How dopamine cravings can save your sleep


Sleep and all the good habits you end up never doing (and a hack on how to embed them into your day)

So. You struggle with sleep. Whether falling asleep or staying asleep, or maybe even sleeping too much. I greet you, I am one of your kind. Or was, and occasionally still visit the lands of insomnia. If you are like most people, you haven't sat idly on this issue. You searched far and wide to find solutions to the restlessness that keeps you awake and mentally active. You probably read extensively about the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, eating right, getting enough daylight, exercise, [fill in the blank]. You cerebrally know – these things are good for you. You have even tried and tested them. They work. Yet, why is it that we so often fail at making these activities and values a permanent part of our daily lives?


The culprit is not you. (And it’s not other people either  ). The difficulty lies in how our brains are wired. Our brains are well-meaning dopamine junkies that seek and request rewards[1]. A hit of dopamine (triggered by pleasurable events) gives us a surge of feel-good emotions, making us seek out the event again and again, making dopamine an important motivator in many choices that we make daily.


And take now the healthy habit you want to incorporate into your life. The meditation, the good nutrition, the reduction of time spent on your phone. It most probably doesn’t yet have the rewarding effect that cues your dopamine craving, not because it is intrinsically unrewarding (on the contrary) but because you haven’t (yet!) trained your brain to link the activity to a rewarding effect. So how do you make new habits stick? Make them pleasurable and rewarding so that you keep coming back for “the buzz”. Even if that means tricking yourself into it.

What do I mean by that? I suggest something that is in behavioural science called “habit stacking”. Take a habit that is new and that you want to introduce (successfully and sustainably) into your daily routine, and “sandwich” it between a habit that you already do and a rewarding habit. An example would be a habit many newbies struggle with – morning meditation. Instead of taking on the heroic task of immediately plunging into a 15-min daily meditation and expecting your motivation to stay undeterred every day, why not try smaller, more manageable chunks? A current habit might be waking up at a certain time, while a rewarding habit might be having a cup of coffee. The idea would be to place a short (5-min) meditation in between those two habits: Wake up (current habit) + meditate for 5 min while standing in the kitchen (new habit) + have a cup of coffee (rewarding habit). That way you might start to initially associate meditation with the reward that follows, using the rewarding habit as a “crutch” until it becomes second nature to, with time, sit down and meditate daily.


Try it. Instead of being victims of our neurobiology and hormones, let’s use them to our advantage. Befriend dopamine, it can be a favourable ally in your journey towards healthier habits.


[1] There are other neurotransmitters involved in our sense of motivation, reward and attention, but for the simplicity of understanding – let's keep it at the big kahuna – dopamine 