How to Trick Your Brain to Like Doing Hard Things – Case Study

  • Post last modified:May 4, 2020
  • Post category:Self Improvement

For a large part of my life, I’ve been struggling with a few addictions – porn, video games, social media, sex. And these addictions have always negatively affected my motivation and desire to study, work hard, or simply get my life together. 

And yeah sure, I’ve sought help and been able to do away or minimize some of my addictions – i.e. video games, porn – but I still can’t get myself to sit down and study for long hours or to commit to a routine of writing and reading every day or to exercise regularly.

Simply put, I can’t get myself to do the hard things that are going to benefit me in the long term – they just seem too boring, and time and energy-consuming. 

But I remember coming across the idea of a dopamine detox and saying to myself  “This is life-changing stuff”. 

I applied it in my life, researched further – read a ton of literature on dopamine and its effect in our lives – and completely turned my life around.

That is what this blog post is about: how I changed my life completely and learned how to do hard things, and how you too can do the same.

You’ll learn about the important role of dopamine and how to use it to your benefit.

In essence, you’ll learn How to trick your brain into doing hard things.

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A Little Background About Dopamine

So what is dopamine? It is a chemical produced in our brains that plays a major role in reward and goal-oriented behavior.

To put it in simpler terms: It is the chemical released in our brains whenever we are having fun.

Dopamine is directly related to desire, motivation, ambition, and addiction. It causes you to anticipate a reward to a certain action and then motivates you to take action towards receiving that reward.

At its core, dopamine forms the basis of learning; we anticipate a reward to an action and, if that reward is met, that action is reinforced and a habit is formed, but if the reward is not met or there is a discrepancy, we adapt and change our behavior.

Food, Sex, Alcohol, Music, Love, Netflix and Chill, Social Media, Technology, Drugs like cocaine and heroine – What do you think all these things have in common?

Yeah, you guessed it. Dopamine.

Dopamine gets released whenever you have a bite of a delicious meal, whenever you have sex, whenever you take a sip of alcohol, whenever you listen to music, whenever you fall in love – you get the point, right?

Dopamine = Fun.

Dopamine is the chemical that signifies to your brain that you are having fun; that you should do more of the fun thing.

In essence, dopamine gives us the drive to live a happier, fuller, and fulfilled life; it’s no wonder depression has been linked with a lack or limited presence of dopamine in the brain.

Why We Hate Doing Hard Things

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“Dopamine causes you to anticipate a reward to a certain action and motivates you to take action towards receiving that reward.”

Every activity we partake in has a level of dopamine it releases in our brains. The higher the amount of dopamine released in our brain, the more fun the activity is.

Hard activities – like reading, coding, exercising, writing, taking an online course, working on your business, working 9-5, etc, – release a lower amount of dopamine in our brains compared to easier activities – like playing video games, scrolling through social media or even taking long afternoon naps.

This is because the easier activities give us an instant reward for the effort we put in. These low-effort instant reward activities fill our brains with large amounts of dopamine – altering the dopamine tolerance levels of our brains.

Let me give a clearer example: if you’ve never taken alcohol in your life or you take it occasionally, it will take a lesser amount of alcohol to make you drunk than someone who takes in, say, 5 bottles of alcohol daily.

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Whereas it might take just one bottle of alcohol to get you drunk, it might take the other person about 5 or more bottles of alcohol to get him drunk.

This is what is called an alcohol tolerance.

The other person has built an alcohol tolerance – his body has adjusted to accommodate the high amount of alcohol intake.

And this person will find it very hard to take just a bottle of alcohol without striving to reach his normal alcohol-balance of 5 bottles of alcohol.

It’s the same thing when it comes to dopamine in our brains; the easier activities release so much dopamine in our brains that we find it boring to do any other activity that does not release the same amount of dopamine.

The world has found more things for us to be addicted to – social media, mobile apps, video games, movies, internet porn. These activities release an incredible amount of dopamine in our brains than usual.

