The dopamine detox

It's time to switch off the smartphone and rediscover the simple joy of doing nothing. By Simon Jeffries

How much time do you spend bored? I’m not talking about listening to your in-laws list their gardening achievements or faking an interest in your boss’s latest wander down memory lane. I mean genuinely, blank-minded, staring-into-space, nothing to do?

For me, you’d think military training in one of the most elite services in the world would be a thrill-a-minute ride, right? Actually this couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course there are the heart-pounding highs, the incredible moments that make you love the job…but there’s also a massive amount of boredom.

This experience of sitting around with no purpose, probably cold and often wet, is so common within the military that it’s got its own name — ‘hurry up and wait’ — and you quickly learn there’s no point in getting wound up about lost time. You just switch off and sit it out.

If you’re smart, it even becomes an opportunity. An almost-meditative moment to completely check out and to decompress. No one wants to go straight from a briefing into a firefight and those moments of boredom allowed me the space to prepare my mind for whatever was coming next.

When you look at it this way, boredom can make you a more effective fighting force.

Constant alertness

So how’s this relevant to life away from the battlefield? If you’ve lost your mojo, are low on motivation and energy or rely on caffeine and other stimulants to get you through the day, boredom could help.

We talk a lot about the brain being adapted for survival, engineered to respond to anything vaguely exciting. In today’s world of constant multi-sensory stimulation — a world designed to use your inner caveman tendencies to grab your attention and keep you hooked — it’s easy to lose focus. It could be food, sex, sabre-toothed tigers…or your latest WhatsApp alert. If it’s out there, your brain wants you to know about it.

And what is it exactly that keeps you hunting for stimulation? Dopamine. It’s not just dopamine — one of several chemicals within your brain’s response and reward system — but dopamine is kind of a big deal.

If your response and reward system was broken down into ‘things your brain wants’ and ‘things your brain likes’, dopamine is in charge of your ‘want’. It also gives you a delicious ‘pleasure boost’ as a reward for following that impulse.

Used as designed, dopamine is a bit of a wonder-drug. It can boost drive, focus and motivation. It allows forward planning and gives you that ‘thrill of the chase’ boost — at work, in sports, or in the dating game.

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Dopamine drip feed

So, dopamine sounds great. Surely it’s best to follow it down that pleasure rabbit-hole at every opportunity? Not so much. The dopamine drip-feed of the modern environment has created the new risk of ‘low dopamine-sensitivity’.

A constant stream of neurochemical-spiking micro-stimuli means that the brain adapts over time, a phenomenon linked to lethargy, lack of motivation and depression.

Imagine you’re standing next to someone screaming. You’d cover your ears pretty quickly. Eventually that’s what your ‘D2’ dopamine receptors start doing too; they’re overwhelmed and stop reacting to the dopamine like they should.

So what’s the end result? In the long term, those receptors aren’t listening anyway so you produce less of them. The baseline amount of dopamine produced by your body decreases too, leading to reduced focus and drive and limiting your pleasure response to things that would normally give you those happy feelings.

It makes sense that we then require more stimulation to get that same natural reward. Pornography addiction. Drug addiction. ADD. Depression. All extremes that have been linked in some way to a low or desensitised dopamine response changing behaviour.

More commonly, symptoms of dopamine desensitisation can include:

  • Tiredness
  • Apathy
  • Inability to concentrate and/or complete tasks
  • Inability to connect with others
  • Mood swings
  • Memory loss
  • Sleep problems
  • Low libido
  • Self destructive behaviours and addictions
  • Procrastination, hopeless ‘what’s the point’ feelings….

Rediscover boredom

Okay, you might be thinking, some of those sound like me but it’s not like taking vast amounts of class A drugs, my chemical balance is probably pretty decent. Actually, studies show that you don’t need abnormally high levels of dopamine to experience reliance or the eventual ‘desensitisation’. Many smaller ‘hits’ over time have a greater effect.

So, if dopamine desensitisation isn’t great … how on earth do you avoid overstimulation when life is geared up to trigger you at every turn? Boredom. That’s the bad news. It’s not sexy, but it is effective. To optimise the benefits of this natural motivator, you need to give it a rest. Literally.

Completely ridding all dopamine from your body would have fatal consequences and luckily isn’t something you can just ‘do’ at home (phew!). But you can ‘detox’ all those small stimuli niggling at your neurotransmitters and create space for your brain to re-find its natural biochemical rhythm.

Whether it’s mood swings or tiredness, lack of motivation or low libido, a dopamine detox could be the tactic to reset your thinking naturally.

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Takeaway tactic

There are many approaches to dopamine detoxing, some more fad-like and extreme than others (avoiding eye contact in case it’s too exciting, anyone?!). However, there are two very simple changes that you can make today which are specific, manageable and beneficial without being a complete pleasure purge.

1. Decrease smartphone time

Ask yourself: How much time are you spending on necessary activities versus wasting time? What you have to realise is that companies like Google and Facebook hire the smartest minds from places like MIT, Oxford, and Harvard to design systems that are better and better at steering what you are paying attention to, and better and better at steering what you do with your time. Essentially they are hijacking the human mind. Not because they’re evil but because it's an arms race for attention. It’s business for them. Your job is to remember this and use what is within your power to make sure you remain the master of your phone, because being its servant will absolutely stop you from ever living up to your true potential.

2. Turn off notifications

We live in an Attention Economy. That means every app and website — whether it is a meditation app, the BBC, or an addictive game — is trying to get you to come back and spend more time. Companies literally have teams of people called Growth Hackers, whose job is to invent new notifications and tactics to bring you back. That’s why you wake up to screens inundated with notifications.

Remember: It's small actions like these that are the real secret to less stress, more satisfaction and higher performance. There is no one, single big secret thing. It’s the culmination of these small actions that change the game.

As you know, dopamine is linked to reliant and addictive behaviour patterns, so don’t beat yourself up if these takeaway tactics seem hard or unachievable at first. Practice makes permanent, so if you find yourself falling back into old habits, don’t write off the whole day. Use it as a learning point and get back on track as soon as you can.


Simon Jeffries is a former Special Forces soldier who combines his elite military experience with behavioural science to remove limitations, build peak mental performance and forge resilience. You can find out more through his company The Natural Edge (


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