I am a faint shadow of what I am capable of.
In a recent episode of the Hello Internet podcast, educational YouTuber CGP Grey laments a strengthening and seemingly insurmountable attention disorder. The pathology is both individual and collective; personal and cultural.
He has noticed he can’t get started reading a book the way he used to. He chooses one that seems interesting, begins, and soon finds himself doing something else. His brain refuses to adhere to the topic; it’s as if gravity itself is weakening.
His friends and acquaintances insert one-minute pauses into real-life conversations as they respond to texts, convinced they could not have looked down at their phones for more than a couple of seconds.
The causes are easy to guess at, and many have done so before now. The consensus is that we allow technology to interrupt our stream of thought so constantly that we have become simultaneously numb and addicted to it. Constant interruption and attention switching feel more normal than focus and concentration.
Any moment of our lives that is not triggering the release of pleasure chemicals in the brain feels hollow; we unconsciously turn to our phones and computer screens to try and get another hit.
None of this is news, necessarily. But Grey is a special case, because he was actively trying not to be affected, even as he was being affected.
Grey spends a lot of time optimizing his life and protecting against attention thieves—he turns his phone off at 10pm no matter what; he relegates social media to his laptop only. He produces another podcast that is partly about making your life as efficient as possible. He thinks about his brain and how it works almost constantly. And yet despite considerable prophylactic efforts against the erosion of his attentional abilities, he has found himself suddenly aware that they’ve already withered away.
A bird wearing a hazmat suit makes for a poor coal-mine canary. If he is sick, the rest of us are the walking dead.
Grey’s complaints came as I sat in my car, digesting lunch and task-avoiding a return upstairs to my office to close out the day.
Task-avoiding? Why, yes. It was going to be a tough afternoon; I had a lot to do. And as I listened to Grey and Brady talk about attentional disorders, I realized that my workload that day was the result of an inability to stay focused in days prior. My easy-to-fall-into interruption-reward habits had resulted in a week where I got less than I could have done Monday through Wednesday and so had a stressful amount of work to complete on Thursday and Friday.
I finished that work, had a few drinks to combat my mental exhaustion (that’s the correct strategy, right?) and then spent the weekend musing on my situation and experiencing something of a revelation.
The ways technology has become detrimental to my life are thus:
- I pull out my phone and launch either Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, or my RSS reader any time:
a) there is a lull in conversation of more than 2 seconds,
b) I’m “relaxing” without anything specific to do,
c) I’m eating alone,
d) I’m rewarding myself for completing a real task,
e) I’m lying in bed trying to wake up,
f) I’m lying in bed trying to fall asleep (this makes no sense),
g) I’m even remotely in danger of being bored,
h) there is a slight pause or slow spot in movie or TV show I’m watching,
i) or I’m pooping,
nearly all of which lead directly to a wife who is annoyed with me, and all together mean that I spend an inordinate amount of any given day being entertained by headlines, comments, and an endless stream of surface-level information hits.
- Bite-sized entertainment makes longer-form entertainment harder to enjoy, and long-form study is basically a lost art.
- I feel a compulsion to reach “inbox zero” in my RSS reader, even though I don’t actually believe I will be worse off if I miss reading any of the unread articles (okay, headlines).
- Because I reward myself so often with entertainment, I can’t accomplish any small task without feeling a strong subconscious need to be entertained. Ring a bell and I’ll salivate (for a juicy Reddit debate).
- I fill 100% of solo driving with podcasts, which makes me look forward irrationally to being in my car, and leads to situations like sitting in my driveway listening to ephemeral bullshit after a long day instead of going inside and hugging my kids.
- I watch a lot of YouTube about other people doing things I like or want to do. This one bears some further exploration.
Some of the YouTube videos I watch are about the things I do for a living. For instance, during the week leading up to The Revelation, I watched quite a few tutorials on shooting and editing video, which is something I’m doing a lot more of at work and have a real need to get better at. I was ostensibly watching them to make my work better and more efficient, and I did learn some things. But I also didn’t edit any actual video while watching them, and I was working against a hard deadline.
To be clear, I believe that stacking learning time on top of actual work and essentially front-loading non-productive and stressful hours in exchange for less stressful days down the road is a reasonable strategy. What was concerning, however, was that I hadn’t really done it on purpose.
I knew I needed to be productive, and I ended up spending a bunch of time doing things that felt productive but weren’t actually, given my immediate goals. This was not a conscious cost-benefit analysis, but instead a subconscious substitution that I probably wouldn’t have made if I’d thought about it.
Which lead to a frightening follow-up question: how often was I substituting consumption for real-life goals?
Other than tutorials related to my work, I watch two primary genres of YouTube videos: woodworking and sailing. Both are things I want to spend the rest of my life pursuing, but have only just scratched the surface of. Both have proliferated on YouTube in recent years, and there is now an inexhaustible catalog of increasingly-well-made content in each category.
I realized, suddenly, that I had spent years watching and reading about other people doing the things I was passionate about, and not very much time doing them myself. This is devastating. Life is short. Wasting it is a crime against the universe.
Technology in general had conditioned me to expect and gravitate toward constant, surface-level entertainment. YouTube in particular had leveraged that tendency to sabotage my dreams. This sounds dramatic, but I think it’s pretty accurate.
I’m not too busy to go into my workshop, as I often tell myself. I’m not too tired to sail this weekend. I’m just scratching my “do things” itch by watching other people do things. It’s diabolical, really.
CGP Grey has decided to remove the activities he deems most likely to be causing his own attentional decline from his life for a period of several months: from ~September 2018 through the end of the year. He calls it Project Cyclops because he is silly. He is going without:
- Hacker News
All the rest of the internet is fair game. His goal is not to withdraw from technology as a whole, but to eliminate well-worn grooves of activity in his brain that are too easy to fall into, keep him occupied and serotonin-bathed, and erode his ability to focus.
I am hopping on the Project Cyclops bandwagon. This is my consumption diet from now until 2019:
- Delete Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, Hacker News, YouTube, podcast, and RSS reader apps from my phone.
- Use a hilariously named and executed Chrome extension to block all those sites on my computer (I have some exceptions for posting work videos to YouTube. Contact me if you would like the list).
- Books (including audiobooks) are fine.
- Any sort of social consumption (watching TV or a movie with one or more other people) is fine.
My goal is nothing short of rewiring my brain. I expect to:
- Go back to being able to choose something to do, and then do it, at least for a while, even if it’s unpleasant. Delayed gratification FTW.
- Drastically increase my productivity at work.
- Get back in touch with boredom.
- Use being actually bored as motivation to pursue passion project side hustles.
- Have more, and deeper, conversations with people in my life, including my wife and children. (This might have to include imposing a consumption diet on them, but that’s a question for another day.)
- Listen to more music.
- Read more books.
- Build a workbench using only hand tools.
- Spend less time in the bathroom.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Get in touch if you’ve got some ideas.