habit formation loop

4 Steps to Digital Addiction Habits

Last Updated on October 12, 2023

A friend of mine is a yoga instructor, and she is really frustrated with her students. When she tells her class to take a child’s pose for rest and recovery, they proceed to grab their phones and scroll on their screens instead. Who needs relaxation when you can answer work emails? After being annoyed with this too many times, she started making her class more intense than yoga needs to be, using rigorous movements to keep her students’ hands away from their phones.

What’s going on here? Why are people unable to part with their phones even in the middle of meditation?

Short answer – not their fault.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said it best: “The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free”.

Bad digital addiction habits are hardwired into our brains by the tech industry without our conscious awareness.

It happens in 4 simple steps.

Step #1: Cue - It’s Available

Perhaps the most simple reason for our attachment to the “digital drug” is that it is always there. When we are stressed or bored, we reach for the phone. It’s not that we want to check our phones all the time, but we do it because it’s obvious and easy.

During the Vietnam war, many American soldiers started using heroin – cheap and ubiquitous in Vietnam – to alleviate the stress of the war. As these soldiers were about to return home, the US government braced itself for a heroin addiction epidemic.

Surprisingly, the opposite had happened – once back home in America, former heroin addicts stopped using and moved on with their lives. Researchers concluded that the reason for this miraculous recovery was the change of environment. Ordinary responsibilities replaced combat duties. Heroin was not easily available, and not needed as a way to cope.

Heroin addiction was previously considered permanent. Instead, it disappeared when the setting changed.

In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, American psychologist Robert Cialdini writes: “When we are rushed, stressed, uncertain, indifferent, distracted, or fatigued, we tend to focus on less of the information available to us. When making decisions under these circumstances, we often revert to a rather primitive but necessary single piece of good evidence approach”.

Our single piece of evidence: a phone within easy reach.

The screen is a cue prompting us to the next step – craving.

Step #2: Craving - It’s Desirable

The screen is full of promise. It can distract us from our boredom. It can alleviate our anxiety. It can satisfy our curiosity. It can connect us with friends, and boost our social status if we post the right things. It can inform, it can entertain, it can surprise.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear, an expert on habit formation, said that “any product that is habit-forming does not create new motivation, but rather latches onto the underlying motives of human nature:

  • Find love and reproduce = using Tinder
  • Connect and bond with others=browsing Facebook
  • Win social acceptance and approval=Posting on Instagram
  • Reduce uncertainty=searching on Google
  • Achieve status and prestige=playing video games”

In other words, the craving to check Instagram is secondary to much deeper evolutionary forces that tech designers take advantage of. According to James Clear, the craving is “to reduce uncertainty and relieve anxiety, to win social acceptance or approval, or to achieve status.”

Digital cravings are powerful in the same way food cravings are powerful – because both technology and junk food are designed to be addictive. He writes: “Junk food is a more concentrated form of calories than natural food. Video games are a more concentrated form of play than board games. Social media delivers more praise as “likes” in a few minutes than you can ever hope to get in a real life. If the habit is attractive, your brain will crave it.”

We succumb to the craving and proceed to the behavior.


Step #3: Response - Addictive Behavior

Compulsion does not need years to develop – it can happen instantly. I have a kid to prove the point.

My husband and I have done the right thing with our third child – we followed the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines and kept him away from any screens until the age of two, then added some innocent cartoons. We were so proud of ourselves. That is, until the first time he got his hands on the tablet, about age 4. Years of monumental parental effort – down the drain. Since that moment of first exposure to the “digital drug”, screen time with him has become a daily battle.

The first time my 4-year old experienced the magic of a tablet, he was hooked. The first time I used Uber, I was hooked by the convenience. The first time I used PayPal to send money to a friend I loved how simple it was – now I use it always. Since the first time I used FaceTime to call my mom I have been doing it every week.

Technology instantly solves our problems, satisfies our cravings, and the positive emotion of it all transforms a one-time action into a habit. Nothing wrong with that, right?

In each of the digital products there is a clear benefit – otherwise we would not use them. But when it is not a short and measurable benefit of an Uber ride, Paypal transfer or a video phone call, but a continuous stream of accomplishments from a highly addictive video game, or a continuous feeling of connection generated by social media, the benefits last for hours, days, weeks, years – and take over our life. Robbing us of time to accomplish things of real value, and replacing real achievements with perceived digital ones. These are behaviors we definitely do not want, but they become hardwired digital addiction habits.

Habit formation is actually a useful evolutionary feature. Our conscious mind can only pay attention to one problem at a time, which uses a lot of energy. An unconscious habit – good or bad – happens automatically, no decision-making required. It is a shortcut to preserve our conscious attention for more important tasks.

