Death by overconsumption
Or — don’t be an ass, enjoy information responsibly
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity — Albert Einstein
We are living in a world with so much technology and open access to information that we have the capability of doing things we only imagined just a few decades ago.
At a moment’s notice we can connect with our relatives across the world, learn how to build a computer from scratch, or even begin an Ivy League University course of any imaginable topic. With a computer and internet access, all of these options are available instantaneously and mostly for free.
We binge on our favorite shows on Netflix, upgrade our iPhones as often as we can, and get real-time news updates from Twitter across the globe in convenient and snack-able 1̶4̶0̶ 280* characters.
Our choices are seemingly limitless. Our potential is immeasurable.
…yet we often feel unproductive, unfulfilled, and unhappy.
At the core of these constant negative feelings, despite having a vastness of new-found potential in our lives, are 3 distinct behavior manifestations that are worth understanding. These are: the Paradox of Choice, Analysis Paralysis, and Information Gluttony.
Being aware of these concepts can help us understand their root causes and give us tools on how to combat these feelings we would be much better without.
- Paradox of Choice
The paradox of choice describes how we become unhappier while making a decision when we have too many choices to pick from. Simply put, we rarely feel validated that we made the right decision if there are too many choices on the table, regardless of that decision being the best choice in the end.
It is a paradox because we assume that the more choice, or the more free will we have, the better off we’ll be. But there’s always the ‘what if’ of what we didn’t pick that lingers (not unlike FOMO in social contexts).
In economics and decision theory, this is described as the principle of loss aversion (see also the endowment effect). In very general terms, these state that as humans we value losses significantly more than gains. Sometimes twice as much. And like many things, it is attributed to our evolution.
While evolving, if an organism was falling on hard times and it lost a meal, that could be its demise. On the other hand, if it gained a meal, it merely meant slightly more comfort.
We were trained early on to detest loss and avoid it at all costs.
Losses > Gains…x2!
So when there are thousands of different audiobooks, podcasts, or videos to choose from, we’re not only struggling to make the best choice, we’re also immediately mourning the loss of the others we could have chosen, but did not ultimately choose…and boy, they could have been true life-changers!
2. Analysis Paralysis
Analysis paralysis is what the paradox of choice can lead to if we become overwhelmed.
There is no better way to describe analysis paralysis than with Buridan’s ass. It illustrates that free will — and specifically, too much of it — seems good on the surface, but can lead to total and complete inaction. In this example, a ravished donkey is between a bucket of water and a stack of hay. He is so indecisive as to which to consume first, that he just stands there and dies from thirst and starvation.
When it comes to choosing what book we’re going to read next, what movie to watch, or what course to take, we can’t afford to exasperate ourselves to the point of inaction.
Action is always better than inaction.
Even wrongful action can help find our true North Star. But inaction is the black hole that leads to nothingness.
3. Information Gluttony
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s information gluttony. Here’s Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and teacher, on the over-abundance of information — specifically books — and its downside:
The learner is not instructed, but burdened by the mass of them, and it is much better to surrender yourself to a few authors than to wander through many — Seneca
We treat the consumption of information like it’s a hotdog-eating contest. We engorge ourselves in whatever we see next, taking little to no time to distill the facts from the bullshit, the gold from the trash, the applicable learnings from the distracting noise.
All this does, is shift our focus away from where we truly need it to be.
The same way a chef would want us to notice the textures, smells, and flavors of not only the dish they so delicately prepared, but of each of the ingredients that comprise it, we should do the same with the books we read, the content we watch, and the information we choose to follow and apply to our own lives. There is a much deeper and more profound experience that takes place when we do this.
Given the drastic ways that too much information can manifest itself in our minds, we should break it down and really strive to:
1) Be curious and aware of what catches our attention.
2) Ingest and truly understand it.
3) Ponder and synthesize it so we can determine whether we keep it.
4) Apply it, or discard it altogether.
5) Put it into practice and seek to connect it to the other ideas we’ve already formulated following this same process.
The focus and mental clarity using this framework can move us away from regretting decisions, paralyzing ourselves to the point of inaction, and reactively over-consuming.
These points can be applied to many facets of our existence, but I think they are especially relevant in our over-informed digital lives where we have so much at our finger tips that the huge number of micro-decisions can, in the end, cause a lot of damage to our wellbeing.
In my experience, some tactics that have helped mediate some of the vastness include:
- Shutting off all notifications other than calls. So text, e-mail, news… anything that might distract me from what I’m currently doing is silenced. I know I’ll eventually get sucked into something, and often times it’s worth while, but I want to control when I get sucked in as much as possible.
- Limiting social media. (But really limiting it!) Other than birthday reminders and private messages I try to keep a safe distance form social media, especially Facebook. I basically treat it as a second e-mail/calendar. I call and text with my friends and family to keep in touch. (Besides, there is ample proof that constantly going through our feed is one of the worst internet habits for our happiness).
- Take notes and review them after completion. While consuming any form of media, though mostly books or educational videos, I will capture the important take-aways as I go along. When I finish the book or video, I will holistically highlight the key takeaways. This way, whenever I want to go back to it or are reminded about a related concept in another book I’m reading, I can have a quick, personalized reference. It helps keep ideas fresh, easily retrievable, and is an excellent way to relate and feed new ideas off of previous ones that were already captured.
- Capture as much as possible. From books, movies, and recommendations I hear from friends, family, coworkers, authors, etc., to concepts, songs, and places to check out, I try to write all of it down. When I have free time or find myself board, I have an existing list of things that I know have peaked my interest already. If it’s on the list, it means that it has been pre-vetted by my past self and is likely worth my time.
- No aimlessly browsing or channel surfing. The point above helps combat this terrible habit of browsing or channel surfing to ‘see what’s on’, which always turns out to be a huge waste of time and leaves me unhappy.
These tactics are unique to me and might not work for a heart surgeon, for instance, who has to have a robust notification system to save lives. But there is always a way to combat this vastness.
Merely being aware of the mind games our brain plays on itself can give us the necessary tools to recognize when and why these feelings are arising in order to act in the best interest of our happiness and well-being (so long as it doesn’t infringe upon others, of course.)
Otherwise, if regret and gluttony don’t consume our souls on the one side of the spectrum, inaction will lead us to the same fate as the donkey and leave us parched, starving, and left for dead on the other.
*Not coincidentally, Twitter has been playing around with the idea to double their staple 140 characters. People want more!