I received a thought-provoking email from a reader about the nature of the internet. Here's the key quote that I think many people with empathize with:
I feel like a big luddite for saying this, but I hate the internet for what it brings out in me.
... I am trying to deal with what can only be described as an addiction.
Addiction to high-stimulation-distraction is quite common for intelligent people in the modern era. Surfing the internet, video games, things like that. There's sort of a natural selection websites go through, where the more addicting sites win out and spread and take marketshare and mindshare away from less addicting sites. Paul Graham wrote about this in, "The Acceleration of Addictiveness."
Three key thoughts for you, and then I'll share some of my experience with it -
First, it's not just you. I think a lot of people get stressed out because other people try to put their best foot forwards - you see what other people are trying to show the world, which means seeing struggle is rare. Most people try to hide that, but a lot of people struggle with what you're thinking and struggling with.
Second, it doesn't matter if the challenges seem ridiculous - they're still real challenges. I think about this sometimes - how silly is it that our generation is led astray by surfing the net and addiction to trite stuff like that? C'mon, our grandparents fought off the Great Depression and WWII. We're off-track because the internet is really enjoyable?
But yes, it's true. Just because a challenge doesn't seem heroic doesn't mean it's not a challenge. In fact, it's a rather difficult challenge for a lot of people - the fact that it's unheroic doesn't make it easier.
Third, it's something that can be overcome. These forms of high stimulation - like surfing the internet - make wonderful servants and absolutely terrible masters.
I struggled with the same thing big time for a while. For whatever reason, I'd gotten off track.
I keep notes and notebooks and records a lot, so I can go back and flip through my thoughts as I was fighting off inertia in 2010. I think might be useful to you so I'll share some of my unedited experience. Every one of these in bold is a separate entry. I'll add some current analysis in italics.
Again, these are unedited except for formatting, they weren't made for public consumption and don't necessarily reflect what I think now - but maybe it'll be useful to see me trying to figure it out over time:
With All the World in Front Of Me - Written in Chiang Mai, February 2010.
I have choice. I will often choose wrong – that’s the nature of progress. If you’re always learning ways you can improve, then you’ll often be aware of a better way without choosing it. For instance, I might go two years aware that my life would be better if I improved my breathing and breathed slowly and deeply from my diaphragm. This would cause me minor angst for two years. When I do adopt it, it will only be a few weeks of choosing correctly until it’s automatic. So there’s a high likelyhood that I spend more time aware of the right choice without doing it than I do consciously making the right choice. Now, I’m often hard on myself, but I’m not sure that helps. Beating myself up doesn’t necessarily product results – choosing the right thing as soon as I am aware of it produces results.
I had a scary realization yesterday – my immersion and low level enjoyment of video games is higher than my immersion and low level enjoyment of visiting a majestic temple. Now, I play some pretty high quality games – Civilization IV, Darklands, Planescape – but I still think there’ll be better long term growth and brief moments of high happiness from producinhg and exploring the world. It scares me that video games, social news, and other good websites immerse more than exploring – for now, I’ll just have to keep it in mind.
There seems to be a “zone” of optimal difficulty, learning, and necessary comprehension that is highly immersive and enjoyable. Below that zone is boring, above that zone is frustrating. Now, many things objectively worth doing fall outside this optimal zone.
The very long term answer is probably to dual-fold-improve knowledge and skills such that more difficult tasks become optimal zone tasks. Thus, produce on a high level. Get compensated for some of that production and hire/outsource/automate low level boring tasks to people who find them more suitable, or otherwise automate/eliminate them.
But what of the short term? Brute force willpower? Perhaps not. Some bruteforcing “just fucking do it” might be the answer, but I think moving more tasks in the zone is a better idea. That would mean simplifying/break down/one-step-at-a-time on larger, more difficult tasks.
What about low level tasks? I wonder if some zen or flow can be found in them. I’ve sometimes struggled on very difficult things outside of my comfort zone, but almost always struggled on the more rote, low level tasks. Hmm – perhaps I could bring up the immersion of lower level tasks by incorporating them into a larger scheme or area of study? For instance, move from paying bills/reducing expenses into building a finance plan? For health tasks, document my progress and use the information to write on?
Current-day analysis, a year later in February 2011: The scariest part in there was when I realized that I got more engagement out of Hacker News or playing a game than I did visiting a really amazing temple in Northern Thailand. That was... kind of a shock. After that, I was kind of musing on what helps us get things done. My theory was moving more things into the optimal zone would help - actually, that's not enitrely what I've done. I'll share what worked for me in a minute.
