3 dopamine practices for self motivation

While intermittent fasting has gained widespread acclaim among health researchers, a matching circuitry for self motivation is often underrepresented or misrepresented. As is true of fasting practices, our internal reward system can benefit from disruptions to motivate ourselves to reach our goals. 

Rewards are classified as ‘appetitive behaviour’ since they create an appetite for more of those behaviours that give us pleasure. — Andrew Hubberman (neuroscientist and podcast host)

These disruptions are commonly observed in the form of “variable rewards” and there are plenty of day-to-day examples to demonstrate this in play.

Variable rewards.

The news feed on social media platforms, mobile phone games and even the humble email have “variable rewards” built into the design of their algorithms. For example, the feed on LinkedIn is fuelled with a wide range of content, sometimes case studies from peers that are highly relevant to our work, sometimes we encounter pictures from a random office party in a yacht and sometimes we stumble upon Simon Sinek’s pseudo intellectual one-liners.

Bizarrely, we find this slot machine of content, with a less predictable outcome immensely engaging. There is some circuitry in our brain which motivates us to constantly scan for these novel rewards, and the surprise element motivates us to come back for more.

“Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” ― Samuel Johnson (poet and essayist)

The dopamine molecule.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, molecules that bridge the gap between two neurons,  which is associated with the experience of reward and also with movement. This is interesting because movement and reward were linked in neural circuitry for early humans, as the simple rewards like fresh water most likely involved movement.

Dopamine is a fascinating molecule which lies at the centre of many great things in life like intrinsic motivations and certain harmful things like addiction and depression. The reason why gambling addictions as well as social media can be particularly sinister, is because the next reward could bring the possibility of anything.

“Everyone since the pharaohs were brought up being taught dopamine is about pleasure and reward. It turns out it isn’t. It’s about anticipation of reward.” — Robert Sapolksy (neurobiologist and author)

Thankfully, the prefrontal cortex (System 2 / responsible for executive planning) has a break which controls when dopamine is released and how much is released. Without this reflective response, we would only have pleasure seeking goals, and simultaneously increase our pain through yearning for more and more.

Dopamine practices for self motivation.

The key for dopamine practices (a.k.a. intermittent rewards) is to exercise protocols adjusting our ability to feel pleasure by engaging in some sort of intermittent reward schedule. 

Practice#1. Take a 30-day dopamine fast

For a fixed period of time , chose to abstain from one behaviour or substance that you find addictive whether this is social media, unhealthy food or alcohol. Dr. Anna Lembke (Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic) highlights the evidence emerging from 20 years of practice that a month long dopamine fast can help with resetting your reward pathways. After this, if you wish to return to your dopamine addiction, use self binding strategies, essentially planning how you will moderate future behaviours.

Practice#2. Treat yourself to variable rewards

The most powerful form of dopamine reward schedule can be accessed using what neuroscientists refer to as intermittent reinforcement. Self rewards are helpful, and they are can become much more effective when they are unpredictable. This practice is all about self care and treating yourself to novel rewards when you complete your goal. This will keep your reward circuitry tuned up and ready to go.

Practice#3. Celebrate your wins , but not every win

One of the best things you can do to achieve your goals is to remove the reward subjectively. If you have an important life goal (e.g. saving money for an experience, learning a new language), start with self rewards to celebrate key milestones. But, every once in a while avoid the celebration. Skipping the routine celebration will enhance your dopamine system drive to complete this goal.


Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence by Anna Lembke (book)

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky (book)

How to Control Your Sense of Pain & Pleasure - Huberman Lab (podcast)

The Neuroscience of Addiction: Our Dopamine Nation | Rich Roll (podcast)

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: Science of Stress, Testosterone & Free Will (podcast)

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