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I Keep a Dopamine Notebook to Capture and Put Distracted Thoughts into Paper Jail

"Dopamine itself is not the reward, it is the build-up to the reward". – Andrew Huberman

David Sherry
4 min read

When you don't have access to the fridge, it's a bit easier to stay focused.

Or maybe you have a different vice, like social media or talking to a co-worker.

Personally, I'm more productive in coffee shops.

I like the atmosphere of being around people and it is noisy. I am a regular at a few of them by my place in Santa Monica.

You'd think I would have a bunch of friends by now at the places near me, but I don't.

I'm a bit weary of getting to know any of the other regulars too well less I start having people to chat with all of the time there! So I like to be friendly but not get too close.

I apologize to anyone who's tried to befriend me at a coffee shop it's not personal!

I'm just there to work.

So I want to be semi-anonymous. Working while traveling is also enjoyable for this reason. You can create your own bubble without distraction.

But just because the place you work isn't distracting, doesn't mean that there aren't other distractions.

Of course, the mind itself is a distraction machine. It wanders, and suddenly you find yourself typing in www.twit.... or www.instag.... without even consciously thinking about it.

Or you just tap one button on your phone.

Everything you could desire is one tap away on your phone.

Every vice is covered, and instantly gratifying.

Dopamine = Desire, not satisfaction

People often mix up dopamine with satisfaction.

It's not that dopamine is released after you get the thing that you want, it's that dopamine fires to try and get you to get that thing you want.

"Dopamine itself is not the reward, it is the build-up to the reward". – Andrew Huberman

Dopamine = desire.

And the more you reward the desired pathway by getting that thing you want, the stronger the desire is in the future.

Literally eating a piece of dark chocolate kicks off you wanting it MORE next time.

That's why I eat at least 3 pieces of dark chocolate per day. Because sometimes I like to have the whole bar (You can ask my wife).

Desire, according to the Buddha is the root of our suffering.

The mind wants, distracts, and pulls us away from being fully present. Because we cannot feel fully satisfied or like we have "enough" we lose presence for the moment.

And presence in the moment is what we want in our work, too.

What thoughts are you having?

Meditation is the practice of watching your thoughts.

You become the witness, rather than identifying with the thoughts that are flowing through your mind.

Having a meditation, deep yoga, or transcendental experience where you truly become the witness is an incredible turning point and moment in your life. This is "waking up" at least for a brief moment.

But that moment doesn't last. And so, despite much meditation, you still have a lot of mental chatter going on.

You can't really stop the mind, just observe it. And most people are wholly unaware of what they're thinking because they are caught IN the thinking rather than observing it.

So I started keeping a Dopamine Notebook to watch my thoughts at work.

The basic idea is this;

Any time I catch myself having a distracting thought like...

  • "I should check Slack"
  • "Oh wait isn't there this old email I'm supposed to reply to?"
  • "I could use a snack"
  • "I could use another snack"
  • "What's going on on Twitter?"

I write it down in the notebook.

Why does a Dopamine notebook help?

1: A notebook helps you get aware of your thoughts

One thing I begin to notice when I do this is just how basic my thinking is around some of these distractions. It's not sophisticated at all. It can literally just be "oh I wanted to check this app." And then you can see that same patterned thought repeat.

Again, this is a biological dopamine response, so don't feel bad about it happening.

2: A notebook helps the desire pass without giving into it

When I capture a thought in my notebook, it's sort of like I've caught lightning and put it in a jar.

The thought is sitting there in timeout. There must be something going on here that gives me some tiny reward for acting on it, even if it's not giving in what it wants.

3: A notebook at the ready helps you from switching contexts.

If you don't know about "attention residue" it's basically that when you switch topics your brain really struggles to get up to speed on the next topic. It can take up to 20 minutes just to get your brain fully fired up in the new topic, so any time you context switch you're really doing your focus a disservice.

4: It creates more confidence in deep focus because you are prepared.

Mostly, I just like being armed and ready with my notebook. Now, when I sit down, I'm ready with my notebook and I'm not afraid of what distractions might show up.


It might be that you just use a notebook as a crutch to break some habits.

OR maybe you use it for more general purposes catching your own thinking. It could be a great tool simply for noticing negative thought patterns about yourself, for example.

Getting thoughts down on paper somehow seems to make it less personal. And the nice thing about this type of note-taking is they don't need to be organized or kept for later.

You're really just "noting" and then throwing it away.

How does note-taking help you? Or what do you do when you get distracted?

I hope your week is going amazingly and that you're making progress in those areas you care about most.

xx David

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