Cutting out distractions to find meaning and happiness in everyday things

People ask how I’ve been so productive during shelter-in-place. My secret: the dopamine fast.

Dopamine fasting is a lifestyle trend popular in Silicon Valley which involves cutting yourself off from almost all stimulation for 24 hours. You abstain from actions associated with hits of dopamine, aka the feel-good neurotransmitter.

You can’t eat or drink anything apart from water, or use the internet, your phone, your computer or TV (or any other screens or technology) during that time. You also can’t listen to music or radio, or have sex.

Now I’m not suggesting you give up life’s greatest pleasures. But the pandemic is a good opportunity to reassess what’s really important. What gives our lives true meaning vs. what’s ephemeral or fleeting.

The idea is to reset the dopamine receptors back to where you can find meaning and happiness in ordinary, everyday things. Free from stimulation, you allow yourself to focus on the things that really matter: yourself, your thoughts, and your relationships.

A dopamine fast down-regulates the dopamine receptors in your brain’s pleasure centers so they calm down and crave fewer hits. It’s a way of calming the mind. The practice can be traced back to Vipassana meditation retreats, where people spend 10 or more days in self-imposed reflective silence.

For some, a dopamine fast might be 2 hours with their phone locked up in a drawer. For others, it could be a whole day where you abstain from everything except for simple foods and water.

No phone. No computer. No music. No television. No junk food. No human interaction.

You can meditate, journal, paint, exercise, connect with nature — that’s it.

How do I start?

Pick one compulsive behavior you want to cut down on. For some it may be looking at your phone. For others, watching cable news.

How long should it go?

Start small. 1–2 hours. See how you feel. Then try longer periods. It gets easier with time.

What should I do?

There are a few good ways to begin a dopamine fast:

  1. Intermittent Fasting: Avoid eating food for 12–16 hours. Intermittent fasting is tied to learning and neuroplasticity. It promotes increased focus, relaxation and clear thinking.
  2. Digital Detox: Put your phone in a drawer for a few hours. Better yet, give it to a friend to hold for you. Take a long walk. Embrace solitude.
  3. Time in Nature: Spend a couple hours in a park. Let your mind wander freely. Don’t put any pressure on yourself. Allow yourself to just be.

The dopamine fast is grounded in psychology and neuroscience. Andrew Huberman, neurobiology professor at Stanford, defines addiction this way: Any behavior can be problematic. The question is whether it keeps the baseline of your life flat, improves your life, or brings it down.

I started experimenting with dopamine fasts of varying lengths. First I did it for an afternoon, then a whole day.

At first, it’s really boring. Then the thoughts come. At first they’re simple thoughts: Did you get back to this person. Respond to that email.

Then they get deeper. A compliment you should share with someone in your life. Why are you still friends with this person? Why are you not in touch with this other person? Do you still want to live in the same place?

Over time, you untie the mental knots that keep popping up.

You can start small. Try a 1-hour dopamine fast. See how it feels, let your body adjust. Then gradually work your way up to 4 hours, 8 hours, 24 hours.

You don’t need to meditate during a dopamine fast. Simply engage in activities that reflect your values: Physical health (exercise/cooking). Learning / reading. Creating (writing/art). Cultivating relationships (talking, bonding over activities).

Dopamine fasting is based on an accepted cognitive behavioral therapy technique known as stimulus control. By making an intentional choice not to indulge in compulsive behaviors — checking your phone, stress eating — there’s an opportunity to become more mindful of those compulsory behaviors, and break the cycle of doing something we hate in search of dopamine.

When we’re cooped up inside all day, we tend to go on our phones looking for short term rewards. Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, dating apps, news sites: These sources of digital candy give us a short-term dopamine rush but ultimately leave us feeling empty.

When we’re able to control our compulsions, it trains us to focus on what’s really important. Getting lost in a good book, a woodworking project, or a leisurely morning run. Having fun with friends and family without the obsessive urge to document the experience. Staying informed about the news without feeling overwhelmed by it. Being PRESENT.

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  • Daniel Zahler

    Healthcare and Technology Entrepreneur

    Daniel Zahler is an entrepreneur and executive who has built innovative businesses in technology, media and healthcare. He has founded or co-founded industry-leading companies including AppNet (e-commerce analytics, acquired by CommerceOne), RA Capital (healthcare investment firm, $1B+ in AUM) and NestEgg Wealth (FinTech, acquired by AdvisorEngine). He has led projects for Google (cloud computing & consumer finance), Facebook (AR/VR), Johnson & Johnson (digital health & medtech innovation), and GM (electric cars / autonomous vehicles). Previously he worked as a venture capital investor at Goldman Sachs, a consultant at McKinsey, and a biotech investor at RA Capital. He serves as a Council Member at GLG where he advises global business leaders on healthcare innovation. Daniel received an AB from Harvard College in Chemistry & Chemical Biology, a JD from Harvard Law School and did a research fellowship at Yale Medical School.