The first method is to go on a dopamine detox: a period in your life where you avoid all junk dopamine and cultivate presence, contentment and focused work. You basically go into monk mode on all distractions and temptations. It’s a true-life reset! Consider this your initiation ritual into Mindful Self-Discipline.
During the Monk Week you cut out all unnecessary sources of distractions and junk dopamine, such as:
- Comfort food (sugar, coffee, alcohol, fast food)
- Social media
- Aimless browsing
- Downloading new apps
- Emotional addictions (arguing, gossiping, complaining, shaming)
You may not be able, right now, to eliminate these things forever, but you can take a one-week break. Even if that becomes the hardest week of your life (unlikely), you are able to do it. (The harder it feels, the more hooked you are.) It is often easier to completely abstain, than to try to gradually diminish your consumption over a long period of time. The former has very clear, black-and-white rules; the latter involves playing with fire, making many decisions, and being involved in a protracted self-control battle. Indeed, research by Dr. Dean Ornish shows it is easier for people to ditch lots of bad habits all at once rather than little by little.
Why do a Monk Week? By eliminating all junk dopamine, you cultivate your hunger for meaning and satisfy it with the enjoyment of engaging in long-term goals. Consider the biggest challenge for most of us: digital media. The habit of jumping into email and social media at every notification, or whenever we have 15 minutes of “down time”, leaves our mind scattered, our body tired, and our work-flow fragmented. Since digital media is a necessary part of modern life, it’s essential to improve our relationship with it, and the Monk Week can help.
How? Allow only necessary use of the things that give you a dopamine hit, and let go of the rest. Check email or messages just once or twice a day, for necessary purposes only. If there is no need related to work or family, take a complete break. Eliminate all possible sources of junk dopamine, or your brain will channel all its energy into whatever dopamine source is still left. Do make sure to eat enough, sleep well, meditate daily, exercise, and stay connected to people or whatever keeps your heart warm. These activities replenish your willpower, and they balance the emotional hardships you might face.
What happens? When you cut all instant gratification, your brain will rebel, demanding some source of dopamine. You then train your brain to seek satisfaction only through long-term goals. You focus your freed-up time and energy on your aspiration—acting on it daily. Working on your goals will then feel like a welcomed distraction—a joy!
Where? You can do it in your own home, or you could go on a retreat. A new environment does make things easier, but you need to be very mindful about how you transition back to your daily environment—otherwise, your brain could associate that change with the new environment, rather than see it as your new way of being overall.
How long? Try it for a week.
Then what? After the Monk Week, review which forms of instant gratification are worth it and which ones aren’t. If you want to add any of them back, do so with awareness and temperance. Drop what you haven’t really missed, and limit whatever you can—for example, maybe set a rule of checking email only twice a day, for ten minutes each time.
Going forward, try different options:
- A daily Monk Hour (your morning routine)
- A Monk Day once a week
- Monk mode on one activity, quitting it for good
- A Monk Month (if you need a harder reset)
Your next step is very simple: book a time on your calendar for your first Monk Week.
What’s the effect of all of this on your motivation? During the Monk Week you cultivate your hunger for meaning and enjoyment, but you don’t satisfy it through trivial activities. You have removed those options for the time being. With every source of junk dopamine that you sacrifice, your energy and motivation rises. Remove one distraction and your focus on your goals will increase. Remove ten distractions and your focus will be ten times better.
Stay hungry. —Steve Jobs