I just watched this good video by CGPGrey on YouTube about his journey coming to realise the effects the internet, (social and traditional media, blogs, podcasts, etc) are having on his brain. It’s admittedly a slow and long video to watch, but that’s exactly the point.
Having spent the last year reading, reflecting, and contemplating, you could say that my experience is not that typical of a GenY (or whatever I am). I thought I would share how I got here in hopes that it resonates with you, or maybe you can see some of my ignorance that I’m missing.
The absurdity of popularity
I think it really all started here. I had been going through a pivotal change period where I was transitioning out of being “cool” and into being a “nerd”. I remember getting glimpses of the absurdity of popularity in high-school and being really turned off by it.
I stopped hanging out with the popular kids more and more. I struggled to find my feet as I moved into different social circles with less cool, but arguably more interesting people.
At this same time, MySpace was on its way out and Facebook was taking off (in Australia). I remember spending so much time on MySpace trying to create the image that I wanted people to have of me there. When Facebook came around I was already a little hesitant to get on board. Eventually, I joined but luckily I never really gelled with it. I always found the constant facade that I was trying to put up taxing on myself.
This feeling eventually grew into one of repulsion and hesitation. I knew how tempting it was to go on and check who had liked my posts, or who wanted to chat with me. When there wasn’t something happening I posted something in hopes of generating the dopamine hit that I was craving (I obviously didn’t see things like this when I was going through it.)
By sheer luck and no strength of my own, I got turned off Facebook. To the point that I eventually changed my password to getoff so that I would remember that it’s a bad habit to avoid.
Early adult life
This avoidance of social media is one that has stuck with me and has as time went on really spread further into other areas of my life.
Any online product that is built on ad-revenue needs to get you into the product as much as possible because usage equates to profit. It doesn’t matter whether it’s solving a problem for you or not. Rather it will create a problem for you in the form of a dopamine hook in your brain. This is what keeps you coming back for more, even when you don’t know why you’re there.
Again, by no impressive trait of my own but rather by mere chance, I fell into the world of reading books. Real books, like the ones made of paper.
I love everything about a physical book from the way it feels in your hands to the smell of it’s musky pages. Reading books is the opposite to modern ad-fuelled product. There is no dopamine rush when opening a book, in fact, it’s probably the opposite. Reading books takes effort and hence sucks up any dopamine in your brain into an anti-exciting-vortex.
But reading books produces really strong long-term reward cycles. The more you read the wiser you become which gives you a dopamine rush in different areas of life as you apply that knowledge. This causes you to further appreciate the importance of reading, which fuels your motivation to read more, despite the un-addictiveness of it. You can see the positive feedback cycle that forms here. The problem is that it’s slow and non-addictive, so you constantly have to work for it.
Despite being someone who feels very disconnected from the addictive world of the internet and smart devices, I still feel the pull to check my phone more often than necessary. I still feel the thrill of seeing that little red icon light up on my iPhone when some new content is ready for me to consume. I don’t think anyone really escapes this since we’re all still human and these things are designed to be addictive to humans.
Attention in the modern world
And this is where the initial video focuses. Through exposure to modern media, the internet, electronic devices, etc., we have developed extremely short attention spans.
Music is designed to be catchy and grabby, youtube videos are short and flashy, our devices flash evocative colours at us, all luring us in for a quick dopamine hit.
This chasing leads to a lack of depth in everything we do. We skim read articles on the web, we click through videos on youtube, we listen to podcasts at double speed with breaks cut out.
While we’re often a little aware of our addiction, many people who reflect on it can rationalize it as increase in productivity. We do these things because we want to be more productive and get more done quicker.
I hate to come back here since every article I write recently comes back to this one idea, but the desire to increase productivity is deeply rooted in capitalism.
In the modern capitalist world, productivity is literally money. The more productive we can become at transforming capital, the more we stand to profit. The more productive we are at consuming content, the more content producers stand to make a profit. The more productive we are at learning anything to spit it back out at work, or in social circles, the more we stand to profit from it.
I’m not saying this to paint capitalism as an evil (I think in many ways it’s a natural progression of mankind’s evolution,) I’m just saying that in order to understand the modern attention problem, you really need to understand capitalism.
Idleness; the lost art
Idleness is a skill that many of us have completely lost. Being able to just sit there in a park, or looking out a window, and be content in the simplicity of doing nothing is a very rare trait these days. Why is it so rare? I think it’s because being alone with your own mind is harder than it sounds.
This kind of “doing nothing” is completely different to the doing nothing that consumes many of our weekends. Watching netflix, browsing facebook, flicking through the TV doesn’t count as idleness. Rather that’s just mindless consumption that fills up time.
Idleness is the opposite to filling time, it’s about experiencing the slowness of time. At first this is usually really painful because we are so used to filling it with something, anything! We would rather do a mindless task than be bored.
“Boredom has come to be regarded as one of our greatest enemies and we flee from it by generating endless complexity and busyness. Boredom may be no more than a surrender of sensitivity, yet, rather than turning our hearts and minds to rediscover that lost sensitivity, we thirst for even more exciting experiences, drama, and intensity.” – Christina Feldman
It is not boredom that hurts us but the unnecessary tiling that we do to prevent it which leads to suffering. But that’s ok because we have reached the point where the only thing worse than suffering is boredom. We fear it to the point of self-sabotage.
The really nice thing to know is that there are proven steps you can take towards improving your attention-span and enjoying life in general.
- Turn off notifications – Notifications on your smartphone are the hook by which all of these products maintain their grip on you. Turn off notifications (especially email push) and your life will change dramatically.
- Read books – It’s not that books are magical, it’s just that they are less addictive and require you to build up intrinsic motivation and longer reward-cycles that are better aligned to a healthy life.
- Meditate – Literally by definition, single-pointed meditation is about strengthening your attention and ability to focus. You just need to do it for 10 minutes every morning.
- Get in flow – Find something that gets you into flow for a sustained period of time (more than the length of a tweet) is a good way to extend your attention span.
- Practice idleness – Intentionally schedule some idleness into your day. Take the time out to just sit there looking out the window at the trees. Despite the dread, you may initially feel, it’s far from being wasted time.