It’s the middle of the work day. You’re supposed to be working on something important, but you find yourself flicking through the dozen or so browser tabs you have open. You land on YouTube and something entertaining catches your attention. Thirty seconds later, a video recommendation pops up and you click on that.
Your phone buzzes – you’ve got a DM from a friend on Instagram, which you answer. You feel a bit thirsty and tell yourself that you’ve been concentrating pretty hard for the last few minutes, so you get up to grab some water. Your phone is in your hand already, so you take it with you and refresh your feed and like a couple of photos as you walk.
You get your water, and stop by a co-worker’s desk along the way. She says she’s ordering bubble tea,1Boba for Americans. and you say “why not?”… and happily sip away while alternating between work-YouTube-Instagram-Reddit.
Before you know it, it’s 6pm, people are headed home and as you finish up your day, you check your task list and not one item has been crossed off. But that does make any sense! You were at your desk the whole day and busy the whole day, and it felt productive.
You ask yourself: what just happened?
Let’s pause for a second, and try that again.
It’s the middle of the work day. To your left, is your task list – the things that are important and that you need to get done today.
Your phone is nowhere to be seen – it’s locked away in your desk drawer and your keys are in your bag, which makes it a pain to unlock and get out. In your menu bar a timer for fifty minutes has started running.
You get to work. You power through the first task, some simple editing, in ten minutes, and quickly move onto the second. One-by-one, the tasks fall. They are no match for your consistent laser-like focus and productivity.
Before you know it, the timer hits zero and you grab for the bottle of water to your right. You stand up, stretch a bit, walk over to the kitchen, sip your water, take a breath, and then head back to your desk, ready to do it all over again.
Before you know it, it’s 6pm, people are headed home and as you finish up your day, you check your task list and every single item has been crossed off. And not only that – you’ve added a number of other items and they have also been crossed off.
You ask yourself: what just happened?
It’s not like you were frantically busy all day… but somehow, everything was completed.
What is Destructive Snacking?
The two scenarios described above could very well belong to the same person, at the same workplace, at the same point in time.
The first has fallen victim to destructive snacking, which is what people do to unintentionally erode their own attention, willpower, volition and discipline through tiny distractions.2An alternative description: Destructive Snacking is what people do to spank their monkey brains into dopamine-induced oblivion.
The second has learnt to structure her environment and overcome her impulses, and minimise the amount of snacking that occurs throughout her intended productive periods.
Destructive Snacking is the behaviour of allowing little distractions to “entertain” our brains throughout the day. In a biological sense, such snacking feeds the dopamine receptors in our brains and makes us incorrectly feel good about what we are doing. In a philosophical sense, you can consider destructive snacking to be a vice to be minimised as much as possible.
Snacking is a well-known phenomenon in fitness circles. You likely have a friend or family member who always says “I eat like nothing for dinner… but I still have trouble losing weight”. Upon investigation however, it turns out that he snacks on anything and everything between mealtimes – hence, destructive snacking.3Fixing your meal times and not snacking on food in-between is actually one of the easier ways to handle diet and health issues.
Destructive snacking applies to all areas of our lives, but the area it is most likely to affect you is in productivity and entertainment. This is where you end up doing things that are momentary distractions, instead of focusing on what is important in that moment.
Destructive Snacking Sounds Bad. Why Do We Do It?
We snack out of impulse. Or rather, out of of a lack of impulse control.
There is a short-term reward – a hit of dopamine – that goes with snacking, especially of the momentary sort. It is a form of instant gratification that allows us to feel good, even when we are procrastinating over something important/difficult that we should be doing.4Funny how we always procrastinate on the difficult/important things, right?
And the worst part, is that there is no real benefit to it. Browsing your feed. Looking at photos on your phone. Watching a fifteen-second clip. None of these things actually make your life any better or progress you towards your goals.
You see, it turns out that dopamine is supposed to be reserved for actual accomplishment. Not for tiny distractions.
You want to be training your brain to synthesise dopamine in response to the right things. Left out of control, destructive snacking attaches dopamine to all the wrong things, and this erodes your willpower, your discipline, your concentration and your focus… and makes the journey to get them back even more difficult.
I’m Not Convinced. How Is Clicking “Like” On Some Photos Bad For Me?
It’s bad for you. And here’s why.
We have all heard about or read the science on smartphones and the effect they have on us – that their constant use makes us unhappy in the long-term and makes us feel like what we do is never enough.5Elhai, J., Levine, J., Dvorak, R., Hall, B. (2017). Non-social features of smartphone use are most related to depression, anxiety and problematic smartphone use. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 75-82. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.023
This is because our phones are the primary modern-day source of destructive snacking. The primary source of our modern-day minor distractions. The primary source of short dopamine bursts in our brain’s rewards centres.
Dopamine is supposed to be our reward for things that are good for our survival. Things like good food, sex, exercise and successful social interactions.
The problem is through the apps on our phones, we have a virtual and unlimited supply of “successful social interactions”, even though we objectively know that someone liking our photo or commenting on something we posted is not the same as meeting and connecting with a flesh-and-blood human being.6Krach S., Paulus FM., Bodden M. and Kircher T. (2010). The rewarding nature of social interactions. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 4:22. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022
If the science isn’t enough to convince you, let’s get practical.
Every time you snack, you are conditioning your reward system. You are literally rewiring your brain to respond to and become addicted to certain things.
But instead of being wired to exercise, or procreate or meet new people… you’re being wired to tap on like. To read news that doesn’t matter. To watch a motivational pick-me-up that has no real meaning.
Over time, this saps your focus. It makes it harder for you to do deep work. It makes it harder to get things done. And it makes it harder for you to make things happen.
