Most days, the first thing I do after I wake up is reach for my phone. It is almost always at my bedside, because I have formed the unfortunate habit of having to scroll through or read something on my phone to fall asleep. As an occasional exception, the phone is left charging, on the table by my bedside. And with my mind still groggy, I check for notifications and open either Instagram, or Reddit, or Twitter, any app that promises me fresh content to get amused with, all that has happened in the eight or so hours I have been asleep.
Through the course of the day, countless times, I find myself reaching for my phone, opening the app drawer, and before I am even conscious of what I am doing, my fingers have opened one of those ‘fresh content’ apps and are dragging, scrolling, tapping. Sometimes, I realize what is happening and hurriedly close the app and return my phone to where it was. Most of the times, however, it is too late - the realization is futile - and I end up caught in an endless rabbit hole of ‘fresh content’, down, down, with no end in sight. Anywhere from a few minutes to hours. Gone, without anything of import happening. Not really here, not really anywhere. Just consuming, consuming all the endless novelty that our poor primate brains are hapless against. We never evolved for this.
A thing I have noticed is that most of these spontaneous reaching-for-the-apps happens when I have to do some work and hit a small obstacle. Something forces me to step back and think, or I have to do something relatively unpleasant or icky. No, not even unpleasant. Just something that is a trifle difficult than what I’m doing, something a hair’s width out of my comfort zone. The the hand moves away from the keyboard (or paper), reaches instinctively for the phone conveniently lying nearby, and I forget what was it that I was having difficulty with, and forget what I was doing at all. The times when I mindfully and intentionally open these ‘fresh content’ apps are relatively rare. Amazingly, I think I have been so conditioned to forgetting my intentions when unlocking my phone that I sometimes forget what I’m trying to do on my phone even when I open it with an intention to do something specific.
What is happening here? Some of these apps have been deliberately designed to be like this, attention-sucking, addictive. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, all the free-to-play videogames. They are using well-known results in psychology to game us into spending more and more of our time. Users spending more time on them means more data on user preferences, more opportunities to show ads, more profit. The profit-making companies will maximize profit, of course. And since the apps themselves are free, we are the product, or rather our eyes, our attention. They deliver what we crave, keep us hooked, and sell a chunk of our attention to advertisers. We are not just paying attention, but paying with attention. But the funny thing is, in the midst of all these companies working to keep us hooked, the platform that sucks up of most of my attention is one that isn’t deliberately trying - Reddit. Though it is a for-profit company, Reddit hasn’t made any profit yet and its basic features are the same as when it was created 13 years ago. Letting users post links, letting users comment on them, letting users create deep comment threads. And somehow, Reddit is the biggest source of endlessly fresh content. Post after funny post, comment after hilarious comment, and a healthy dose of outrage to spice it all up. Whether by design or by accident, one thing is certain - I am losing control, I am relinquishing attention. We all are.
And I think I’ve lost a great deal more. One day, some months ago, I set my phone aside and just sat in a chair for five minutes, doing nothing. And when I did that I realized how rare that had become, that doing nothing, that being with yourself, that letting the mind wander. The phone is in my hand and on my eyes before solitude and contemplation have a chance to settle in. My brain is addicted to distraction. It may be just a co-incidence, but the rise of my distraction addiction coincides with the rise of my chronic procrastination. How much has it changed me, how much has it rewired my brain? I fondly remember those times in the past - times when I used to be able to do work I enjoy in a flow state, without a great deal of difficulty. Also called ‘being in the zone’. The movie ‘Social Network’ called it being ‘wired in’, in the sense that the programmer is so engrossed in their work that they feel like a part of the computer themselves. I loved that phrase, and enjoyed being ‘wired in’. Now there are too many distractions, or rather I am too susceptible to distractions. Reaching the flow state is too difficult now, doing anything important is too difficult. What is easy is getting distracted by yet another suggested Youtube video, yet another Instagram story, yet another meme on Reddit.
Before these distraction machines change our brains irreversibly, we have to do something. We have to put them on a leash, to limit their usage somehow, to deny them access to our mind-space. If we can’t let go entirely, at least maintain the distance. Maintain a healthy relationship, so to speak. When the other party takes special care to abuse your weaknesses for their profit, maintaining a healthy relationship is especially difficult. But all the more so important.
P.S. Here is a list of tools I use
- LeechBlock plugin for Firefox and StayFocusd for Chrome.
- DF Tube (distraction free youtube) plugin for Firefox and Chrome
- Block Site app for Android