from electronics of any kind. This can be relevant to the internet, TV, phone calls, and texting! A break from these for even one day can help most to start feeling released from the grasp they have on us.
In the same way we can get hooked on the internet, our bodies get hooked by natural & behavioral actions as well (food, drugs, exercise, and work). It holds back our full potential. Fasting electronics is just step one to taking control. We benefit (physically, mentally, and emotionally) by cutting out food, drugs, exercise, and work as well! The benefits compound!
When I dopamine fast, I cut out the internet, food, drugs, exercise, and any work for 24 hours. Instead, I’ll allow myself to sit quietly, meditate, reflect, journal, think, walk, shower, nap, take in the sun and gaze at the sky. I minimize stimuli. Reconnect. And take in the real world.
After a dopamine fast, I feel reset — emotionally, physically, and mentally. I can catch myself as I reach for my phone first thing in the morning. The notifications are resistible. I’m not trapped in my phone. Nor am I irritated when I can’t use my phone!
When I come out on the other side of the dopamine fast, something amazing happens; food tastes better, exercising is more satisfying, and I find myself enjoying mundane tasks that I used to dread, like washing dishes. Added bonuses include an increase in overall energy, and a deeper connection with others. I feel like my seven-year-old self again, absorbed in everything I do. Tasks become opportunities that I relish because during the fast I forced myself to refrain from them. A dopamine fast makes other parts of my life more exciting, more stimulating, and fun. Total life hack.
The Big Picture
Tasks such as e-mail or exercise produce less dopamine, vs. stimuli like Instagram or a slice of cheesecake, making email or exercise harder to get done. A dopamine fast fixes that. It makes work more exciting, stimulating, and easier to accomplish. We dopamine fast to make life easier, by cutting out the internet, food, drugs, exercise, and work. It’s the perfect time to look at your life and its trajectory. To reflect on what makes you grateful to be alive. To plan & reflect. Post-dopamine fast, you’re fresh, restored, and untethered.
No other life hacks, biohacks, or even drugs (yes, that means you too, caffeine) have had more of an impact on my life and productivity; other than Sleep.
While I dopamine fast twice a year, I focus on sleep optimization daily. We need oxygen to breathe, water to hydrate, and sleep to renew. Sleep is more important than food. One night of sleep loss impairs innovative thinking & flexible decision making. Bad sleep can even increase your likelihood of dying. I’ve witnessed the critical importance of sleep, which led me to found sleepwell.ai to optimize and maximize sleep quality, using data & peer reviewed science.
Sleep restores us. A dopamine fast recenters us.
So get after it! Get back in control.
Teaser: How I got into dopamine fasting
- First electronics for one day
- Then, no food for one day
- Next, combine food and electronics fasting
- Finally, take a vacation day — cut drugs, exercise, and work
- Combine all the above for a dopamine fast!
Natural and behavioral rewards/stimuli can induce addictive behavior. ΔFosB, a protein produced from the human genome, triggers natural rewards under normal conditions, during pathological addictive-like states, and during exposure to addictive drugs. Therefore: Natural & behavioral rewards can induce addiction, like drugs.
Written by: James Sinka