Distraction detox

What it was like to (mostly) quit social media and take up books.

Around the end of 2015 I put my mental foot down and promised myself that I was going to make reading books part of my life again. I shared a little bit about that process already, but I left out a fun side story about what a pain it was for the first few weeks trying to build the habit.

I was fidgety — I kept wanting to get up and do something else. Despite enjoying the book in front of me my mind kept jumping to other things. I’d suddenly realize my phone was back in my hand (often, and weirdly, almost against my will) and Messenger was open, or twitter, or facebook, or my email because I had just remembered that message that I didn’t respond to 3 weeks ago. This inability to just sit still was honestly pretty alarming, I was shocked at how little control I had over where my own attention was directed.

I began compulsively gathering data on my progress. What time was it when I started? What time is it now? Ok, that means I’ve managed, let’s see, 23 pages in 18 minutes. I found it irresistible to keep checking my progress. This was perhaps a way to combat the fidgetiness (by giving myself different goals) but it would be long term counter productive. I actually started holding the book so that I couldn’t see the page numbers to prevent myself from noticing.

“What’s so bad about noticing reading speed?” You might be wondering. It matters because what we value influences our decisions. Suppose that one of the passages had been particularly difficult to understand, but I didn’t want to sacrifice my reading speed so instead of pausing to go over it again I just plowed on. If speed takes precedent over understanding that undermines the true objective, and because speed is so much easier to measure it’s a mistake easily made. You’ve probably heard a saying like “what gets measured gets done”, but this can easily backfire:

“They needed the numbers, so they directed their creativity and resourcefulness toward getting those numbers, rather than toward effective performance.” — Why we do what we do

Good goals have to take into account the potential side effects of the incentives they are creating. Valuing reading speed most will most likely devalue comprehension. There may be some who comprehend just as well regardless of speed, but in general I’d expect an inverse relationship.

A couple things that really helped

Removing social media alerts from my phone and restricting how many times I checked social and for how long. This actually strengthened my relationships with many people, because I was more intentional about reaching out to those I cared about. And of course I saved a lot of time avoiding the endless feed scroll and inevitable click bait.

Being patient with myself. I’d made resolutions to the tune of “read more books” many times before this one stuck. And the previous failings were typically due to a lack of success early on, which at its root is usually related to bad planning and expectations. Making a decision to be nice to myself was key.

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