What Is A Dopamine Detox (And Does It Really Work?)

In the 21st century, humanity has perfected the art of getting people addicted.

It started with the discovery of the wanting-hormone dopamine by the Swedish scientists Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp in 1958.

60 years later we have a company like Meta which is employing some of the smartest people on earth to find ways to hack your mind with cheap dopamine rewards.

How does Dopamine work?

Dopamine is part of the body’s wanting system. It propels you to take action. This is of course necessary for our survival because it motivates us to do things. Dopamine is the driving fuel for humans and animals alike. It encourages us to act. Without this hormone, we wouldn’t even have the drive to get a Ben & Jerry’s from the fridge.

We wish to have something, so we do something to get it.

In general, we humans want more than we are satisfied with:

  • more food,
  • more pleasure,
  • more sex.

You get the point! That made a lot of sense in our evolutionary history because in the past humans had hardly any time to rest and think about their fulfilled life.

Food, shelter, clothes, and of course sex were usually scarce, while the next threat that might wipe us out of the gene pool was always just a few instances away. So, we were constantly forced to take action for survival.

In those dangerous times, our wanting system guaranteed our survival. If you are alive today, it is because of your glorious ancestors who were pushed to do the right actions by their dopamine-driven brains.

Unfortunately, this very wanting system that worked so well in the past makes you controllable in the present. Because unlike your ancestors you are living in times of abundance.

Or at least, in times of fake abundance.

  • An Oreo cookie has no nutritional value. But it sets off all the signals in our brains that you’re indulging in nutritious, high-energy food.
  • Online porn has nothing to do with real sex. But it signals your brain that you are having sex with super-models constantly.
  • Social Media feeds signal our brain that we are part of a social community. In reality, we scroll through the feed, while ignoring our friends or closest relatives around us.

In our digital time, it becomes even easier and easier to trigger our cravings.

Ever wondered why you are touching your phone 2.617 times a day and can’t stop scrolling through our feeds on Instagram at night?

Because you are held prisoner in a dopamine loop

When mindlessly scrolling through our social media feeds, we seek to find something more novel or interesting. Accordingly, we continue to scroll through the feed to find the very content that will finally satisfy our wants.

Hint: You will never find it.

You just get so much reward that you continue scrolling through those apps. As a consequence, people now waste their time scrolling through feeds, which are designed to be infinite because a bottom point would be a cue for users to switch to another activity.

So it is not surprising that Netflix users spend as much time searching through the library as actually watching shows.

Our Silicon Valley overlords don’t care if you spent your time on their platforms productively. They simply want you to spend as much time on their platforms as possible to generate more money through ads.

You might think that you are free. In fact, you are simply a prisoner of your desires. Plus, you are most likely not aware of it.

Is Dopamine bad?

Is Dopamine the problem? Of course not!

Dopamine gets a bad reputation here, but it is actually necessary for survival! And it is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, and motivation.

Moreover, diseases like Depression or Parkinson’s are all linked to a low dopamine level in your body.

The problem I am addressing here is mainly the excessive dopamine production due to easy triggers. This is numbing the dopamine receptors making it harder for you to feel motivated for mundane tasks like working, studying, reading, etc.

Dopamine Detox: Escape the dopamine prison and get your life back

If your computer gets hacked, rebooting it is often the simplest measure to gain back control. Something similar can be done with your brain via a Dopamine Detox.

The point of Dopamine detoxing is to eliminate easy sources of Dopamine like watching Videos, scrolling through Twitter, or eating junk food.

If you do this detox for a while, your mind instantly searches for different pleasure sources.

What is a Dopamine Detox?

It’s not about avoiding the production of dopamine or reducing the dopamine levels in your body as it is often wrongly remarked. No, it is simply about relieving your dopamine receptors by making them sensitive again to more meaningful dopamine triggers like meeting friends, eating healthy food, or reading books.

When I recently detoxed from dopamine with two of my best friends, the positive results kicked in after about five days.

I remember a particular day in the second week:

Yesterday, my alarm clock rang at 4:45. I went out of bed, put on some clothes jumped into my car, and drove to the highest hill in my city. Here, for the first time in ages, I saw the sun crossing the horizon in the morning.

I am naturally a late riser, waking up early in the morning is not my thing. Still, I wanted to do this very drive for ages. But I never had the energy and willpower to do it.

When returning home, I sat down at my desk and started working. Before noon I published a new story on Medium, made progress with a new Notion Template, got work done for a client, and even managed to go to the gym.

Looking back, yesterday was one of my most productive days ever, despite the professional part of it ending before lunchtime.

To be fair, it is not that you suddenly become a superhuman. It is simply that you have some percent more focus. But that alone leads to great results.

If you master continuous improvement and get 1% better each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better by the time you’re done. – James Clear

Suddenly, you get satisfaction by

  • reading the dusty book that is lying beside your bed for ages
  • meeting your friends in person
  • or working for your clients

You drive to do harder things tenfolds because suddenly they are the only source of dopamine left.

What rules should you follow on a Dopamine Detox?

How to design your dopamine detox is of course up to you.

Some people go for the extreme: No screen time, talking, fasting, just drinking water, and meditating. basically, doing a personal Vipassana.

But in fact, you don’t need to free yourself from all pleasures of life and hide in a cave for the time of your detox. Dopamine detoxing is not a call for removing all sources of pleasure from your life. It is simply an attempt to get control back over your life. Pleasure is not bad, as long as it is not used for controlling your life.

The format of your detoxing depends on your personal unique situation. Are you a person who:

  • loves binging on junk food? Avoid eating it!
  • gets high on weed every day? Avoid smoking it!
  • or just a social media addict like me? Then avoid using screen devices.

Before starting your detox, watch yourself and your behaviors.

What are you doing all day to relax or to procrastinate from work and obligations? Write down a list of your dopamine-driven habits and in the next step, avoid doing them for a while.

How long should you do a Dopamine Detox?

You probably need some days to really feel a positive difference. A study (Lally et al. 2010) even showed that we need at least 21 days and on average 66 days to form new habits. So, if you want to use the dopamine detox for creating more positive habits, you should do it for some weeks at least.


After reading this article, you might be skeptical. As you should be about everything some random dude is telling you on the internet.

I suggest that you do your own research! However, if you choose to try it out yourself, there is not much that could go wrong. The downsides are minimal, whereas the upsides are huge.

Some more personal thoughts:

I love modern technology, but I detest how big corporations use it to manipulate our behavior due to our dopamine sensitivity.

As a consequence of that, I have started doing dopamine detoxes several times a year. And this is also the reason why I am such a huge supporter of Notion. because with this app, we can finally create our own life operating system that is designed to support us in doing the things we love, without becoming digital slaves of some Silicon Valley billionaires.


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PPS: I have created a Habit Tracker for Notion that can help you stop addictions and create more positive habits. Check it out here (and get a 25% discount): Habit Streak Tracker