The biggest myth is that an unhealthy relationship with technology is somehow a result of lack of self-control. But we can only use self-control for conscious decisions, whereas tech is built to take advantage of the unconscious. You hear a sudden noise in the bushes – can you use self-control to NOT pay attention? If you did that 50,000 years ago, you’d be dead, together with your indifference to sudden noises.

Today a notification elicits the same visceral reaction, not subject to self-control – immediate attention at the expense of everything else:

  • Cue: phone buzzes with a notification
  • Craving: you are anxious to know what opportunities or threats it is about
  • Response: you grab your phone and check the message
  • Reward: the craving is satisfied with an digital reward.  

Step #4: Reward - Dopamine High

Drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, gambling, video games, and social media all activate the same brain chemistry that can lead to addiction – to substances or behaviors. Dopamine reward loop activates in the brain when we anticipate a rewarda digital solution to a human problem. The reward satisfies the craving and leads us to repeat the behavior in the future.

Checking social media becomes a solution to the problem of feeling connected, and binging on Netflix becomes a pleasant distraction from problems we should be solving. The behavior feels good, and the habit is born.

Digital media makes sure that addiction to their product is fast and easy. When the effort required to follow an impulse is effectively zero, you find yourself binge-watching YouTube because all Autoplay requires you to do is keep your eyes open.

Same with browsing social media – infinite scroll makes sure you never reach the bottom – there is always something more to keep you hooked. Again, no need to press buttons to go to the next page or refresh the content – it just keeps going. Aza Raskin, the creator of the feature, later became a conscientious objector to uncontrolled media use and a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology.

Behavioral scientists earned their consulting fees from tech companies by advising them how to use cognitive science to hook people on their products. In his book Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg, a director of the Stanford Behavior Design Lab, introduced 2 maxims:

#1. Help people do what they already want to do
#2 Help people feel successful

Instagram made a product that was a simple way to make people feel successful. The sound of a slot machine jackpot is a simple way to make a gambler feel successful: it celebrates a win and creates the gambling habit. The same tactic is used in video games. In The Social dilemma documentary a message “your ex is in a new relationship” reliably forces the main character to grab his phone. Digital rewards are irresistible.

There is a list on Wikipedia of 188 cognitive biases. Each one is a button on the control panel of our mind that persuasive technology can press to modify our behavior – without our conscious awareness of what’s happening.

Let’s flip the tables and use cognitive science to extract ourselves back to freedom.

cognitive biases codex
By design: John Manoogian IIIcategories and descriptions: Buster Bensonimplementation: TilmannR - This file was derived from: The Cognitive Bias Codex - 180+ biases, designed by John Manoogian III (jm3).png:, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69756809

Solution #1: Remove the Cue - Restructure Your Environment

If you do not have a phone in your line of vision, you are less likely to use it. Make screen time clues disappear from your environment. Put the phone in another room, and silence notifications. Build intentional “speed bumps” between yourself and the screen.

In our house the TV is banished to the basement, and the remote is locked up. As a result, we only watch TV intentionally, and most days not at all. For the kids TV access requires several deliberate steps:

  1. Obtain parents’ permission to watch TV (which is only granted when homework and chores are completed, rooms are clean, and vegetables are eaten)
  2. Have a parent retrieve the remote from the safe
  3. Make a track to the basement
  4. Turn on TV
  5. Face show selection limited by parental controls

The obstacle between the person and the habit interrupts the habit. Commitment devices are products based on this principle. For example, Kitchen safe is a commitment device – the phone is locked in a timer-operated container, making access impossible until the timer runs out. TechDetox Box is a commitment device to protect kids’ sleep from smartphone disruptions.

The brilliance of commitment devices is that they make ethical behavior automatic. Think of the original commitment device: a cash register. In the late 19th century, James Ritty, a store owner, discovered that his employees were helping themselves to the cash from his business. He could have spent time and effort punishing his employees for stealing. But he had no high expectations for their moral improvement. Instead, he invented a cash register. He redesigned the environment that made life easy both for him and his employees: no temptation, no stealing, no punishment, no conflict, no hurt feelings. Store owners worldwide benefited from his invention ever since.

James Clear conducted an experiment of locking himself out of social media accounts Monday through Friday. He writes that after he removed this mental candy from his environment, it became easier to consume the healthy stuff and find the motivation to work on more meaningful tasks. Removing the temptation breaks the addiction.

So craft your environment where doing the right thing is easy, and doing the wrong thing is hard. If you see the phone, mindless checking will happen. Your environment should serve your purposes, not those of app developers.

