How I Rewired My Dopamine System

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, produced in the brain, that is associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation.

Why am I talking about Dopamine amongst all the hundreds of other neurotransmitters? That’s because dopamine is somehow related to most of the toxic behaviors in our lives that are dragging us down.

How does Dopamine do that, I hear you ask?

When dopamine is released, your brain creates a context-dependent memory. That means, it tells your brain to remember the time, place, action, or whatever else led to the sensation.

Let’s look at a more concrete example.

You Just Posted on Instagram, TikTok, etc…

Every time you post on Instagram, you are interested to know how your post is performing. With every like, positive comment, or any other interaction, you feel good about yourself and your ego gets boosted. To encourage you to keep going to Instagram, the app will send you a notification every time someone interacts with your post.

Now, your brain will release dopamine every time you get a notification on your phone, anticipating that it’s an Instagram notification that will make you feel good about yourself. So, every time your phone pings, you will almost unconsciously pick it up and rush to open Instagram to watch that like counter go up.

This is how easily dopamine can reinforce bad behaviors. That’s why it’s very important to understand the role of this neurotransmitter and use it to your advantage, rather than to your downfall.

Social Media Uses Your Dopamine Against You

The goal of every social media app out there is stupidly simple: get you into their app as much as possible. The more time you spent, the more money they make.

How do they get you into their app? Through notifications!

You get a “good feeling” every time you respond to one of these notifications and see people interacting with your posts or stories.

I found myself obsessively going to Instagram after every time I post something. The system was working!

Even when I turned notifications off, I was still very tempted to go into the app, just by the mere presence of it on my phone.

The solution was simple: delete all social media apps, especially ones where I used to post — Instagram and YouTube Studio.

Once I did that, I stopped associating my self-worth and happiness with the performance of everything I upload.

Notifications Take Advantage of Dopamine Like Nothing Else

Let’s not blame social media only.

Any app that uses notifications heavily in one way or another uses your dopamine system against you.

Every time your phone chimes, you get a sneak peek of what some app wants to tell you. You get intrigued, you check the app.

Your brain now associates notification chimes or badges with that feeling. Now every time you get a notification, you will be tempted to dive into your phone.

The solution to this problem was straightforward for me.

I turned off all phone notifications, except the essentials — banking apps, some health apps, my calendar, and my task manager.

Ordering The Same Food Over and Over Again Through UberEats or DoorDash

I was addicted to ordering on Uber Eats. Sometimes DoorDash.

Funny enough, it was always the same food I ordered. I never tried out new restaurants.

There were a set of restaurants — namely Odumak and Pakwan — that I ordered the same items from every other day.

Why? I really enjoyed the food! It was extremely unhealthy, but did I care? No.

Every time I saw Uber Eats or DoorDash on my phone, my brain associated those apps with the feeling I used to get when eating delicious food. To satisfy the craving, all I had to do was use the “re-order” feature to order the exact same thing, and VOILA, the same feeling of pleasure every single time.

At one point this became so toxic that, even if I had lunch, whenever I looked at the app at night, I used to almost unconsciously order dinner.

The solution was simple:

    Delete UberEats and DoorDash

    Unsubscribe from their marketing emails

    Unsubscribe from any newsletters that sent promo codes to be used on these platforms

Can Checking Emails be Productive?

I am sure for some people it can be.

I don’t fall into that group, however.

For me, checking emails used to give me a false sense of productivity. It used to make me think that I have achieved something on a given workday.

I was surprised when I went through Apple’s Screen Time and noticed that Gmail and Spark were the two apps I picked up my phone the most for.

It’s such a cool stat that Apple shows you! You can learn a lot by looking at that number.

The reason was simple. Whenever I wanted to feel productive, I used to open my email app to see what was there in my inbox. My brain associated opening the app with the “feeling of being productive”.

That meant, at random times during the day, I used to pick up my phone and unconsciously go into Spark or Gmail, even if I just checked my emails 30 minutes ago.

This is something I still struggle with from time to time. I have tried setting app limits and making these apps non-searchable. The only way I can access them is from the App Library. Yet, sometimes I do it.

The Curse of Online Shopping

Online retailers and other companies have mastered the art of reducing friction and giving you the most seamless checkout experience.

Then, you have an ads-driven online economy that bombards you with personalized ads every waking second. They do a really good job showing you all the awesome things you can do, and what’s missing from your life to tempt you to buy something they are trying to sell.

The advertisements are enough to trigger your dopamine. Add a seamless checkout experience, and it’s not common for the whole cycle to take just a couple of minutes.

Then, of course, with 1-day deliveries nowadays, you go from seeing the ad to having the item in under 24 hours. Crazy!

I wasn’t too affected by this negative dopamine loop. I was not much of a shopper anyway. However, a few things did help:

    Making it more difficult for companies to show my personalized ads

    Enforcing a 24-hour rule where I buy something 24 hours after my brain tells me I really need this in my life.

Don’t Dip Your Toes in Infinity Pools

What are infinity pools?

Any app that you can pull down to refresh and get more content is considered an infinity pool.

As the term suggests, these apps have an infinite supply of content and machine learning algorithm to keep feeding your dopamine-driven mind with more content than you could ever consume.

These companies have mastered triggering your dopamine. Every swipe, tap, press, and click has been analyzed and overanalyzed by complex machine learning algorithms to make the experience of swiping for more content as satisfying as possible.

You won’t even know why you are there watching TikTok videos or Instagram Reels or YouTube videos for countless hours. Through personalized and recommended content, these platforms have mastered triggering your dopamine every second you spend on the app.

Willpower alone is not enough to stay out of these apps. The best way that I have found to get out is to just delete the apps.

Instead of using the app, use their web equivalent which is significantly less dopamine driven.

Irtiza Hafiz