The brain is a complex organ, helping us perform daily tasks and eventually achieve long-term business goals. But that same organ can also easily derail us, especially with so many distractions available in an internet-driven world.
One second, we're focusing on work, and the next, we find ourselves commenting on a social media post or laughing at a cat video.
I sometimes feel like I have to treat myself like a lab rat to keep my brain on track. I use the Pomodoro Technique, going 25 minutes on and five minutes off, in order to stay fresh.
I block out periods of time each day for emails. I schedule the neighborhood walks I take. Somehow, I still end up burned out, or wasting time on YouTube or chat. I'm a science experiment that never ends.
Dopamine is the culprit, say mental health experts. It's at work whether we're binge watching the latest season of Stranger Things or compulsively checking texts or emails. When we enjoy something, our bodies are conditioned to crave more of it.
Here's the science behind dopamine and some specific recommendations for taking better control of your daily activities.
Understanding the dopamine effect
Dopamine is one of the most important chemicals in our brain, driving many of the behaviors that make humans more sophisticated than other species. Although this function is closely related to focus and other cognitive actions, it also regulates pleasure.
When you experience something enjoyable, dopamine is released, driving you to engage in that activity again. If that pleasure comes from something like drugs, alcohol, and, yes, even technology, it can eventually lead to addiction and other issues.
The response that drives you to throw your schedule out the window and check your phone every time it beeps at you can bring problems. You may find that this compulsion gets in the way of a productive workday, which will eventually hold you back in your career aspirations.
The negatives of giving In
In addition to decimating your productivity, falling prey to dopamine's effects can also be bad for your overall mental health. This is especially true if you use Facebook to get that dopamine hit, as studies have found that excessive use can hurt self-esteem and general well-being. It can also lead to multitasking, which slows down progress on the tasks you're trying to complete.
You may also be doing yourself a disservice when you indulge in hours of TV watching, with one study having found that this type of mass consumption leads to a degradation in both retention and comprehension. You don't get as much out of these shows as you might have when you saw them once a week.
Battle the temptation
The first step toward gaining control of your behaviors is understanding why they're taking place. Your need to reach for your smartphone every time it pings is a pleasure-reward response. Seeing it that way can help you at least turn off audible pings for the time being, and keep more focus on the work in front of you.
Then there's the aforementioned blocking out of time for emails, etc. Some of the best and brightest do this. But what happens when that potentially lucrative new customer sends a chat, or your top-paying client calls you in the middle of "e-mail time"?
What if you get a text from that person you've been itching to take out on a date?
Uh, oh. I just got a notification that the trailer for the new Avengers movie came out. Suddenly, work falls by the wayside and I'm living in distraction land.
First of all, understand that you're only human. Stick to your plan, but let yourself tackle the truly pressing issues when they arise. Then, do some meditating (or nothing at all for a change) once you have a break. It's all about balance.
But perhaps the best answer may be for you (and me) to accept waiting as an essential part of life. There's something to be said for anticipation, such as the excitement of waiting for vacation to begin or just waiting until tonight to see the Avengers trailer.
If you can find a way to delay gratification a bit, you'll not only be able to keep your days filled with hard work, but you'll also be able to truly enjoy the small pleasures in life, a little at a time.