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Help! I’m addicted to Slack!

One writer's quest to understand the mental mechanisms driving his Slack habit uncovers just what brings us back to check for new messages.
by Tom Anderson | Nov 24 2017

My name is Thomas, and I have a problem: I am addicted to Slack. In the last three years, I have sent over 80,000 messages. That’s around 100 per working day. If we say that writing a Slack message takes on average 1 minute, that’s an incredible 1,333 hours, or 166 working days spent posting messages.

Help! I'm addicted to Slack!

While, of course, the vast majority of these messages are genuinely work-based (with the odd amusing gif thrown in), the massive chunk of time I’m spending on Slack is time I should be taking to write and edit articles – my actual job. What’s more, it’s not only the time I spend directly on Slack that harms my productivity. According to a 2007 study by Microsoft, every time we interrupt our focus to check our messages or emails it takes us around 25 minutes to start being productive again. Considering just how many messages I send via Slack, it’s clear that my overall productivity is taking a hammering.

Of course, I am aware of this already. Every time I stop my work and head off to Slack, I know I shouldn’t. And yet I do. I just can’t help it. Why?

According to Adam Alter, psychologist and author of Irresistible, messaging sites like Slack, and even email itself, mess with the chemistry of our minds.

Answering a colleague’s question or sharing information via Slack or email makes us feel productive, and, as a result, dopamine is released, and we feel a short burst of elation. Naturally, after receiving this little reward, we clamor for the opportunity to experience it again and again. In the hunt for more of that dopamine buzz, we spend more and more time looking for new Slack messages or emails.

But chasing this positive feeling isn’t what makes services like Slack so addictive. What makes these sites so desirable is that we don’t know what the next message will be; will it be a question from a colleague that will make us feel productive or just a ‘funny’ gif which allows us no chance to receive that dopamine hit? It is this unpredictability that makes messaging services and email so addictive. It’s the same process that gamblers experience when they play on the slots. With each pull on the handle, the gambler doesn’t know whether he’ll hit the jackpot or get nothing, and this is what keeps him hooked.

One 1970s study on pigeons shows just how addictive unpredictable rewards can be. First, psychologist Michael Zeiler rigged up a button which pigeons could peck to be rewarded with food. Then, Zeiler made things interesting by changing how regularly the reward would be offered. He found that if the pigeons got a reward every time the button was pressed, they would peck at regular but rather infrequent intervals; but if the reward came only 50 to 70 percent of the time, the birds would peck more frequently and persistently. Put simply, the unpredictability of the reward pushed the pigeons to chase harder for it.

Each time we see that little red circle, notifying us that we have a new message, we act as the pigeons do. We drop everything and click in the excited hope we’ll be rewarded with that lovely rush of dopamine.

So what can we do to break this addiction? Well, the simplest tactic, and one that I use personally, is to close my email and Slack while working, removing those pesky notifications. Instead, I check them in the morning, around lunchtime and at the end of the day. It might sound easy, but it’s actually pretty tricky. At first, I found myself automatically opening my Slack account as I worked; the desire to check messages was so strong that I was using Slack almost unconsciously. It took a lot of self-discipline to overcome this impulse, but the temptation subsided, and I’ve managed to stick to my check-three-times-a-day routine.

I’m now on the way to becoming more productive at work.

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