Beyond Dopamine Detox: A Guide to Building Productive Habits

A person uses a mobile phone and a laptop. Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash (Source)

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of endless TikTok scrolling, binge-watching The Bear, and snacking away our sorrows. We get it—these are challenging times, and you feel like you have to snatch up any ounce of comfort and joy when you come across it.

But there’s no way around it. At the end of the day, you realize all that time on your tech is getting you nowhere. 

When you notice your mind wandering after each jarring ping, maybe you worry about tech addiction. Your impulsive and compulsive behaviors steal time away from what you should be doing.  

Now you're searching high and low for instructions on performing a dopamine detox (which is taking even more time). While it’s popular among tech leaders and celebrities as a way to combat tech addiction, many neuroscientists say it’s not scientifically supported. 

Instead of diving deep into that debate, we're focusing on what everyone agrees on: the value of swapping out less productive habits for healthier ones.

What is dopamine and how does it work?

Dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter or chemical messenger, operates like your brain's mail carrier. It plays an important role in how you feel pleasure, influencing your drive, ambition, and even your ability to focus

From the warm fuzzies you feel when your favorite song starts playing to the rush of happiness you feel when taking that first bite of your favorite pizza—that's a dopamine release at work. Those feelings you experience are part of your brain’s reward system. Too much or too little can lead to issues that affect your overall health and well-being.

Fact-check: The “dopamine detox” misconception

Now a social media sensation, “dopamine detox” suggests abstaining from dopamine-triggering stimuli like scrolling through social media posts, playing video games, or online shopping in an attempt to reset your brain's dopamine levels. It’s a dopamine fast and a digital detox.

It sounds pretty straightforward. What could it hurt? Some neuroscientists suggest balanced levels of dopamine are essential because an overflow of dopamine can lead to poor impulse control, while too little can leave you lacking motivation. Dramatic shifts might affect your mental health conditions and fuel addictive behaviors.

Dr. Cameron Sepah, a Silicon Valley startup investor and professor at UCSF Medical School, introduced the dopamine detox to help clients lower their dependence on dopamine-stimulating activities. 

But Dr. Sepah says the term isn't meant to be taken literally. In a New York Times article, he said, “Dopamine is just a mechanism that explains how addictions can become reinforced and makes for a catchy title.”

That is a point that licensed clinical social worker and performance coach Dr. Brie Scolaro is concerned some people misunderstand. According to Harvard Health Publishing, no scientific evidence supports a literal dopamine detox.

Instead of focusing on detoxing, it's about mindful redirection of our energy and actions. Dr. Scolaro said, “It is never a bad thing to break bad habits and direct your energy into actions where you see a return on your investment—especially in areas like productivity, problem-solving, and creativity.”

Do you mean that in the period of time it took you to scroll through 25 Instagram posts, you could have sent those two emails on your list of today’s priorities? Now, that's a concept we can get behind.

5 steps for swapping bad habits for productive power-ups

A person meditates outside. Photo by Надя Кисільова on Unsplash (Source)

Aspects of the dopamine detox process can still be beneficial. As Dr. Scolaro put it, “We have a finite amount of energy each day—physically, mentally, and emotionally.”  If you’re easily drained, consider singling out the addictive activities that contribute to that feeling and replace them. 

Instead of a complete detox, think of it as a strategic spring cleaning of how you use your energy. Reflect on your habits, pinpoint the ones you'd like to break, and identify positive behaviors you want to maintain or enhance. 

When you’re ready to swap that TikTok scroll for calm and focused productivity, here are five steps to get you started:

Step 1: Identify your energy vampires

To break the bad habits, you first need to understand them. 

Start by journaling your energy highs and lows throughout the day. Think of it as narrating a documentary about yourself: “Here we see the subject in their natural habitat, scrolling through social media when they could be working.”

Identify moments when you feel least productive or most stressed:

  • What are you doing? 
  • What are your thoughts and feelings?

Dr. Scolaro suggests considering what is using the most energy and identifying your biggest drains. Once you spot these energy vampires, plan to either neutralize the energy loss or, better yet, swap it for an action that gives you a better return on your investment. 

After all, it's not about cutting all dopamine-triggering activities but about making smarter choices with your energy.

Step 2: Decode your distractions

Now that you've identified your energy drains, think about what's driving you towards them.

  • What are you hoping to find when endlessly checking email for notifications or losing hours on TikTok? 
  • Are you seeking connection, validation, a mood boost, or a sense of control?

