In today’s media-rich world, it is increasingly difficult to focus on completing complex tasks for a protracted period of time. Even if we lock our doors, turn off our phones and disable our notifications, our brains are becoming hard-wired to seek instant gratification. We are compelled to check our email, Facebook, Instagram, TechCrunch and Twitter feeds every 10 minutes. Our productivity suffers from runaway mental “switching costs” each time we are pulled away from our groove.
Many modern productivity experts recommend fighting such temptations by setting egg timers and delaying any gratification until each large task is finished. The problem with this approach is that the more we deprive our increasingly starved “reward systems,” the faster we get tired of work, and our decision-making tends to become worse throughout the day. There’s got to be a better way.
I recently decided to buck this delayed-gratification advice by instead embracing my dopamine addiction through "gamification.'' I give myself more frequent, smaller rewards in the form of tiny pieces of candy. Whatever I am working on, I’ll now set myself moving-target goals like “Once I finish making this PowerPoint slide, I get a piece of candy,” or “Once I finish addressing all the unread emails in my inbox, I get a piece of candy.” I prefer this system of self-motivation for three main reasons:
1. It makes work more fun.
Having more frequent short-term goals allows me to “gamify” my more arduous office tasks. This helps me spend more time focusing on work throughout the day.
2. Snacks are less distracting than social media.
Whenever I indulge my dopamine addiction by getting my kicks from Facebook, I get sucked into a 10-minute click hole watching cat videos posted by someone I haven’t seen since high school. A snack reward, by contrast, can be consumed with one hand without taking my eyes off of the current screen. Snacks are just as pleasurable as Facebook (or more so) but do not burden me with the mental “switching” costs that other distracting rewards can entail.
3. It makes me less likely to binge snack.
My New Year’s Resolution every year is to exercise more “moderation” in my indulgences. Training myself to eat one small piece of candy every X minutes is an effective way to establish such a moderate mindset. This tends to be a much better alternative to the usual junk food binges that I would otherwise slip into several times a week. And I can often further justify this method by using a “healthier,” more filling protein-y candy like dark chocolate-covered almonds.
Of course, I don’t always have the right bite-sized candy on hand, and I might even be deepening my dependence on instant gratification by giving myself so many frequent rewards. But either way, I’m confident that the most successful people of the next century will be those who can either combat or adapt to the global trend of shrinking attention spans. I’m trying the adaptation path for myself and will keep you posted on how it goes.