“Social media is addictive!”

“Checking my email is a compulsion — I just can’t help myself.”

“I wonder if I have ADD”.

I hear my clients saying things like this all the time. They’re half-joking, but there’s a lot of truth in what they’re saying. And it all comes down to dopamine.




Cocaine, email and deliberate distractionsThe relationship between email and cocaine

Email and cocaine both give hits of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmittor that gets released when something is new (the phrase “the novelty is wearing off” should be reworded as “the dopamine is wearing off”). It’s also involved in things that are pleasurable, rewarding or motivating (in other words, it makes you feel good).

If you’re feeling procrastinatey (technical word!) and low in motivation, your dopamine levels are low. Without realising why, your brain thinks “Ah, let me go to my inbox”

The reason our inboxes seem so appealing is because there’s a near-constant flow of New Mail coming in, along with a glimmer of hope that there’s something Rewarding in among the junk and serious work. And that’s enough to lure us in.

Once we arrive inside the inbox, we either find something that is interesting/rewarding/stressful enough (and we get the ‘upper’ effect as dopamine is released) or we feel disappointed because there’s nothing there that hit the spot (disappointment = dopamine plummeting).




It’s (literally) addictive

Just like cocaine is addictive, so is email. Time away from the drug produces withdrawal effects and you crave the drug even more. Ditto going into mini-withdrawal with email. (That’s partly why it’s hard to go on vacation and leave your inbox untouched).

As U2 sang “I can’t live, with or without you”.

The pull you feel with your inbox is real. It’s physical.

It’s not just ‘in your mind’. It’s actually in your brain.




And it’s related to ADD

Ever noticed yourself skipping from one webpage to another, and not being able to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes?

Chances are your dopamine levels are low and you’re looking for a hit. When you arrive somewhere and you don’t get a hit, there’s no biochemical pay-off for you, so you move onto the next.

Social media and email are rewiring our brains. We’re literally becoming addicted to distraction.



The solution?

1. Accept that addiction to distraction is in the brain, not just ‘in the mind’. This helps remove the shame and self-judgement that “I should know better” or “I should have more self-control”.

2. Be mindful of your distractions patterns. The questions below will help.



How do you use email as a distraction?

Fill out the following:

I feel unmotivated and procrastinate when I need to do _______(a)__________

So I go inside my inbox and and hope to find a dopamine hit in the form of  _________(b)_________


An example from a client today:

“I feel unmotivated when I need to (a) write blogposts, so I go inside my inbox and hope to find a dopamine hit in the form of (b) Facebook notifications … or newsletters with videos (they’re my preferred sources of distraction!)”


Over to you …

How do you use email as a distraction? Share in the comments below.