Planning Ahead - Chiang Mai, 2010.
Is it reasonable to assume I’ll be one of the most important, most positive, most influential people of this generation? Assume? No. But I can work towards it. Taking actions with the future in mind is probably a good thing. I should be careful I don’t slow myself down unnecessarily considering things that may never come to be, but if I plan on working towards doing so much and do work towards it, forethought will be wisely spent time.
*Connect with people more
*Finish things (beat distraction, focus through the hard parts or make it easier, release instead of being a perfectionist)
Thinking on Paper - Chiang Mai, 2010.
It’s frustrating when my conscious will and actions can not be unified, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Many people want to do more, or change their habits, or exercise, or start a business, or write a book – and yet, they do not. So – I’m not alone here.
Is continuing to plan during these times a waste? I have spent so much of my life planning, arguably more time than I’ve spent doing. That can’t be right, can it? Yet, at the same time, just a single great work can render an entire life valuable.
Current-day analysis: "It’s frustrating when my conscious will and actions can not be unified, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way." I think this sums up how people feel when they want something during their reflective periods, but their habits and autopilot are not what they want.
It can be really, really frustrating.
The Earth Can Be a Damnable Place Sometimes - Chiang Mai, 2010.
The production is a struggle, the distractions are a blur. I’ve been in Thailand for only three weeks. I left Taiwan three weeks ago, but it feels like an eternity. Seven weeks ago I left Los Angeles. It feels almost like a different person’s life.
I’m in Jok Sompet Restaurant on Sripoon Road. It’s nighttime, this place is open 24 hours. The questions I’m struggling with – distraction, focus, fear, production – are the same questions I keep struggling with.
It’d be nicer if I had something more unique and novel and exciting to struggle with, but no, it’s the same old thing.
Perhaps I could get rid of my internet on my laptop. Then I’d be forced to find a public computer to use the net. Maybe I could do that once a week. It’s not a perfect solution, but maybe it’s a solution. Or some program that limits internet usage? I will think on this before I do it.
Current-day analysis: Here, I was looking for external solutions. To some extent, external solutions can help, but there's no magical external solution - later, I'd discover the process is to slowly reform and upgrade habits, install new ones, and celebrate every victory. Looking for a one-action-immediate-complete-change... well, I haven't discovered one. I think trending upwards is the only way - controlling the external environment can help, but is no replacement for trending upwards.
And Now I’m In Cambodia - Siem Riep, Cambodia, March 2010.
What a strange life. I’m in Siem Riep and saw Angkor. Amazing. Been reading a lot. What’s next? What’s the path? I guess no new answers are coming. What’s it going to take to write Meditations? Or finish Critical Thinking? …. Can’t think right now. Feel blocked. Not sure why.
Letter - Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Hello my friend,
-Hadn’t written for a while/fell off he map/wanted to return as a hero
-Got hit by a motorcycle today/wrong side of the road and I was in crosswalk and I looked both ways/Cambodian screams, then I’m floating, then I’m on the ground/Injuries aren’t serious – head was safe, no breaks, no internal damage – doctor said God was looking out for me and I’m lucky
-It makes you wake up and snap out of it/the colors are so much brighter now, the world is so much more vivid
-But most importantly, it made me realize how fragile and random life can be. That could’be been the end of me – for what? For no good reason. With no meaning.
-It makes me wake up that there are things I should be doing. I should be staying in touch/every time I choose mindless consumption over something better, that’s time I don’t get back, and who knows how much I have?
-More time on important stuff, and in the company and service of good people. So, how are you, what’s new, and what can I do for you?
Current-day analysis: Well, that was quite a wakeup call. I told the story in "Keeping Death in Mind," but these are my unedited notes that I used to write a letter from to the people I cared about in my life.
Results didn't come immediately after this, it was 5-6 weeks later that I put things together. But I realized, once and for all, what the cost of the consumption and distraction was - it was one's very life essence slipping away, minute by minute. And who knows how much time we have left?
Short Untitled Entry - Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
I should ruminate more often.
I should just be still and think more often.
Phuket - Phuket, Thailand. April 2010.
I’m in Phuket at the pool of the Expat Hotel. John will be here soon and we’ll probably have an adventure. Exciting stuff.
