hard reset

A friend texted me the recent New York Times article about dopamine fasting. “This was made for you,” he added unnecessarily. (Naturally, my wife had already shared it with me. Plus, I’d seen it first. Because I’m constantly browsing the internet. So, yeah, I have “a problem.”)

The article features three young tech founders who found themselves unable to fully enjoy their lives from moment to moment. Constant mental stimulation—social media, TV, video games, music, work, conversation—had become their new baseline. Their brains had adapted to this constant flow of enjoyable sensations to the point that they needed it all just to function, just to feel OK, let alone good. So, while their lives should have been enjoyable—successful young entrepreneurs on the make—they weren’t actually enjoying themselves very much, even when their noses were buried in a screen for another “fix” to stave off boredom and discomfort.

Sound familiar?

A wise chef inserts a course of something light and bland to prepare eaters for a new flavor. Likewise, these three tried various cognitive palate cleansers:

They would not eat for days (intermittent fasting). They would eschew screens (digital detox). It was not enough.

At least Tantalus had hope. As hungry as he was, there was always a chance of snagging an apple from that tree if he just reached hard enough. Imagine a Hades where you can eat all the fruit you want but enjoy no satisfaction in doing so. “We’re addicted to dopamine,” one founder told the Times. “And because we’re getting so much of it all the time, we end up just wanting more and more, so activities that used to be pleasurable now aren’t. Frequent stimulation of dopamine gets the brain’s baseline higher.”

Clearly, the only thing to do was hit the reset button hard. Hence, the dopamine fast:

They would not be eating. They would not look at any screens. They would not listen to music. They would not exercise. They would not touch other bodies for any reason, especially not for sex. No work. No eye contact. No talking more than absolutely necessary. A photographer could take their picture, but there could be no flash.

As the article makes clear, cutting out sensation and stimulation this way isn’t really about dopamine per se. Dopamine’s function in the brain is complicated. Misnomer aside, this is a real problem. And look, if you haven’t already read the article, you probably don’t need it. You’re just the kind of person who gets up in the morning, runs a 5K, drinks a smoothie with raw eggs in it, and mashes a typewriter for 8 hours at a standing desk, generating reams of flawless prose and pausing only to hydrate. Then a couple of hours of hot yoga and off to bed.

The rest of us are struggling.

I ran through The Artist’s Way again this year. As regular readers of the Maven Game know, Julia Cameron is one of my gurus. (We call ourselves “Julia’s Cameraving Fans.” We really do. Don’t Google it, just trust me.) I write Morning Pages daily and I aim for an Artist Date once a week. Both are helpful tools. The heaviest-duty one in her arsenal, however, is Media Deprivation, a week spent without any media—including books! While this may not be as drastic as the fast in the Times article, it’s still really tough, really uncomfortable. I felt like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, but with my eyes forced open to experience the world around me.

As you might expect, I was more present and creative that week and for some time after. When I was allowed to read again, it was easier to concentrate and more enjoyable to do so. I actually made progress. But the effect didn’t last. The challenge is figuring out how to incorporate this kind of extreme presence into your life on an ongoing basis. Even Eckhart Tolle, in The Power of Now, admits that you can’t really remain in a state of timeless satori every minute of every day (after a couple of years sitting on a park bench, even he was like, time to go write a book or something). The idea is, you fast to recalibrate your brain, then you go back to living your life and playing your Xbox.

But how to manage this specifically? How to make it feasible? Is it enough to have a “digital Sabbath“? Would one week a month be better than two hours a day? Theories abound over at r/nosurf, the Reddit community devoted to fighting mindless media use. Everyone faces different demands and constraints. A cadre of well-off twentysomething founder bros have a freedom most of us can’t even imagine. That said, constant stimulation isn’t working for me, so I plan to keep seeking a deprivation practice that works in my own life. While I’m not going to spend a week in a dark room avoiding food and conversations, I need a good reset now and then if I’m going to do my best work.

(Yes, I’ve considered a sensory deprivation tank, but I can’t risk it until they’ve solved the monkey problem.)

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