And dopamine is at the core of forming addictive habits; for example, drugs like cocaine release so much dopamine in our brains than usual that it immediately alters the dopamine-balance in our brains.

That is why most people who use cocaine for the first time become addicts; their brains immediately adjust to the high level of dopamine influx that any less than that is intolerable for them.

Let me ask you this question, would you rather read a book for 2 hours or watch a movie during that same time?

Another one; would you rather go to a party or stay at home and write a paper/blog post/thesis?

Last one; would you rather watch viral videos on Instagram for three hours or take an online course during that same time?

What I’m trying to ask in all these questions is this: Which is more fun to do?

You and I know the answer to that question.

In a world filled with limitless dopamine-producing activities, it’s hard to do the things that really matter; the things that will actually improve our lives and make us richer, happier, and more fulfilled.

The old saying, ‘Work hard, be determined, and focus’ just doesn’t inspire us enough in a world full of distractions and instant gratification.

It’s no surprise that the current generation wants instant success without actually putting in the work; they are used to getting rewards easily for putting in a low effort.

And perhaps. and more tellingly, social media and all these new addictive technologies have something to do with it.

The Secret to Social Media, Technology and Addiction

Social media – contrary to popular belief – was created to distract us, not unite us.

Social media was not created with the primary goal of making communication and social interaction easier – it was created to distract and consume our time and attention.

I don’t know if you know this but social media was built on a business model – they sell our attention to advertisers.

How else do you think they make money? Creating an account on the most popular social media platforms is free and you never have to pay a dime to these social media companies – unless you’re an advertiser, of course.

Let’s take Facebook for example; Sean Parker, a founding president of Facebook, recently admitted the thought process behind the creating of the behemoth social network.

He revealed, “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’”

Parker went on to explain that to achieve this goal, Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology”.

Whenever someone likes or comments on a photograph, he said. “we … give you a little dopamine hit”.

And there it is again. Dopamine. Facebook exploited our addiction to dopamine in order to keep us hooked on their platform.

When you post your own photograph on social media, you get a little dopamine hit. Someone likes or comments on your photo, you get a dopamine hit. You watch a viral funny video on social media, you get a dopamine hit.

Facebook is an empire built on one little molecule: Dopamine.

Facebook gives us what we want: Social validation. A feeling that we are accepted and appreciated by other people.

By including likes, follower count, and the ability to share content on its platform, Facebook gives us the kind of instant gratification we crave for.

Don’t you love it whenever you get a new follower, like, or a message notification on your phone?

This is the secret to Facebook’s era-defining success: we compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound – Simon Parker from The Guardian

Let’s go beyond Facebook. Google, Instagram, Youtube, Tinder, all these social media platforms are built on giving us instant gratification (the cornerstone of addiction).

You search for anything on Google, and Google instantly gives you answers.

Youtube regularly recommends new videos for you to watch using your preferences and playlist history.

Instagram suggests new followers for you depending on the type of people you’ve already followed.

All these social media sites are giving you what you want in exchange for your time and attention.

This same thought process works for all additions: Porn, Cocaine, Sex, Gambling.

These addictions give us instant gratification for a little effort.

‘Instant gratification’ is the immediate attainability of satisfaction and happiness. It is a way of experiencing pleasure and fulfillment without delay or patience because it provides a spike in dopamine without effort or discipline – Reece Robertson on Medium

Porn is now a click away.

Sex too (online hookup sites?).

Gambling too, unfortunately (Online betting and gambling sites).

I don’t know if cocaine is being sold on the internet nowadays and delivered to your home (this is a joke, btw).

But all these addictions hit your brain with so much dopamine (the fun transmitter molecule) that it seems you can’t live without them.

That’s why we’re seeing so many people with internet, social media, and porn addictions. So, something ought to be done. It’s simply too easy now for users to change their state of consciousness with a device – Reece Robertson on Medium

However, the dopamine hit doesn’t last long though and we find ourselves searching for it again.

