Neurobiology and Behavior

Why you keep obsessing over social media even when you know you shouldn’t (+ free workbook)

Picture this:

You’re sitting at your desk and while struggling through writing content for your new ebook you decide to check Instagram. When you open the app on your phone, a big orange rectangle pops up in the bottom corner telling you that you have 40 new likes, 10 new followers, and 10 comments. A smile stretches across your face. You were testing out some new hashtags and these are exciting results. So you start going through them and momentarily forget all about your writing.

You start to transition back to your ebook (30 minutes later) but your mind is still buzzing with those numbers. You struggle to regain focus. Within a few minutes you pick up your phone again and open up that app and this time there’s another dozen new likes. But inside you feel yourself deflate a little bit. Now when you turn back to write your ebook you find it impossible to stay focused and besides all your inspiration is gone so you start clicking through blog posts about Instagram and eventually anything that catches your eye.

Sound familiar?

Why does this happen? What’s going on and how do we make it stop?

These are the questions I’ll be answering in today’s post.

Do you find yourself on social media whenever you start to drift in your focus? Here we're using the science of human behavior to understand WHY it happens even when you know you shouldn't. Plus download a free workbook and start building new habits that will boost your creativity + productivity. Social media doesn't have to be the bad guy. Regain your focus and your drive. More at

First, we understand.

Notifications – mobile + desktop, push + in-app – are designed to get your attention. That’s kinda the point right? And they do a bang-up job. Whether it’s email or social media or text messages or slot machines (whaaa?? Yes.), the brain science is all along the same lines.

First piece of data: notifications (and slot machines) give what psychologists call variable-ratio rewards. An unpredictable reward that increases your anticipation of receiving it so you return frequently in hopes that this will be the time to receive the reward. Like our example above with the Instagram notifications, your brain is programmed to boost dopamine in anticipation to checking your social profiles because some time previously you received a great reward – like new followers or maybe even a client inquiry.

A study done in monkeys shows the same response. When the monkey does work, he receives a reward. A look at his neurochemistry shows that during the work dopamine is spiking, motivating him to do the work in anticipation of a reward. When a new experiment is run in which the monkey only receives the reward 50% of the time, dopamine skyrockets.

There is greater anticipation — greater motivation to pursue the reward — when the reward is not guaranteed BUT occurs often enough to feel possible.

Important note: we can also convince ourselves of a greater probability. That’s what casinos do – making it appear that the odds are 50/50. If you understood the real odds you wouldn’t give them any money.


Second piece of data: we are always pursuing happiness. Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are all chemicals that our brains use to condition our behavior for the sake of happiness. Back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our brains used dopamine to help us remember where we found food. It uses serotonin + oxytocin to condition our behavior within our group or tribe for acceptance and safety.

The involvement of these chemicals forges a new neural connection instantaneously (where repetition builds new connections gradually). This means that when emotion is involved, we instantly get a new habit and when it’s not involved we have the painful process of practice.

When you are sitting at your computer and struggling to focus on writing your new ebook, your brain is looking for ways to feel happy. Due to the neural pathway formed other times you’ve checked social media, you get this bright idea to pick up your phone. And your brain gets dopamine. You feel happy, even if you haven’t actually solved any problem.

Every time you pick up your phone, you reinforce the habit. That neural connection gets insulated (making the electrical current travel faster) and strengthening the drive to pick up your phone when you’re feeling stuck or doubting yourself.

Third piece of data: the brain is always seeking happiER. Think about drug addiction. We know that the first use can send dopamine levels soaring in the brain. But the next time, with the same amount of drug, dopamine levels do not go as high. The brain seeks novelty. So what does a person have to do when they use drugs again? They have to up the dose.

If you’ve programmed yourself to eat a donut when you feel rejected, soon you will have to eat 2 in order to get the same feeling, or deal with the disappointment of an unfulfilling donut (and assume the shop screwed up the recipe this time).

In our scenario when you picked up the phone a second time your brain didn’t respond the same way. Rational or not, it doesn’t much matter, you feel disappointed. You feel disappointment due to the absence of dopamine (and probably serotonin + oxytocin as well).

This bears repeating: You feel disappointment when there is an absence of dopamine where you’ve experienced it in the past. It is a feeling brought on by chemicals in your brain.
We tend to blame the situation – and ourselves – when we feel down about not getting the attention we were hoping for. But that disappointment is neither selfish nor warranted. It just is.

Second, we make a plan.

Here’s where I’m going to get a little bossy. We all know how easy it is to read a post and walk away unchanged. But if you’ve made it this far it’s time to take action. You’ve got homework, love.

Step 1: Start paying attention.

You need to build awareness around this behavior. I want you to journal or bullet out answers to these questions:

  • What triggers do you see in your thoughts or environment?
  • How are you feeling when you reach for your phone or click over to Twitter?
  • What kinds of projects are you usually working on?
  • How long has it been since you talked to real people?
  • How’s your sleep these days?

If you only go this far, I commend you. Increasing your awareness around a behavior is a vital first step and can, in itself, influence change.

But if you’re ready to go all in and want to develop a healthier relationship with the social side of your business, go on to step 2.

Step 2: Get the free workbook and start building your personal action plan for overcoming social media obsession