4 Signs Your Little Distraction Has Turned Into An Addiction

Things like checking email and drinking can easily morph into unhealthy additions.

coworkers distracted by their phones Antonio Diaz / Getty Images

What’s the difference between a habit and an addiction? For instance, almost everyone these days makes a habit of checking email. But when is email-checking a constructive habit and when has it become an addiction? Habits make actions reliably consistent. Addictions, similarly, ensure you will do specific actions with regularity.

So, what makes them different?

A habit of checking your email every day when you return from lunch ensures that you will know what messages came to your email that morning. The habit increases the likelihood that you will respond to your morning messages in a timely way.


In the business world (and in friendships, too), others appreciate being able to connect with you in this reliable way. When they need a quick response, they will get it. Yet checking emails can become an addiction.

Here are five signs your distraction is becoming an addiction.

1. The frequency interferes with your daily life.

Ask yourself, "How often do I check my emails?" If you check several times a day, that’s probably constructive. If you are checking emails with such frequency that the habit interferes with your effectiveness in getting other work done, the odds are that you may be addicted to the small spurt of happy chemicals you get from seeing a note that pleases you.


2. You displace other activities.

What would you be doing if you were not so frequently checking your email? Would you be finishing up other work you need to do? If the time you spend doing your habit could be better spent on other activities, addiction may be the issue.

3. It's harming your relationships with others.

Ask yourself, "Is my frequent email checking harming me, others, my relationships, or my work?" If the frequent email checking is harming you, others, your work, and your relationships, there’s for sure an addiction afoot. I say for sure because the clinical definition of addiction is a habit that you persist in doing even though it causes harm to your work or to your relationships.

If you used to hug your spouse last thing before climbing into bed, and now instead of hugging, you turn your back on your partner to check your email or cell phone for messages, that’s addiction. Likewise, if checking emails when you first wake up in the morning irritates your spouse, and yet you find yourself sneaking your cell phone into bed to check them nonetheless, that’s addictive behavior.

Similarly, enjoying a glass of red wine with lunch may be fine. Drinking enough wine that you act silly, antagonize others, or go back to work and fall asleep on the job signals addiction.


4. You love feeling the pleasure of doing it.

How often do you delight in response to a message? That feeling of pleasure, even if it is relatively slight, means that your body is enjoying a rush of a happy chemical. Happy chemicals within your body can become addictive, and the more you get them, the more you want them.

5. You get a craving to do it.

Ask yourself, "Do I get an urge to check even when I am in a meeting or other place where checking is inappropriate? Do I crave another shot of the happy body chemical that message-checking sometimes brings?"

Focus on one of your habits or addictions. What did your answers to the questions about the signs above tell you? A "yes" to any one of these questions signifies a potential problem. If you answered "yes" to all five, it strongly suggests that your pleasurable and at times functional habit has slipped from habit into addiction.

What’s the next step if you have a habit that has become an addiction?

If your habit has become more of a problem than you thought it was, here are two options:

  • Cut back.
  • Go cold turkey.

Cut back on the frequency and quantity of the habit or eliminate the habit altogether. In the case of message-checking, to cut back, you might set specific times and do zero checking other than at those times. To eliminate evening and early morning checking altogether, you might decide to keep your cell phone and computers out of your bedroom.


To establish a pattern, aim for at least three weeks of serious focus and effort. Usually, three weeks is enough to halt the old responses and launch a new set of automatic behaviors.

Your goal is to end the habit or addiction altogether. After three weeks away, make sure that you think twice before you resume. Make strict rules of when and how much you will allow yourself again to indulge in the habit and stick to them faithfully.

Once you have crossed the line into addiction to any given habit, your risk of becoming addicted again zooms up.


Keeping away altogether may be preferable, but slippage happens. The bottom line is that habits can be healthy routines. When a habit is detrimental, yet you persist in doing it, you might have an addiction. In that case, be realistic. Bringing the habit to an end and establishing a new habit to replace it will be a challenge.

You can do it. You can win in challenging situations. At the same time, make sure you devote the time and attention necessary to the changes that breaking addictive habits requires.

Dr. Susan Heitler is a clinical psychologist and author of Prescriptions Without Pills: For Relief from Depression, Anger, Anxiety and More. She is a subject matter expert in breaking bad habits and addictions.