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Addicted to Your Smartphone, To-Do List, or Busyness?

Monday, May 20, 2019

Are you addicted to your smartphone? Do you feel the pull to constantly check your messages and news feeds?

Are you addicted to busyness? As soon as you accomplish something, do you immediately focus on the next task or problem? Are you always thinking about what’s coming, to the point it’s difficult to be present with and focused on interacting with others?

If your answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” you may have or be developing an addiction that’s tied to dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter in your brain.

We tend to think of addiction as a need for a certain habit-forming substance (alcohol or drugs, for example), but it’s broader than that—and sometimes less obvious that a behavior has crossed over into addiction. A review of 83 studies on addiction led Sussman et al. to conclude that nearly half the population in the United States suffers from one or more addictions that have “serious negative consequences.” While the addictions studied included substances (alcohol, eating disorders, mood-altering legal and illegal drugs, and tobacco), it also included process addictions (dependence on busyness and work, exercise, gambling, online gaming or social media, shopping, love, and sex).

How the brain functions is complex and I find it fascinating. I am by no means an expert in neuroscience so I rely on the work of scientists and medical professionals and those working in the field of psychology as I assimilate new and relevant findings into the work we do around organizational culture and the importance of connection in our lives. For instance, we teach about the “amygdala hijack” and how getting someone who is anxious or upset to talk acts to calm his or her nervous system and shift brain activity from the person’s amygdala to the prefrontal cortex where rational thought is processed. In Connection Culture, I wrote about how advances in medical imaging have made it possible to know that the part of the brain that processes emotional pain is the same area that processes physical pain.

So, what is dopamine and what role does it play in how we act? To put it simply, neurotransmitters are molecules that behave as chemical messengers in the brain. Dopamine is associated with the pleasure and reward pathways, and the positive emotion that makes us desire what we don’t have and motivates us to go after the things we want. In their book The Molecule of More, authors Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, and Michael E. Long give this interesting insight: “Dopamine has no standard for good and seeks no finish line. The dopamine circuits in the brain can be stimulated only by the possibility of whatever is shiny and new, never mind how perfect things are at the moment. The dopamine motto is ‘more.’” Another aspect of dopamine is that, like some other addictive substances, a person needs more dopamine to produce the same positive emotion over time.


While it is a good and useful thing to have an internal spark to pursue a goal and persevere on your quest to attain it, too much dopamine is a cause for concern. In organizations, leaders who have dopaminergic personalities are never satisfied. They continuously push people to achieve unrealistic goals in pursuit of boosting their personal wealth, power, or status. This obsessive pursuit can overwhelm the people working for them and create high levels of anxiety, incivility, stress, disengagement, and burnout (and may push them toward an addiction of their own as they try to cope). Failing to feed the dopamine habit triggers pains of withdrawal. An individual who is overly reliant on dopamine may be headed for a crash.

The best leaders don’t drink from the dopamine fire hydrant. In addition to drawing on normal levels of dopamine, they benefit from other sources of positive emotion in the brain that make them more stable and more effective leaders who are in touch with the people they lead. Lieberman and Long contrast the “future-oriented dopamine” with “present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules ... [which] include serotonin and oxytocin, endorphins and endocannabinoids. … As opposed to the pleasure of anticipation via dopamine, these chemicals give us pleasure from sensation and emotion.” Describing the interplay of these neurotransmitters, the authors explain that “...though dopamine and H&N [Here and Now] circuits can work together, under most circumstances they counter each other. When H&N circuits are activated, we are prompted to experience the real world around us, and dopamine is suppressed; when dopamine circuits are activated, we move into a future of possibilities and H&Ns are suppressed.”

I find material from the Hacking of the American Mind by Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL to be helpful when thinking about dopamine and serotonin. Early in the book Lustig sets out the differences between reward (driven by dopamine) and contentment (driven by serotonin):

  • Reward is short-lived. Contentment lasts much longer.
  • Reward is visceral in terms of excitement. Contentment is ethereal and calming.
  • Reward can be achieved with different substances that stimulate the reward center of the brain. Contentment is usually achieved with deeds (for example, graduating from college or having a child who can navigate their path in life).
  • Reward occurs with the process of taking (for example, winning at gambling). Contentment is often generated through giving (example: giving money to a charity, giving time to your child, or devoting time and energy to a worthwhile project).
  • Reward is yours and yours alone. Your contentment often directly impacts other people and can impact society.
  • Reward when unchecked can lead us into misery, like addiction. Too much substance use (food, drugs, nicotine, alcohol) or compulsive behaviors (gambling, shopping, surfing the Internet, sex) will overload the reward pathway and can lead not just to dejection, destitution, and disease but, not uncommonly, death.

Serotonin and the other H&N sources of positive emotion come primarily from healthy relationships at home and work. That’s good news for people who have an abundance of connection in their lives. According to Lieberman and Long, “We need H&N empathy to understand what’s going on in other people’s minds, an essential skill for social interaction.” But here’s a big issue affecting workplaces: Recent research reported in Harvard Business Review found that half of CEOs report feeling lonely, and 61 percent of them believed it hindered their performance. In an interview titled “Putting Leaders on the Couch,” management expert and psychoanalyst Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries observed that many senior leaders struggle to maintain relationships and balance in their lives. In contrast, “Healthy leaders ... have the capacity to establish and maintain relationships ... Their lives are in balance and they can play. They are creative and inventive and have the capacity to be nonconformist.”

If the demands of work are crowding your time for meaningful relationships, be aware that running a deficit of connection is impacting you on the molecular level . . . and not for the better. Overreliance on dopamine is powerful, so don’t think you can overcome it on your own. Developing into a leader who has the relational support necessary to perform at the top of your game might require the wise advice, encouragement, and accountability that a mentor or a good executive or life coach can provide. The effort to become a self-aware and better-balanced leader is well worth the cost. Not only will you become more effective at work, you will also cultivate a more satisfying and contented life outside of work.

See Michael Stallard’s presentation, 5-Step Guide to Employee Engagement, at ATD 2019 in Washington, D.C. on May 20.

About the Author

Michael Lee Stallard ( is a thought leader, author, speaker, and expert on how human connection in culture affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. He is the president and co-founder of E Pluribus Partners and the Connection Culture Group. Michael is the primary author of Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity, and Productivity and Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding (ATD Press).

Michael has appeared in media outlets worldwide, including Entrepreneur, Financial Times, Fast Company, Forbes, Fox Business, Inc., [email protected], Leader to Leader, New York Times and Wall Street Journal. His clients have included Costco, Lockheed Martin, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, NASA, Scotiabank, U.S. Department of Treasury, and Qualcomm. Texas Christian University founded the TCU Center for Connection Culture to advance Michael and his colleagues' ideas at TCU and in higher education.

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Thank you Michael. An article of substance, well written, with specific insight that is actionable. I am too often disappointed by what I see here on TD in terms of quality writing. This article stands out as one of the best I've read here. Thanks so much!
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