We enter into a dopamine-induced loop – compare this loop to the constant desire for more and more likes and followers on social media; it’s never enough, you’re never satisfied, and you keep feeding the beast of addiction.

This is killing our desire to work hard and delay instant gratification in favor of a much bigger reward.

We are darn too used to the feeling of getting whatever we want instantly that we turn to social media and other addictions to make us feel better about ourselves.

The negative effects of social media are far too many for me to discuss in its entirety here.

Point is, if you want to achieve great results in life, you have to stay away from anything that gives you instant gratification.

A writer on Medium, Tom Kuegler, wrote a beautiful piece on the negative effects on Social media (Instagram, specifically) on his life and relationship which I believe encapsulates the entire point I’m trying to make here about the use of social media.

In his post titled Instagram Was Killing My Relationship, So I Deleted It, Tom writes,

“Instagram, I’ve found, is incredibly adept at giving you what you want. If you watch someone’s story one time, chances are you’ll see their story first when you open your app next time.

Imagine going to a place that gave you what you wanted all the time — even the stuff that’s bad for you. Imagine being an alcoholic, walking into a bar, and as soon as you sit down you’d see your favorite drink there on the table.

They know it’s your favorite. Their job is to keep you there so they make more money.”

Tom goes on to offer a philosophical view on how to conquer addictions, he writes,

“I love that quote from Ben Franklin. No matter what you might think about yourself, you’re far from perfect. You have certain weaknesses to things. Maybe it’s alcohol. Maybe it’s women. Maybe it’s gambling. Maybe it’s something as “small” as playing video games.

The best thing to do when you have a weakness isn’t to destroy it —because that’s damn near impossible — it’s to move yourself away from it.”

And this leads us to our next point; the solution to conquering these petty addictions and living a productive life. 

(On a side note: I believe addictions are the single most important reasons why most people are unproductive and fail to achieve their goals in life.

I have spent entire weeks and vacations watching porn, having sex, watching movies, and posting nice pictures of my glamorous life on social media when I should have been writing content for my blog.

Final note: If you want to be productive, get rid of the distractions.)

Here’s The Solution: Dopamine Detox

Have you ever heard of a dopamine detox? It is when you stay away from high dopamine-induced activities for some time – completely ridding yourself of its influence on you.

This allows your brain to reset its dopamine balance and get used to receiving low amounts of dopamine.

This method is almost like the type of detoxing addicts go through when they are trying to get sober.

For addicts, this is a painful process and their bodies usually try to reject this by going into withdrawal. It takes a while for their bodies to adjust to their new sobriety.

It’s going to be the same when you attempt a dopamine detox – in this case, no social media, video games, porn, Netflix, sex, or whatever it is you’re addicted to.

Yes, you will be bored as hell but that’s the entire point of the detox: to get your brain to adjust to lower dopamine levels than the usual levels you get from using addictive platforms such as social media.

During the process, monitor how your brain reacts; you will literally hear your brain screaming for dopamine (it’s a joke, guys). But you will realize your mind continuously drifting to the addictive behavior (that is your brain craving for the dopamine hit).

Don’t give in to it – if drug addicts can become sober and turn their life around, so can you.

You can do the dopamine detox for a day, a week, or however long you feel you have to.

The aim of the dopamine detox is to readjust the dopamine balance in your brain and make activities like reading, writing, exercising, studying school material, working on a project, or any other hard activity more interesting or easier to bear.

In the 1800s, humans read books for entertainment ad self-nourishment; compare that to recent times where reading is regarded as boring and monotonous (who can blame ‘em, nobody wants to read when there is Netflix, Instagram, Youtube, and TikTok just a click away).

It’s harder to go for a run or exercise when you can stay indoors, stream Netflix and order a pizza to go with it.