A lot of bad habits stem from destructive snacking. If you learn to eliminate it – you will be able to train your self-discipline, to protect your ability to think with clarity and discernment,7Good judgement. and to improve your belief systems and structures.
Your Distractions Are Of Your Own Doing
Your Distractions Are Of Your Own Doing.
The only person to blame for the destructive snacking we engage in is… ourselves.
I suppose we could say: well, entertainment’s always been around right?
In ancient times, they ate good food, went hunting and watched quail fighting matches. Today, we have replaced these with even better food, social media and streaming video.
The crucial difference is that with our phone always within arm’s reach, we can do these things all the time. The human brain simply was not designed to withstand this level of accessibility to easy dopamine rewards.
Eliminating Destructive Snacking, the Systematic Way
The question becomes: what can we do about it?
The simple answer is to cut out the snacking.
But if it were that easy, everyone would do it.
Instead, let’s look at a methodical way to eliminate destructive snacking – with some help from simple systems, technology and an understanding of human psychology.
Note: I don’t believe you can completely eliminate snacking 100%. The temptation will always be there,8Unless you live as a hermit/mystic in isolation. Possibly. and it’s wired into our brains to seek out SOME momentary rewards. But you can reduce the amount of snacking as a little win on a daily basis, and over time, this will allow you to build better habits and virtues like discipline, willpower, focus and temperance. And having these will make it easier not to snack in the future.
1. Work Out What You Snack On
The first step in our snacking elimination system is to work out what you snack on.
Let’s start with the obvious one: phones.
Our phones are amazing devices, but they come with a bunch of tempting things built in, be it Reddit, streaming video, porn or plain-old social media.
The simple and systematic solution with your phone is to put it somewhere else when you want to focus. In a desk drawer. In another room. In your bag. Put it on DND and put it away and out of sight. During your breaks, just leave it alone and enjoy your break.
Simply doing this will eliminate 80% of your destructive snacking distractions, which is amazing.
Now for the other 20%.
This varies from person-to-person and are the things you find yourself “just doing” for no real reason. Here are some examples I have seen:
- Random/mindless Instagram/TikTok/小红书 browsing.
- Random/mindless Tinder/CMB/Hinge swiping.
- Taking photos/selfies/video for no particular purpose.
- Shopping when you don’t have a need for it.9Especially for clothes you will never wear, books you will never read, or masterclasses you will never watch.
- Watching porn.10Male remote workers are especially prone to this one.
The trick with this other 20% is to catch yourself doing these things, and then to set up your environment so that the temptation never even comes up.
2. Set Up Your Environment To Be Snack-free
A popular piece of advice given to people on a calorie-counting fitness diet is to empty their houses of snack foods. Chocolate, popcorn, candy and soda – they all have to go. The theory being that if it’s not in the house, you can’t eat it.
You can do the same thing with your entertainment snacks.
We have already mentioned putting our phone away in our desk drawers.11If you need to reinforce this idea, just check out the Screen Time app on your phone and the number of Pick-ups you have per day. Prepare to be a little shocked.
For your other distractions, it’s time to get creative. The aim is to remove the destructive snack from your environment through the use of a system, a piece of tech or an understanding of your own psychology.
Here are some ideas:
- Don’t listen to music on YouTube via music videos – get a dedicated Spotify/Apple Music/YouTube Music subscription so you can keep your music siloed.
- Put your smartwatch in DND mode while working.
- Have separate user accounts or Google Chrome profiles for work and personal.
- Use blocking plugins or apps to shut out the websites you find yourself wandering to.
- Close tabs and app windows you aren’t using right now – you can open them again later.
- Not browsing stores in-person or on your phone during your lunch break.
- Use timeslices.
All these ideas will remove the destructive snack from your environment, or at least hide it away while you are focusing.
3. The Snacking Endgame
While setting up your environment to be snack-free helps a lot, the endgame is to use it to improve your mindset and psychology to where you no longer feel the need to snack on entertainment.
The first benchmark for this is where you no longer feel the need to be rewarded or stimulated all the time. Where you can let “free time” pass without instantaneous reward.12Mark Manson has an excellent description of this at: https://markmanson.net/how-to-be-patient
A second benchmark of this is where you can methodically set aside dedicated downtime and stick to it – something to look forward to while you focus on the task at hand.
There is no real way to work on your mindset directly – you simply set up your environment and then let things happen daily.
What To Do Next
The next time you sit down to work (or eat or hang out with friends), take your phone… and put it away. Seriously.
For everything else, just pay attention to the little distractions you find yourself engaging in. And then one-by-one, remove them from your environment. Done methodically, it really is that simple.
- Boba for Americans.
- An alternative description: Destructive Snacking is what people do to spank their monkey brains into dopamine-induced oblivion.
- Fixing your meal times and not snacking on food in-between is actually one of the easier ways to handle diet and health issues.
- Funny how we always procrastinate on the difficult/important things, right?
- Elhai, J., Levine, J., Dvorak, R., Hall, B. (2017). Non-social features of smartphone use are most related to depression, anxiety and problematic smartphone use. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 75-82. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2016.12.023
- Krach S., Paulus FM., Bodden M. and Kircher T. (2010). The rewarding nature of social interactions. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 4:22. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2010.00022
- Good judgement.
- Unless you live as a hermit/mystic in isolation. Possibly.
- Especially for clothes you will never wear, books you will never read, or masterclasses you will never watch.
- Male remote workers are especially prone to this one.
- If you need to reinforce this idea, just check out the Screen Time app on your phone and the number of Pick-ups you have per day. Prepare to be a little shocked.
- Mark Manson has an excellent description of this at: https://markmanson.net/how-to-be-patient.
Photo by Jens Johnsson.