The dopamine dump in your pocket

As part of our Biohacking Masterclass Series, we will explore a number of different techniques and practices to improve your daily performance. This series will range from obvious subjects like exercise and nutrition to fringe subjects like breathing techniques and sleep hygiene. Consult your physician before implementing any of these topics. We are not your physician. Note: This post may contain affiliate links to the products we use. 

Competing for your attention

The modern-day front pocket or purse contains more computing power than was used to put the first people in space. In that little box of technology, we now have tools that, when leveraged properly, enable simplicity and efficiency in our daily lives. 

When used improperly? 

The same tools use us. We become entrained in a pattern of cue, craving, and reward through the seemingly endless trappings of social media and the suite of notifications that hit our screen. 

In some ways, those little alerts are benign messengers carrying a wealth of information about our interactions with friends, family, and new connections. 

Upon dissection, they are cleverly constructed and painstakingly designed to capture our attention and draw our minds into one app or another. When we get into that app? Our eyes are not only seeing the note or like from our friend, but they are also seeing the advertisement whose ad dollars are keeping our favorite social media platform afloat. 

If capturing more of our attention means more money for the company hosting our latest post, would that not incentivize the same company to pull us further into their app? Indeed it does. [1-3]

The effect on our brain 

Positive social interactions stimulate a release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in motivation. If you are craving something, that feeling typically involves the release of dopamine. Smart phones (and the social media apps they provide access to) enable increased frequency of positive social interactions. Further, our brain’s reward pathway (in which dopamine acts), is more active when we are discussing ourselves. What do we typically post on social media? Pictures, videos, or snippets that involve ourselves. [1]

With inappropriate use, our brains have been trained to dump addictive neurotransmitters like dopamine at the site of a notification’s appearance on our screen. That dump of dopamine inspires a craving in our mind, which we often satisfy by picking up our phone and opening that app to see which social interaction we are winning. 

The growth teams at Big Tech companies have hacked our evolutionarily-wired cue-craving-reward systems. Details like the spacing in time between notifications and news feed updates targets dopamine-related responses and makes picking up your phone one of the most common cravings at the slightest hint of boredom. 

Over the last decade+, the pull for users’ attention on smartphones and social media has created an overarching deficit in our capacity for sustained attention [2]. In other words, notification design has become so fine-tuned and so addictive that the repeated process of picking up our phone to see that message, like, or reply has rewired our brains and made us incapable of paying attention to tasks for extended periods of time. 

When we get that urge to check our social media or email and satisfy our craving, we are interrupting our productivity even after we get off the app. According to one study, when we go from productive work to satisfying a craving of briefly checking an email, it can take over 20 minutes on average to recover the productivity from before the interruption. In this way, fragmenting your work, even slightly, can tank your overall work-efficiency and productivity. [3]

Regain your productivity

Between notifications and those general cravings for artificial dopamine hits (social media releases dopamine like cocaine, albeit in lower quantities), you can tailor your phone to be more of a tool than a ‘mind-control device’. 

Many experts in the field of psychology (and many former employees of social media giants) suggest limiting the notifications you can receive from any apps on your smartphone. We’ve found insightful resources at the Center for Humane Technology, which was co-founded by Tristan Harris, a former Google employee and subject of the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma. For ultimate productivity, some of their tips include removing apps like instagram or facebook, use helpful tools to track screen time or limit blue light (see why here), or develop the mental tools to turn away from your cravings for immediate gratification (and immediate gratification is what social media targets). 

In addition to restructuring your phone to work in your favor, simply using mindfulness practices like meditation will enable you to make stronger decisions about your mental resources over time. If you’re interested in different types of meditations and how you can hack your productivity, read our article here. As an added bonus, did you know meditation benefits your microbiome?  

If you want to limit the productivity cost of shifting tasks (i.e. checking email), determine your schedule ahead of time and batch email two or three times a day. Use the same structure for other apps or programs that you feel pull your attention away from priorities. 

References

  1. Krach S, Paulus FM, Bodden M, Kircher T. The rewarding nature of social interactions. Front Behav Neurosci. 2010;4:22. Published 2010 May 28. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022
  2. Lorenz-Spreen, P., Mønsted, B.M., Hövel, P. et al. Accelerating dynamics of collective attention. Nat Commun 10, 1759 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09311-w
  3. Mark et al. No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work. Papers: Take a Number, Stand in Line (Interruptions & Attention 1). CHI 2005.