Simply put, we are surrounded by so many easier ways of doing things that the hard things – which lead to a better and much more fulfilled life have become even harder to do.

People who have undergone a successful dopamine detox have reported being able to enjoy the simple things in life again.

The aim of a detox is to get your brain functioning properly without all the high influx of dopamine – you can survive without logging into Instagram for one day or even one week.

Once you realize you can survive and function normally without all these instant-gratification high dopamine activities, you will develop a new appreciation for life.

You will also be able to focus on more beneficial activities that may impact your life positively in the long term.

How I Applied the Solution to my Life And How You Can Too

I find it hard to stick with something if I don’t see results fast.

I have started and given up on so many endeavors in my life just because it was hard and I wasn’t seeing results fast enough.

You know what I have learned from my experiences?

I have learned that it’s all too easy to quit because you think something is too hard.

It’s super easy to watch a movie rather than work on that manuscript that has been lying there for so long.

It’s easier to scroll mindlessly through Instagram and Tiktok than it is to read a book.

Point is, it’s easy to do the lazy stuff that doesn’t add any value to your life.

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To become successful in life you need to do the hard things that add the most value to your life.

After I tried a dopamine detox, I have been able to completely turn my life around – why else would I be sitting in a library writing this post when I could be watching a movie or taking a much needed afternoon nap?

Because I don’t want to do the easy things anymore – nobody became successful while sleeping on the couch and eating junk food.

Here’s how I went about my dopamine detox – Step by Step

  1. I listed all the easy activities that I love to do – I call them “high dopamine activities”. Here’s the screenshot of my list below.
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2. Next, I listed all the hard but rewarding activities that I don’t like to do much. Here’s the screenshot of this list below.

3. I then went through my high dopamine activity list and eliminated the activities I could do without. For example, I swore off social media for 6 months; I deleted my Instagram app, Twitter app, TikTok app, and other social media apps on my phone.

The only social media app that survived the ruthless culling was WhatsApp, and I only kept it on my phone because I receive some important messages on there.

Yeah sure, it sucked – real bad – not being on social media; I missed the funny viral videos, the latest celebrity gossips, and keeping up with all the fancy lifestyles and trends.

But you know what? I could live without all that.

I eliminated watching movies or youtube videos during the day; I pushed all forms of entertainment to the end of the day when I was done with my day’s work.

I cut out junk food, afternoon naps, and unnecessary activities from life – I cooked more often, slept less (7 hours maximum per weekday, more on the weekends), and was able to read one book per week.

4. I created a schedule and started doing more of the hard stuff. With movies, afternoon naps, and social media banned from my day, it’s amazing how much time I have now to do the important things.

Below is a screenshot of how a typical day looks like for me. (Update: Due to Corona Pandemic I’m able to work full time on my blog; that reality reflects in this schedule). 

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I must admit, it’s not that fun but I’m used to it now and I dare say I enjoy doing the hard stuff.

Regardless, it doesn’t mean my life is boring or unbearable, as the saying goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

So I work during the day and play at night – I take long walks with friends, watch movies, and relax at night to balance things out.

When I look at all the great things I’ll be able to achieve in the next few months (build a successful blog, become fluent in French, bag a degree) it fills my brain with so much dopamine.

That dopamine keeps me going even when things are tough and I miss lazying about all day. I’m used to my new lifestyle now and I know I will be going places if I keep it up.

To become successful and make something of your life it takes sacrifice, it takes a lot of hard work and it takes dedication. 

For a lot of people, if …they don’t see the results right away, [then] they want to quit because they think it’s not working – Reece Robertson from Medium

You can follow how I implemented the dopamine detox into my life or tweak it according to how you feel it will work best for you.

I hope this blog post helps you on your journey to becoming a much more productive person – please share this post with your friends or anyone who you think needs to see this.

And here’s a fun youtube video that highlights the most important points of this article. (Youtube video by Better than Yesterday.)

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