Have you ever noticed you reach for your smartphone and start scrolling through LinkedIn, (or social media apps, or news websites) when you hit a ‘stuck point’ on a challenging task at work?
Some professionals are calling social media the 21st Century cigarette break. So why do we succumb to the social scroll (and other digital distractions) when we hit a stuck point? There’s science to explain our behaviours and strategies we can put in place to remedy this situation.
Now taking a break when we face a cognitively-challenging task, or a ‘stuck point’ with a task isn’t a new phenomenon. In years gone by we may have taken a break and walked to the water cooler, or caught up on some filing, or done some photocopying (or taken a cigarette break). We took these breaks because our brains need a break. Taking a break was akin to rebooting our brain.
However, today we tend to revert to scroll social media feeds, or do a quick check of online news, or jump into our inboxes when we hit the stuck point. In fact, studies are showing that we revert to digital distractions a lot. One study found that we’re checking our phones approximately 85 times/day1. Most knowledge workers are now being distracted every 6 minutes, often by communication tools like email and Slack2.
These digital rest breaks have become commonplace for many of us in the workplace and they’re impacting our performance. Whilst taking a break when we reach a stuck point in our work isn’t a problem in and of itself (in fact, it’s a natural way for the brain to recalibrate), the issue is that we spend our time ‘rebooting’ completing activities that don’t support our brain and may actually impede our ability to resume the original task.
Our ritualistic ‘quick check’ digital behaviours can impact our performance.
When we succumb to digital distractions we actually compromise our productivity. Our ritualistic ‘quick check’ digital behaviours can impact our performance in two ways.
First, reverting to digital tasks (scrolling LinkedIn, or wading through our inbox) isn’t giving our brain the break it requires, so our brain isn’t getting the recuperation and whitespace it requires to resume the (cognitively-challenging) task we escaped. In order to move through a stuck point, we need cognitive clarity, so our brain needs a rest. Going for a walk, making a cup of tea, talking to a colleague may be better activities. Why do we revert to ‘quick check’ when facing challenging tasks? Put simply, we need some mental respite. Our brain needs a break.
Second, quick check digital behaviours are challenging for us to adhere to, despite our best intentions because when we check social media, or our inboxes we enter the ‘state of insufficiency’ and we never feel done. There’s no sense of completion because these technologies are like a bottomless pit. So whilst we intend to just do a ‘quick check’ it often results in anything but a quick check. There are no stopping cues with many digital technologies, so once we start, it’s so hard for us to stop and regulate our behaviour. It’s akin to jumping on a bike downhill without brakes.
In fact, there’s neuroscience to explain why it’s so hard to stop. When we do something pleasurable (and scrolling social media, or quickly replying to emails is easier and more pleasurable than the initial, challenging task-at-hand) our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine hijacks the logical part of the brain, the frontal lobe, which would ordinarily manage our impulses, so it’s challenging for us to stop the scroll (or the inbox plough).
The ‘quick check’ is not only distracting and compromising our productivity, but it’s also a problem because of the cycle it perpetuates. When we revert to what Cal Newport3 refers to as ‘shallow work’ (non-cognitively demanding tasks like scrolling through social media, scanning emails, or checking Slack notifications) this can become repetitive and appealing cycle. Put simply, we get cheap highs from the dopamine hits that this type of shallow work provides.
Tips for avoiding the ‘quick check’
// Airplane or Do Not Disturb mode- when you need to engage in focused activities, or as Cal Newport would describe as ‘deep work’ turn on Airplane mode or utilise Do Not Disturb. This will reduce the likelihood that you’ll be seduced by digital temptations such as pings and notifications.
// Sprint, don’t jog- don’t plan to work for long intervals. Our brain works better in shorter intervals. The Pomodoro technique (working for 25 minute focused periods and then taking a 5 minute rest) can work well. It also means you’re less likely to cognitively fatigue so again, you’re less likely to revert to the scroll.
// Disable notifications- Tech temptations are constantly vying for our attention. The ping of your inbox, or social media notifications can hijack our attention and we’re more likely to succumb to the distraction when we hit the ‘stuck point’ and revert to the ‘quick check’.
// Go full screen- maximise your browser or Word document so you’re less tempted to revert to digital distractions when you hit a stuck point. Simply seeing other tabs or applications can be tempting.
// Use tech tools- If your self-control is weak (and it maybe if you’re tired) use digital tools that prohibit you from being distracted. Freedom is an app and website blocker for computers (PCs and Mac) and phones (iOS and Androids).
// Go greyscale- turning your phone to greyscale can lessen the psychological appeal of our phones.
// Designated social hours- we’re hard-wired for relational connection and that’s one of the many reasons we’re obsessed (not addicted) to social media. So rather than depriving yourself of social media, give yourself set times for social media check-ins. This prevents it from seeping into other parts of your life.
// Disconnect & recharge (yourself, not your device)- when we’re tired, our self-control is impaired. Have you ever noticed you eat more junk food when you’re exhausted)? When you’re tired, take a break and give your brain the rest it really needs.
// Have a menu of alternative tasks for the ‘quick check’- many of us revert to the ‘quick’ check’ as it’s become habitual. So in those moments when you hit the stuck point, have a list of better activities that you could engage in, rather than bottomless scrolling, or doing the shallow work. Maybe you could grab a coffee, walk the stairs, or do a purposeful ‘light task’ (see next point).
// Have a light work to-do list on standby– sometimes pushing through on a cognitively-taxing task is just too difficult, but we don’t want to reach for a digital distraction, nor do we want to go for a walk or take another type of break outlined previously. Instead, we could replenish our cognitive resources by undertaking a less-demanding task. I call these ‘light tasks’ (similar to what Cal Newport calls ‘shallow work’- work that is relatively non-cognitively taxing). Have a list ready of simple, light tasks that you need to complete- maybe it’s returning some phone calls, or doing some basic administration, or maybe it’s quickly powering through your inbox. The main point is that you’re being intentional with your time and not reverting to an habitual and unhelpful task. You’ll feel great being able to tick some tasks off your list and you’ll get a hit of dopamine as you complete the tasks which may motivate you to return to your original task. Warning- be careful that the quick hits of dopamine from completing easy tasks don’t stop you from reverting back to your original task. Have you ever noticed that we tend to favour doing the ‘easy’ tasks? Now you know why- we love the dopamine hit associated with doing so.
// If you do succumb to the scroll, set a timer or a cue to terminate– I’m realistic and know that sometimes I don’t practice what I preach. I’m also guilty of reaching for my phone and checking Instagram or LinkedIn when I hit a stuck point in my work. So in these instances, especially if I’m tired and know my self-control isn’t at its prime, I set a timer or another cue to remind you when that time has elapsed. This serves dual purposes- it prevents the state of insufficiency from setting in and it also helps me to work efficiently (Parkinson’s Law- that work expands to fill the time available for completion).
I’m passionate about sharing science-backed solutions about digital productivity and wellbeing. I deliver keynote addresses and seminars to organisations, both big and small about how technology impacts employee performance and wellbeing. Contact my team if you’re interested in finding out more about how I work with businesses to promote employee wellbeing.
1 Andrews, S., Ellis, D. A., Shaw, H., & Piwek, L. (2015). Beyond self-report: tools to compare estimated and real-world smartphone use. PloS one, 10(10), e0139004.
2 McKay, J. (2018). Communication Overload: Our research shows most workers can’t go 6 minutes without checking email or IM. Retrieved from –https://blog.rescuetime.com/communication-multitasking-switches/
3 Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK.
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