Solution #2: Manage the Craving - Awareness

To resist addictive tech, we have to be aware of what we are actually doing. The difference is between the mindless and the intentional. In the words of Carl Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”.

A phone in our pocket is like a cookie in a cookie jar or a TV remote next to the couch. Grabbing one is automatic, but awareness happens in the pause between the impulse and the response where the magic of conscious choice resides.

Investor Paul Graham writes: “To match the accelerating rate at which technological progress throws off new addictions, we’ll be increasingly unable to rely on customs to protect us. Unless we want to be canaries in the coal mine of each new addiction—the people whose sad example becomes a lesson to future generations—we’ll have to figure out for ourselves what to avoid and how. … We’ll have to worry not just about new things, but also about existing things becoming more addictive. That’s what bit me. I’ve avoided most addictions, but the Internet got me because it became addictive while I was using it.”

Addictive tech creates habits that negatively affect our well-being, and being aware of how a digital product makes us feel can help avoid the more toxic ones, like passive browsing of the highlight reel of other people’s lives that makes us feel bad about our own.

To break up with digital binging let’s be aware of the harm it does. We mostly focus on the benefits of technology, but do not take the time to think about the costs. Most people were smoking before all the research on its harmful effects came out. As knowledge spread, social customs changed – but it took decades. Today most people spend hours staring into their phones, ignoring everything and everyone, which might become a socially unacceptable behavior years from now – like smoking indoors.

Solution #3: Replace Mindless Scrolling with Conscious Choice

To break the habit loop, after removing the cue (silence the phone, turn off notifications, hide the remote), let’s proceed from our animal brain to the rational human one.

Making a conscious effort to reconnect to our priorities, to live the “why” of our goals and our values, is the antidote to being controlled by digital distractions. In practical terms this might take the form of a time management technique called batching: to read and respond to messages at set times during the day when you decide to do it – not your phone.

To use technology mindfully and intentionally, decide what particular online task you need to execute. Choose the best digital tool to do it. Do it and get out. If the tool is Facebook, the risk is being sucked in for hours of endless scrolling, completely unrelated to your original task. Cal Newport, the author of Digital Minimalism, warns that it matters how we use social media: studies that found positive results focused on the specific behaviors of social media users (reaching out to a particular friend), while negative results came from mindless browsing.

Solution #4: Cost/Benefit Analysis

To hack our motivations, let’s shift our focus from the benefits of a habit (social media alleviates our boredom) to the benefits of avoiding it. I call this the cost/benefit analysis. Once we give enough thought to the opportunity costs – all the good things we could be doing with our lives instead (working, spending time with family, enjoying nature, sleeping), the habit becomes less attractive.

The hidden cost of social media is the disappearance of real world relationships, proven to be detrimental to human well-being. One personal phone call to wish a friend a happy birthday is worth 50 Facebook “Happy Birthday!” messages. The call will make both share a real human connection, and help refresh those rusty social skills.

Evaluate the benefits of every app before downloading it. I prefer to use a desktop computer for most tasks, and the apps on my phone are reserved for logistical purposes (messengers, maps), or for consuming high-quality content of my choice (music, podcasts, audiobooks). There are no social media apps on my phone, and no gaming – it’s a minefield, so I prefer to permanently stay out of it. I only use social media for work, not as an individual.

I try to use tech only for specific tasks that I intentionally set out to accomplish: send an email, purchase a product. Not “let’s check in and see if there is anything new inside the app” – that’s what the apps have trained us to do, like animals in the circus. Let’s disrupt the automated user interface of a smartphone app, designed to extract our attention whenever they want. Let’s take control over our relationship with the service. I use IT – I do not let it USE ME.

Do not feel guilty to delete the app once it served its purpose. I was forced to get a photo app to get access to my kids’ photos. I downloaded the photos and removed the app. I downloaded the Disney app before taking them to Disney World, and deleted it once the vacation was over.

Conclusion: Make Your Own Attention Rituals

The idea that bad habits (overeating, addictive video gaming, smoking, binging on social media) are somehow a moral failure of a person is antiquated. In case of addictive tech, the perceived lack of self-control is engineered, not ingrained. Once we remove digital temptations, we suddenly discover the discipline to do better things.

Attention spans of checking digital media are driven by random rewards and measured in seconds – the continuous stream of dopamine snacks for the brain that gives no lasting satisfaction, but only makes us crave more. To resist this behavioral conditioning we can make our own attention rituals , instead of letting the attention economy determine them for us, disrupting our life and dictating our priorities. Bad digital habits are not our character flaw – they are created by the industry that treats users as an expendable resource. Breaking free is up to us.

Take Back Control
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