Your need for instant gratification is killing your productivity. Here’s how you can override it.

Your need for instant gratification is killing your productivity. Here’s how you can override it.
Your smartphone is hurting your productivity. WayHome studio/Shutterstock
Your smartphone is hurting your productivity. WayHome studio/Shutterstock

Every time your phone chirps with a text, an email or a Twitter alert, your brain gets a flood of the pleasure-seeking chemical dopamine — and that craving you feel to glance down at your screen is probably hurting your ability to stay productive throughout the day.

In fact, one study found that office employees between the ages of 18 and 34 spend about 70 minutes per day on their phones when they’re at work. That’s nearly six hours of wasted time per week.

Of course, you can’t blame all your bad habits on the effects of a single brain chemical, but it’s definitely a factor. Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to keep that little pleasure-seeking brain of yours in check and make sure you’re staying on task for longer stretches of time. That is, if you’re willing to change your routine a little.

The link between smartphones and dopamine

First, it’s important to understand exactly why those little smartphone dings are such a productivity killer. Part of it probably has to do with the way the brain tends to reward instant gratification over things that require a little more patience.

For example, a new study from the University of Texas at San Antonio conditioned rats to expect a food reward after either a short waiting period or a slightly longer waiting period. The short-term wait period corresponded with one tone, and the long-term wait period corresponded with a different tone. Surprise, surprise: The rats experienced a higher flood of dopamine when they heard the short wait tone than when they knew they’d have to wait a while longer.

Tyra Banks, typing with the efficiency of a jungle cat and unconstrained by the dopamine-granting powers of a smartphone
Tyra Banks, typing with the efficiency of a jungle cat and unconstrained by the dopamine-granting powers of a smartphone George Stanchev/YouTube

In other words, the feeling you get when your phone goes off in the middle of writing up a big report is a lot like those short-term food signals. As soon as you hear one of those all-too-familiar notification sounds, your brain knows something exciting — a text or an email — is waiting to be read. Right now!

If you’re like most people, that’s usually enough to derail you for a moment. And if you think it isn’t a problem, you’re wrong: Science has shown that switching between tasks has a mental cost associated with it, which means you’re less efficient at finishing a task if you keep getting interrupted by other things — like checking Twitter — along the way.

How to break the cycle

If you want to be more efficient at work, the simplest solution is to disable your notifications when you’re in the middle of something important. On iPhones, the best way to do this is to take advantage of the “Do Not Disturb” function, which prevents any notifications from lighting up your screen while the device is locked.

Take advantage of the “Do Not Disturb” mode to prevent yourself from getting distracted.
Take advantage of the “Do Not Disturb” mode to prevent yourself from getting distracted. Mic

To turn this mode on, swipe up from the bottom of your screen to access the Control Center and tap the little icon that looks like a crescent moon. As long as that icon is lit up, your phone will keep quiet. If you want to get extra fancy, you can go to Settings, then click “Do Not Disturb” and toggle on the “Scheduled” setting, which will program your phone to mute your notifications automatically for a set window of time throughout the day.

But simply turning off your phone’s notifications might not be enough. A study from the University of Texas at Austin found that when participants had their smartphone within view, their cognitive capacity was significantly impaired when compared to those who had left their phones in a different room. In other words, if your phone is simply within view on your desk or in your pocket, you’re expending mental energy to resist looking at it, preventing you from fully focusing on the task at hand. So, if you want to maximize your attention span, try leaving your phone in your bag under your desk while you’re working on something important.

Your work — and your attention span — will thank you.