Dr. Scolaro encourages us to dig into these motivations. “Many times, I find that my clients are craving connection to others, to feel needed, to feel better, or to feel a greater sense of control,” Dr. Scolaro said. “Once you recognize what you are looking to find, start there and find a more healthy, productive way to meet that need.” 

It's not about depriving yourself but about finding better ways to satisfy your cravings.

Step 3: Swap the bad habits for the good habits

The goal isn’t only to break bad habits—everyone knows how hard that is—but to replace those bad habits with better ones. The swap helps you avoid regressing to your old ways.

It all comes down to managing your energy when trying to be productive. Whether you're sprinting through intense bursts of creativity or keeping a steady pace for the long haul, your habits either help or hinder your performance.

Dr. Scolaro suggests identifying the actions that support your goals and swapping out the ones that don't. Consider the following swaps instead of falling into a TikTok rabbit hole:

  • Use a meditation app for three minutes of mindfulness.
  • Fire up your language learning app for a quick lesson.
  • Take a nature break with a short walk outside. 

What if you’re supposed to be working instead? You can make a habit of bypassing the temptations entirely by using web and app blockers. It’s like putting the Oreos on the highest shelf so you can’t get to them. 

This technique, known as habit replacement, helps you transition from unproductive habits to ones that boost your productivity and well-being.

Pro tip: Let’s say your to-do list is just swimming with different tasks. Those tasks are swirling around inside your brain, causing you to jump from tab to tab and task to task. It feels like you’re doing a lot—the overwhelm is high—but you’re not actually completing any tasks. With Sunsama’s Focus Mode, you see a simple list of tasks. Complete the one on top, and move to the next. It gets you in the habit of task completion instead of task hopping, which is far more efficient.

Step 4: Embrace the downtime to drive productivity

The famous proverb “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has been a go-to sentiment promoting rest and play since 1659.

Even the most efficient of folks can’t be efficient 100% of the time without heading to burnout town. You wouldn't expect your car to run without fuel, so why expect the same from yourself?

According to Dr. Scolaro, improving your well-being, productivity, and time management hinges on prioritizing rest and recovery just as much as work. Athletes and marathon runners know well it's a concept: you can't perform at your best without proper recovery.

“We know in psychology that when we are stressed, burnt out, and otherwise living in fight or flight mode, the areas of the problem responsible for creativity and brainstorming are virtually shut off,” Dr. Scolaro said. “When you strengthen your foundation of sleep, food, and even play, you will find yourself coming up with some of your greatest ideas and even excitement and motivation to continue your work.”

So when you make your daily and weekly plans, schedule that downtime. Whether it's exercise, socializing, or another enjoyable activity, make sure you're taking the time to refill your cup.

 Good to know: You think you don’t have the time, but are you sure? This is where Sunsama helps keep you in check. Sunsama helps you schedule downtime by alerting you if you have too many hours of work on your daily to-do list.

Step 5: Navigate unique productivity challenges

After following those steps, you might not have found the balance you want. That’s because productivity isn't one-size-fits-all. Here are the hurdles you might be working with:

Tips you find on social media and in articles aren’t going to cut it if you're struggling with challenges like:

  • Distractibility
  • Forgetfulness
  • Time blindness
  • Paralysis

It’s not you. It’s brain chemistry. And seeking help from a mental healthcare professional will get you past it. 

Dr. Scolaro said, “If you feel that any of these components to managing work are disproportionately difficult for you, connect with a therapist who can help you build a toolkit of skills to support your success, and consider seeking neuropsychological testing to obtain a formal diagnosis.” 

With cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) or other treatments, you’ll find the support you need to thrive.

From trend chasing to sustainable change with Sunsama

Sunsama’s focus bar shows your day’s priorities without distraction. (Source)

We've unpacked the dopamine detox hype, dissected the art of energy balance, decoded distractions, and boosted productivity. When the digital rabbit hole of TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and more has you in its clutches, Sunsama is your escape route.

Sunsama's focus mode and bar work to wrestle back control, blocking those pesky, attention-grabbing apps and notifications. Its clean interface and workflow help manage your daily goals and invite you to plan and reflect on your priorities and progress consciously.

But it's not just about blocking distractions. With Sunsama, you can use timeboxing to carve out space for pleasurable activities that leave you feeling refreshed and satisfied with your free time.

Ready to swap fads for real change? Start your free 14-day trial today.

Facebook iconTwitter IconLinkedIn icon