6 min read

Infinitely Available Dopamine is Ruining You

The importance of staying focused in a period where dopamine and distractions are infinitely accessible and available
Infinitely Available Dopamine is Ruining You
Photo by Austin Distel / Unsplash

Here are my thoughts on staying focused and intentional with our time in a period where dopamine and distractions are infinitely accessible and available.

🙇🏻‍♂️ The Art of Focus 🙇🏻‍♂️

It is no surprise that there is a tension between a) productivity and lifestyle optimisation, and b) social media's eternal ability to distract us from our goals.

Social media companies are rewarded financially for increasing your engagement with their platforms. The more time spent scrolling aimlessly, exposed to swathes of content and targeted advertising, these systems learn  about your interests and continue to suck you in. Similar to Buddy's evil machine in The Incredibles, these algorithms get better and better the more time we spend engaging with them. They learn our weaknesses and target them!

Nonetheless, individuals (you and I, the consumers) are not naive or callow to the structure of social media platforms. We understand the poison, and we take it. However, we are all (or at least most of us) striving towards personal improvement and betterment of ourselves. We understand that a structured, disciplined lifestyle allows us to spend less mental energy on routine aspects of our lives, and more time in pursuit of 'deep work': activities which require deliberate and meaningful engagement to produce something new.

Why Focus?

Focus, and an appreciation for the sheer volume of 'mental noise', is a central feature of mindfulness practice and meditation. However, in self-help and productivity forums, it is rare to find an emphasis on focus.

This is because focus is an assumed prerequisite to productivity. It is assumed that we can focus on our goals and implement innumerable productivity improvements in our lives. These forums attempt to provide the tools, rather than assisting in the implementation of these tools. These forums provide external tools, such as computer applications, note-taking techniques, time-blocking advice etc.

I would argue that any meaningful application of these external tools first requires an internal change: improvements in our ability to focus. There is no point knowing every productivity hack if you're unable to sit down and focus for more than 5 minutes. Cheap dopamine hits from social media are ever-present and addictive.

Distinguishing Long-term Focus from Short-term Motivation

Having outlined the need to discuss focus as a standalone concept, it is worth distinguishing between the categories of focus that we employ.

Task-Driven, Short-Term Focus

Most of you are aware of the 'flow state': a perfect blend of mental challenge, structured and timely feedback, and a task where failure is consequential (take rock climbing, for example). There is no doubt that flow-inducing tasks are fuelled by passion, drive and motivation to complete the task.

These tasks are notably short-term oriented: absorbing new knowledge, completing productive 'sprints', and accomplishing tasks which do not require longer-term application or memory. While important, I believe we currently lack the second, more involved aspect of focus: long-term focus.

Focused Persistence

True mastery, and the development of reputation and credibility in a given field, is a product of longer-term focus, resilience, and persistence. It is the repeated acts of short-term focus over a long period. Arguably, we are all cognitively intelligent enough to absorb new information and complete intellectual tasks with an acceptable level of competence and skill. However, we struggle with sustained focus.

To take education as an example: the difficulty is not the process of learning new information, it is persistent focus for long enough to retain it. We may sit down and diligently practice a skill until it 'sticks', only to find that it's completely wiped from memory within a few weeks. Knowledge is only truly retained over long periods. Our desire to create bite-sized summaries of intellectual content is helpful at times but often leads to minimal retention of absolutely nothing. A prime example of this is self-help content on TikTok and Instagram. These platforms have optimised their algorithms to promote shorter, sharper hits of information and entertainment. Yes, it may seem productive to learn about life hacks and productivity tools, or snippets of interesting information, but we do not engage with the content for long enough to promote any meaningful retention. There's no consistency. There's no sustained focus on a single theme or topic.

To make matters worse, our minds are so consistently distracted by external stimuli that our short-term focus has rapidly deteriorated. Recently, I have noticed that I am personally unable to sit through a 2-hour university lecture without checking Facebook, or responding to notifications as they come through on my phone. We are simply unable to focus, either in the short-term, or longer-term. We want to jump to the next topic of interest. I believe this has also impacted our professional lives. We get bored quickly and want to job-hop before attaining meaningful skills and knowledge. We're more impatient. We're less engaged.

Tools to Regain Focus

Realising my declining ability to focus, and the similar predicament of those around me, I've begun taking steps to regain focus. I've found that these tools have worked well so far, and will continue to experiment.

These tools must be viewed from an internal rather than external lens. They are tools to improve focus, not necessarily to improve productivity. They are tools to allow your mind to actively engage with professional tasks and new information for longer periods of time. Long enough, hopefully, for some of it to stick!

  1. 🛋 Focus modes
  2. 🚶 Intentional interaction
  3. 🙅‍ Time spent alone️

🛋 Focus modes

Apple operating systems (and likely similar on Android/Windows) have recently introduced 'focus modes' on their devices to help us streamline our use of technology and remove unnecessary distractions as we work.

I've set up 3 primary focus modes, which I activate at different times of the day.

Do Not Disturb, to silence any and all notifications.

Personal, to silence all notifications except messaging platforms (Messenger, Whatsapp, Signal), and emails (Gmail, Outlook). This allows me to stay connected with friends and family without receiving unnecessary notifications that a friend has posted a story to their Instagram, or that somebody has uploaded photos to Facebook.

Work/Study mode allows only notifications for emails, phone calls, and other work-essential communication apps (Slack, Skype for Business). This also dims my home screen to remove visual noise.

Each of these focus modes also allows me to turn off 'badges', the red numbered circles which sit above applications when you have a notification.Turning off badges leads nicely to my next point

🚶 Intentional interaction

Be intentional with your technology interaction. All too often, we open our phones intending to send a message or look something up on the internet, but are then drawn into other apps and notifications completely unrelated. I've found myself completely forgetting why I opened my phone in the first place.

By turning off badges in focus modes, and 'dimming the lock screen' when a focus mode is activated, you prevent yourself from seeing notifications altogether, which reduces the likelihood that you'll be distracted by them.

Only unlock your phone for a pre-determined purpose.

Finally, add a screen time widget to your home page. There's nothing like seeing your screen time every time you open your phone. It's incredibly depressing to think about how much time we spend staring at our favourite 5 inch screen.

🙅‍ Time spent alone️

Moderating our interactions with technology goes hand in hand with my next point: moderating our time spent without it. We must also be intentional with time spent away from technological stimulus, whether that be auditory or visual. It has become extremely easy, and almost second nature, to play music or a podcast while commuting, or to scroll endlessly on our phones while we pass waiting time.

Take time away from technological stimulation to prevent overstimulation of the mind. I find that the best time is in the mornings from 6-8.30 am. I have set up a mindfulness focus mode which activates every day between those hours, and I abstain from any interaction with technology in these hours. This has several other benefits for the circadian system (which I will save for another post), but here we're primarily interested in the ability to reintroduce silence and 'alone time' into everyday life.

To Conclude...

I hope this article has emphasised the focus epidemic and highlighted a few strategies to stay present and purposeful in your interactions with technology. I hope it assists you in achieving your goals.

With a focused mind, one can then worry about productivity and time management.