How to use the Dopamine Chain

Plenty of habit experts have put forth their own version of a habit loop, or the way cues in our environment lead to habits. 

James Clear’s habit loop goes from cue to craving to response to reward. 

Charles Duhigg says the habit loop flows from cue to routine to reward. 

Nir Eyal calls his model The Hook, and it processes between trigger, action, reward, and investment. 

Between each author’s argument is one common driving theme: the cue sparks some kind of action. That action is then met with reward. 

What causes this process to unfold? 

Oftentimes, we are subconsciously reacting to our environment. Why? 

One of the most impactful players in habit development is the neurotransmitter dopamine. 

Dopamine is often called a pleasure neurotransmitter, and it’s generally associated with reward pathways after we perform a certain action. Dopamine is also responsible for increasing desire.

Interestingly, after the very first time our brain releases dopamine as a reward, we begin to release dopamine in anticipation of the reward as well. In other words, the first time we respond to a cue and successfully knock out a task, we get that rewarding dopamine hit. On the second time we receive that cue, our brains begin to release dopamine before we decide to take action. 

Our brains dedicate an enormous amount of circuitry to desire. The dopamine pathway is just one of many that lead us to respond to certain stimuli in our environment. 

How can you take advantage of dopamine and our other innate “desire” circuitry to complete your daily checklist? 

You create a Dopamine Chain. 

The Dopamine Chain. 

In the various psychology courses I took during my undergrad degree, the word chaining was thrown around ubiquitously and often with confusingly different meanings. In this case, chaining refers to a visual cue of task completion over a certain period of time, but usually consecutive days. 

Jerry Seinfeld attributes some of his success to this method, as he created a chain of days in which he wrote new content for his standup comedy. For that reason, some circles now refer to this method as The Jerry Seinfeld method (or the Don’t Break The Chain method). 

What is the Dopamine Chain?

The Dopamine Chain is a tool you can create using a calendar, journal, or habit tracking app (see Habit Share in app store). Because we now know the tremendous amount of brain power associated with cravings for reward, The Dopamine Chain becomes the method of habit formation in visual format. 

The process is simple: 

  1. Write out your basic to-do’s or desired daily habits. 
  2. Every time you complete one of the list items, make a big show of crossing that item off or checking its box. The more exciting or satisfying you can make the ‘checking off’ process, the more you will crave its execution. 
  3. When every task is completed, cross out the day on the calendar, mark your journal as completed, or enjoy seeing the all-green slots in your habit tracking app. 

As you complete more days in succession, you will begin to crave adding more days to your chain. You will begin to ‘hack’ your dopamine production. 

In practice

Applying the Dopamine Chain enables compound interest on the habits and choices in your life. Compounding enables massive growth over months, years, and decades.  

How you create your Dopamine Chains is entirely up to you. 

By using Habit Share, the app mentioned above, I am able to monitor Dopamine Chains for everything from morning meditations to calorie tracking. If I miss one day, I am able to see the impact on the chain but still maintain a vision on long term growth. 

Start by writing down the most important daily activities that contribute to a better you. Take those activities to Habit Share, a calendar, or daily journal and start physically crossing them off upon completion. This simple change in your day will enable greater influence over your brain’s reward and craving pathways. Over time, you will notice the influence over your life’s trajectory.