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Dopamine is a molecule in the brain and body that is closely linked to our sense of motivation. It can also enhance our depth of focus and lower our threshold for taking action toward specific goals. The simplest way to think about dopamine is that when our dopamine levels are elevated, we tend to focus our attention on outward goals — the things we want — and we feel motivated to pursue them. “Dopamine is about wanting, not about having,” said Dr. Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and the chief of the Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford, on the Huberman Lab Podcast (and she is 100% correct). Contrast that with serotonin, which is associated not so much with “wanting” but with feelings of well-being about what we already have. These are generalizations of course — dopamine and serotonin do other things too, but they are accurate, nonetheless. It is hard to overstate how much dopamine levels shape our perception of life, our emotions, and how capable we perceive ourselves to be — when dopamine levels are low, we feel unmotivated, derive less pleasure from pursuits and feel physically tired. This newsletter will detail how to manage dopamine levels to enhance motivation.
Part I: Managing Dopamine to Sustain Motivation
We have a baseline of dopamine, and it can spike or drop based on various actions, compounds we ingest or even our thoughts. Our baseline dopamine levels are influenced by many factors, including genetics, behaviors, sleep, nutrition and the level of dopamine you experienced on previous days. It is critically important to maintain sufficient levels of baseline dopamine to sustain day-to-day motivation. We don’t want the baseline too low or too high.
We can establish a healthy level of baseline dopamine by:
- Viewing early morning sunlight for 10-30 minutes daily. (Don’t wear sunglasses for this, and don’t stare at the sun; eyeglasses and contacts are acceptable). This causes the release of dopamine. If done consistently, it will also increase levels of gene expression for certain dopamine receptors. If you’re up to it, take a 1-3 minute cold shower, as cold as you can safely tolerate, as well; this is known to increase baseline dopamine for hours dramatically.
- Eat tyrosine-rich foods such as red meats, nuts or hard fermented cheese. Tyrosine is an amino acid and a building block of dopamine — a diet rich in tyrosine will sustain your body’s natural dopamine production. You’ll need to consider the caloric and other contents of these foods, of course. It’s easy to find plant-based sources too. Simply do a web search for them.
- Avoid melatonin supplements, as these can decrease dopamine levels and can disrupt your normal sleep patterns. Melatonin is only recommended for jet lag. There are better options.
- Avoid viewing bright lights between 10 p.m.-4 a.m. This is essential, as it has been shown to activate a brain region called the habenula and drastically reduce the amount of circulating dopamine in your system. If you must view light at these times, make it very dim. Once in a while is okay, but don’t make it a habit. (If you are a shift worker or want to know how to deal with jet lag, listen to this episode.)
- Ingest caffeine (approximately 100-400mg) in the form of coffee, tea or whatever form you prefer. This will cause a mild increase in dopamine but also increases the availability of dopamine receptors, so your body is more sensitive to circulating dopamine. Don’t do this too close to sleep. I avoid caffeine after 2 p.m., with rare exceptions.
Part II: Managing Dopamine Peaks
“Success breeds success” is true, but if you don’t manage the dopamine associated with the pursuit and your wins, your dopamine baseline and the dopamine you experience from reaching milestones will start to diminish over time, and you’ll feel far less satisfaction from, well, everything. This is a common problem, but there are ways to overcome or even avoid it altogether.
Leverage the power of dopamine released by reaching milestones to increase ongoing motivation by:
- Use (Randomly) an Intermittent Reward Timing (RIRT). This is the most powerful schedule for dopamine release and staying motivated. The casinos use it to take people’s money. It works 100% of the time. You can use RIRT to your advantage, to stay motivated in any pursuit. The key is to celebrate your wins, but do not celebrate every win. When you succeed in reaching a milestone, sometimes enjoy that; other times (at random), just keep going. Even better, associate “winning” with the effort process itself. That’s the holy grail of dopamine management for success. It won’t make you dull or unhappy; it will make everything easier and more pleasurable, without the peaks and valleys of dopamine that external-reward-driven people experience, and you’ll obtain all the external rewards anyway.
- Remember that Dopamine is Subjective. Remember, the brain does not know external rewards — no dopamine is dripped in your brain — it only knows the associations of events with internal chemical (in this case, dopamine) release. Don’t underestimate the extent to which the dopamine system and the sense of whether you are on the right track are under your cognitive control. The prefrontal cortex (the executive control portion of your brain) is part of the dopamine pathway and provides subjective, top-down control (a “belief effect”) for motivation levels. These are not placebo or small effects. Telling yourself you are moving toward your goals is a huge stimulator of dopamine release — and under your control. Of course, you can’t lie to yourself and say you’ve won when you lost, but as you progress toward milestones, register it in your mind.
- Spotlighting. Dopamine interacts with the visual system. Dr. Emily Balcetis, a professor of psychology at New York University (NYU), discussed on the Huberman Lab Podcast how physically focusing your visual attention on a specific point (or “spotlight”) will help maintain focus during bouts of goal work. When you focus on a particular point, a medley of neurochemicals (dopamine, epinephrine and others) are recruited and put you into a state of readiness and clear focus.
- Don’t Layer Too Many Sources of Dopamine. When we layer too many sources of dopamine (e.g., preworkout energy drinks, plus music, plus friends/social connections, plus nootropics also known as “smart drugs,” etc.), it can increase dopamine and our energy and motivate us to work hard toward a goal. But stacking all these dopamine-triggering sources causes a crash afterward, ultimately undermining our longer-term motivation and continued drive. Instead, try to do some workouts without music or with just caffeine. Change it up.
- Supplement to Microspike Dopamine. There are compounds sold over the counter that potently increase dopamine but not so much that they cause the problems associated with illicit or prescription (Rx) drugs that do the same. L-Tyrosine (500-1000mg) taken 30 minutes before a mental or physical work bout will increase focus and motivation. Some people, including me, will take 500mg of L-Tyrosine and 300mg of Alpha-GPC (which increases acetylcholine and, thereby, focus) prior to a hard workout or focused cognitive work. But as mentioned in #4, I don’t do this every day and sometimes, I use none. My favorite preworkout or precognitive-work-bout supplement is 300mg Alpha-GPC, 500mg Phenylethylamine and (sometimes) 500mg L-Tyrosine. (If I really want to drop into focus and it’s early day, I chase it with espresso!) The Huberman Lab Podcast is now partnered with Momentous because they have superb quality and they ship internationally (as of now, they don’t sell Phenylethylamine but hopefully will soon). Note: Don’t take these after 2-3 p.m. if you intend to sleep that night. Also, if you have bipolar depression or any other dopamine-sensitive condition, be very cautious with these dopamine-enhancing compounds. Those with ADHD may need MD-prescribed Ritalin, Adderall or other Rx drugs, but those without ADHD should avoid these Rx drugs merely for “recreational” focus; they are powerful and can lead to dependency.
By understanding and supporting your dopamine baseline and what spikes dopamine, you can learn to regulate yours for persistent goal-directed motivation. You don’t need to do all of the above; the list is meant to be a buffet of options. Apply all or some, as needed.
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