Sometime over the past year I got hooked on Candy Crush. (Yes, I was late to the party.) My curiosity began when I started to watch my girlfriend play during our subway rides.

Slowly, I went from nosy observer to occasional participant.

I devolved to frequently asking my girlfriend for her phone so I could play.

(I drew a ridiculous, arbitrary line at not actually downloading the app on my own phone.)

First, we started to squabble over who got use of the free lives.

Eventually, bingeing for 15 minutes on five candy crush Jelly lives eroded my nightly habit of reading an hour before bed.

I looked forward to ending my day stuck in the purgatory of some impossible level even though I could tell it was affecting the ease with which I could fall asleep, and the overall quality of my sleep patterns.

On a flight to NY, I caught this article raising questions about the ethics of app design. The basic question: is it ethical to use our understanding of how the brain works to create apps made to unconsciously hook us to them?

Variable Rewards

Quickly into my Candy Crush habit, I recognized the first few levels made you feel as though you were almighty. “I am naturally great at this game,” I would brag to myself. I wanted to believe it was a game of skill. As the levels got harder, I seemed to linger longer on certain levels. (I refused to spend money to beat levels; arbitrary line #2.)

On the particularly hard levels, I would look for patterns thinking I was affecting the outcome of the game. Upon beating a challenging level, I’d get a string of easy wins prior to landing in my next purgatory.

It became clear (and sunk in after reading the aforementioned article) my strategies never worked. To keep advancing there were two choices: pay to buy the in-app tools you need to break the gridlock, or keep playing and wait until the algorithm rewards you with the only combination of moving parts that will afford you a W.

Apps like Candy Crush are more frequently relying on the concept of variable rewards to keep us coming back. Like a Vegas slot machine, we’re made to lose slowly while feeling like we’re winning. We lose more often than we win but subconsciously hold on to the emotion of winning longer than we do to the emotional byproducts of losing.


Every time I beat a Candy Crush level my brain released a hit of dopamine. When I wasn’t winning, I was chasing the high of passing another level.

To be sure it’s a subdued high, more akin to receiving an exciting e-mail than to the euphoria of putting together your first piece of Ikea furniture (without “extra parts” remaining scattered on the floor).

The main difference: one requires no skill (pushing tiles around on your screen should not constitute effort) while the other requires some degree of effort (even with your most basic Ikea table, some effort is required.)

I finally admitted to myself that I wasn’t playing Candy Crush.

Candy Crush was playing me.

It was only 15 minutes of my day but it was 15 minutes lost in inattention with deep impact on certain neural pathways in my brain.

As I reflected on my other tech habits I found similar patterns in different contexts, instances when I was also crawling to the dopamine drip in my cage.

One was the incessant checking of e-mail. I’ve developed good habits around how and when I engage correspondence but I am still awful at how often I pull my thumb down on the Mail app to update.

My Candy Crush a-ha made me realize I was checking my e-mail for the same reason I played Candy Crush, for the subtle high I got from getting a hit of dopamine.

The e-mail checking habit has been much more corrosive to my productivity.

Except when I was in the flow of working with a client, or when I was sleeping, most aspects of my day were often interrupted by mindlessly checking my e-mail. And yet, while the impact on my productivity was more severe than that of Candy Crush, the game construct was similar.

– Check e-mail. No new e-mail/undesired e-mail. Lose

– Check e-mail. New, desirable e-mail. Win.

The more desirable e-mails in one day, the higher marks the day got.

Before finding out whether the e-mail I received was desirable or not, that split second between “checking now…” and “updated now” might as well feel like yanking down on the lever of a slot machine.

From little effort to no effort

Playing Candy Crush and checking e-mail require the most “minimal amount” of effort, designed so simply you don’t need to use any intellectual energy to do them. Open the app/pull down on your screen enough, your brain will create a default neural pathway to facilitate getting the dopamine it craves.

Ever been in the middle of watching TV only to realize you’ve lost track of what’s transpiring in your show because you’ve been on your phone for several minutes?

You didn’t even realize you had your phone in your hand when you sat down to watch, and you probably didn’t even realize you checked out of whatever show you had on to check e-mail, check Twitter, etc.

Did you choose to engage with the apps, or did your brain hijack your attention and re-direct it where you’ve conditioned it to go?

As scary as this all is, we’ve arrived at an era where there is such a thing as “no effort”: on-demand video that plays automatically at the end of an episode.

Remote on the other side of your couch? Dog sitting on the remote? Not up for thinking through what you might want to watch next?

No problem!

Sit back. Relax. You next episode will start in 10…9…8…7

From hero to zero

Candy Crush makes you feel like a triumphant hero on a self-directed epic when, in reality, the app is running you.

Receiving an e-mail makes you feel important, or at the very least thought of.

Netflix makes you feel taken care of, understood (their suggestion algorithm is scary good) even though, ultimately, the net effect on your life is that you become conditioned to something else making choices for you.

What’s worse is we’ve slowly, and knowingly allowed all these habits to develop without reeeally choosing intentionally to do so. We’ve been swayed by the tides of tech trend.

Like a relative that “visits” and slowly starts to take over your house, for many of us our tech habits have taken over us.

Re-claim Choice through Intentionality

Don’t fret. We can always come back to center.

1) For starters, we all need to monitor and reflect on our tech habits with some frequency. What are they? Do they play the role we want them to? Which ones are impeding us from the day-to-day we say we want?

2) Tech is not the enemy. Our primitive wiring, as well as penchant for letting others make choices for us, tend to lead us astray. We have choice. Unintentional choice (e.g. mindlessly playing Candy Crush) is different from intentional choice (choosing not to play Candy Crush because it distracted me from reading deeply at night.) The former is easier than the latter, but the latter is actually conducive to the good life.

3) Our tech should enable us to live life as we choose. They should not be determining how we live our lives.

4) To live a meaningful life requires great effort, and all the focus you can muster to work purposefully. Choose choice.

Originally published at