Do you know someone who is super motivated?
About 10 years ago I met the beloved Australian celebrity Costa Georgiardis from the television show Gardening Australia.
I was blown away by Costa’s energy and enthusiasm.
He was exactly like he appeared on TV. But he wasn’t hamming it up for the camera. Costa was the real deal.
He was high on life.
I’ve heard that people often ask Costa “Why are you so energetic?”, “Why are you so up?”, and “Don’t you get tired?”
Some people feel tired just being around Costa (check out this video to get a sense of Costa’s energy).
This got me thinking . . .
What’s the difference between motivated and energised people and less motivated people who struggle to get off the couch?
According to Stanford professor Dr Andrew Huberman the difference has everything to do with dopamine.
In this blog post, I want to explore how dopamine works and how you can adjust your dopamine levels to experience more motivation, focus, and energy in a safe and healthy way. Let’s go!
What is dopamine? And why does it matter?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is involved in reward processing. Your brain releases this molecule whenever it anticipates a reward.
In a healthy brain and environment, dopamine plays an important role in keeping you motivated, focused, and on track with your goals.
Unfortunately, this natural feedback system can be hijacked by big tech companies and fast food corporations.
There are two types of dopamine: tonic and phasic
Tonic dopamine is your baseline level of dopamine that circulates through your system. People who are generally enthusiastic and motivated have a high baseline dopamine. But if you struggle with motivation and often feel lethargic, chances are you have a low baseline dopamine.
But then there’s phasic dopamine. This is where you experience peaks in dopamine above your baseline level. These peaks occur as a result of engaging in certain behaviours and/or consuming certain substances.
For example, social media companies train users to seek out quick, easy, and frequent hits of dopamine. Fast food companies engineer foods that have just the right amount of salt, fat and/or sugar to release big spikes in dopamine. This make you want to eat more of the food product and keep going back for more.
What goes up must come down
It’s important to understand that these peaks in dopamine don’t last.
After engaging in a dopamine-rich activity, you will experience an inevitable drop in dopamine. And this drop will be below your baseline level.
It should come as no surprise that when you’re in a dopamine deficit state you don’t feel very good. You experience pain and discomfort.
What is this pain and discomfort all about?
According to Psychiatrist Dr Anna Lembke this is our brain’s way of trying to bring everything back into balance and establish homeostasis.
In the book Dopamine Nation Dr Lembke talks about how pleasure and pain are experienced in overlapping regions of the brain. She states:
“Pleasure and pain work like a balance”.
If you tip to the side of pleasure or pain, self regulatory mechanisms kick in to bring everything back into balance.
But you never want to tip to one side for too long. Dr Lembke states:
“With repeated exposure to the same or similar pleasure stimulus, the initial deviation to the side of pleasure gets weaker and shorter and the after-response to the side of pain gets stronger and longer, a process scientists call neuroadaptation . . . we need more of the drug of choice to get the same effect.”
In other words, consuming more of a dopamine-rich substance or behaviour is bad for your brain. It will leave you in a dopamine-deficit-state.
And when you’re in this state, it’s much harder to do your school work.
How you can better manage your dopamine
There are a number of simple things you can do to regenerate your dopamine receptors and increase your baseline dopamine. I’ve listed several strategies below.
1. Avoid pre-rewards and extrinsic rewards
Before you start your work or study, you want to avoid engaging in activities that will cause spikes in dopamine. If you watch TikTok videos or play video games before sitting down to do your homework, this is going to make your work feel a lot more painful and boring.
Here’s why . . .
Dr Huberman states that how motivated you feel to do a task depends on your current dopamine levels and what previous peaks in dopamine you have experienced. This is important to understand because with this knowledge, you can create routines and habits to conserve your dopamine and motivation for pursuing your goals.
With this in mind, I’ve recently simplified my morning routine in the following ways:
• I don’t start the day by looking at my phone or computer
• I exercise without listening to music
• I have a healthy breakfast of overnight oats and berries rather than a super sweet smoothie
• I have a cold shower (more on why I do this below)
Whilst this may sound boring, it’s had a dramatic impact on how easy it is for me to get stuck into doing my work.
2. Take a dopamine detox
The term ‘Dopamine Detox’ is a little misleading since it’s technically not possible to detox from dopamine. Nevertheless, the idea is a good one.
When you engage in a dopamine detox, you’re taking a break from engaging in dopamine-rich activities (e.g., consuming junk food, going on social media, and watching Netflix). This will give your dopamine receptors a chance to regenerate.
After taking a dopamine detox, you’ll probably notice that simple things like eating basic wholefoods or going for a walk are much more pleasurable. As Dr Huberman points out:
“Our perception for dopamine is heightened when our dopamine receptors haven’t seen much dopamine lately.”
3. Embrace the pain of a cold shower
Research shows that cold water therapy (i.e., being submerged in cold water) can increase your dopamine by 250% above your baseline level.
Let’s put that in context:
Chocolate increases dopamine by 150% above baseline
Alcohol increases dopamine by 200% above baseline
Nicotine increases dopamine by 225% above baseline
Cocaine increases dopamine by 350% above baseline
Amphetamines increases dopamine by 1100%
You need to remember that these peaks in dopamine are followed by a sudden crash below your baseline level. Let’s not overlook the fact that chronic substance abuse causes brain damage and can be fatal.
Unlike other addictive substances, cold showers create peaks in dopamine that can last for several hours. You also don’t experience the subsequent dramatic crash below your baseline level.
Word of warning: Before you turn on the cold shower tap or start running an ice-bath, it’s important to be aware that people can go into shock when plunging themselves into cold water. Please be careful!
4. Get high from exercise
If cold showers aren’t really your thing, try increasing your dopamine with exercise. Exercise has been found to increase dopamine by 130% above your baseline level.
In the book Move The Body, Heal The Mind, neuroscientist Dr Jennifer Heisz says:
“Exercise increases dopamine and repopulates dopamine receptors to help the brain heal faster during recovery [from addiction]. Although all forms of exercise can do this, runner’s high may do it best.”
5. Create friction points
Look for ways to make it harder to engage in the dopamine-rich activities. Create barriers and/or friction points to stop you from mindlessly seeking quick shots of dopamine.
For example, I recently noticed I had a problem with compulsively checking my phone. Whenever I felt bored or lonely, I’d check my phone to see if I’d received any messages. I didn’t like the fact I was doing this but I found it hard to stop. What could I do?
I could use a dumb phone.
I found a ‘seniors’ flip phone that allowed me to do basic things like make calls and send texts. But sending texts is not easy! I have to type in each letter and change from upper to lower case. It really puts you off wanting to text your friends.
Since switching to a dumb phone, the number of times I touch my phone each day has significantly decreased.
6. Praise effort
As you do your work, praise yourself for the effort you’re putting in. Doing this can increase the dopamine you have for the activity.
Dr Huberman suggests saying the following while you’re doing painful work:
“I know this is painful. But you need to keep at it. Because it’s painful, it’s going to increase my dopamine later and I’m doing this by choice.”
To sum up
We live in a dopamine-rich world. It’s so easy to flood your brain with quick hits of dopamine that feel good in the moment but leave you feeling flat and irritable shortly after. These peaks in dopamine make it harder for us to pursue our goals by undermining our motivation.
No matter what your current dopamine baseline is, just remember this: you have the ability to increase your dopamine in a healthy and sustainable way. Kick-start the process today!