Transiting here was hell. Phnomh Penh to Koh Kong, cross the border, the crazy jeep ride wqhere the guy raised his price once we’d started driving so I got out – then Trat, Bangkok, a few short stops, and here.
So it was tough getting here – objectively unenjoyable – but the memories aren’t bad; in fact, they’re largely pleasant and funny.
There’s some important point in there worth considering.
Current-day analysis: At the time it happened, I was sure that there was some important lesson in there, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Now I get it - a lot of actions are unenjoyable while happening in the moment - meaning, they produce a less enjoyable biochemistry with less dopamine, serotonin, etc. than alternative actions. But later, when you reflect on them, they become good memories and the basis of a meaningful life. This is the opposite of what high stimulation distraction does - enjoyable in the moment, but horrible feeling to reflect upon later.
Unifying Thought, Emotion, and Action - Phuket, Thailand.
Certain actions produce long term results, experiences, memories – and, in total, life. Certain actions produce good results, experiences, memories, and life. I should be taking and doing these sorts of actions primarily.
The question, then – why don’t I always engage in those sorts of actions?
There are a few reasons. The first is that there is a natural call and appeal to easier, simpler, straightforward pleasures. This could be [interrupted, unfinished]
What if I went long term 10 hours/day? - Hong Kong, April 2010.
My goals and world would come into existence.
I’d do interesting science.
I’d do interesting writing.
I’d make friends with smart people.
I’d make more money.
Be able to have a large family.
Fame (maybe not a good thing).
It’d be more stressful.
Less time on pleasant distraction.
--> This is worth working for.
Current-day analysis: Here, I took stock of what my life would be like if I spent 10 hours every day working on long term, expansive projects. I'd get more of what I want - more connecting with good people, more doing meaningful things, more money - but I'd also have some downsides.
I listed and came to terms with some of the downsides here, including the very real fact that I'd lose time on pleasant distraction. I wrote about this in my review of the excellent book, "How to Live on 24 Hours a Day" - you're already spending 24 hours per day doing something. To do more in one area, you need to do less in another. Distraction is enjoyable while it's happening. Cutting it is unfortunate. There's also other downsides to producing, like stress. I came to terms with that and decided to work towards a more productive, engaged, meaningful life. That's higher level stuff though, I still didn't have the tactics sorted out at all.
In Korea - Seoul, South Korea. May 2010
What a wonderful first day – I really like Korea. Staying in the jimjilbang, I realize that things must be done fully – either fully work, or fully relax, or ully play, or fully learn – but don’t half-work or half-relax. Half-working gives all the stress of working without the production. Half-relaxing doesn’t renew.
Distraction is the worst – giving in to mindless distraction means nothing good happens. Distraction isn’t living – when distracted, for all practical purposes, it’s like you’re not even alive.
I’m going to become the most organized motherfucker I know - Seoul, Korea. May 2010
Work with GTD book.
Projects defined, and look how he defines projects.
Living by set schedule and priorities.
Schedule 6 hours screwing around per day. Screw around plenty, but only during that time.
Health, diet, grooming.
Enjoyable daily routine.
Checklists/reviews/staying on track.
Brainstorm regularly – ex, “Very, very short question”
Current-day analysis: And that was the beginning of things working out. Deciding, firmly, "I'm going to become the most organized motherfucker I know."
Some Analysis and Concluding Thoughts
It was a combination of a few things that got me here from there - realizing what the downside would be of pissing life away, acknowledgement and confronting the downsides of what I was going to do, a firm commitment to winning at a very high level, and then starting a track of consistent incremental improvement.
Four months doesn't sound long when you read about it in text, but four bad months is a really long time when you're living it.
When it was bad, it wasn't all bad. I read some books, I went to some temples, I explored some ruins... but being constantly aware that you're falling short of what you'd like, and for really petty trivial reasons - like being overly stimulated by surfing the internet - yeah, that sucks.
How do you get out? Slowly. You reclaim a little bit of time from distraction, and then you celebrate.
I wrote about this in "The Neurosis of Long Term Habit Change" - trying to improve means keeping constant awareness of falling short. You need to reclaim a bit of your time, and then celebrate! Yes, celebrate. Even the small wins.
You can imagine someone who sleeps eight hours, wakes up, logs into World of Warcraft while eating sugary cereal, plays until lunch, eats leftover pizza for lunch, keeps playing, orders a pizza for dinner, and goes to sleep having played 16 hours of video games. As he starts to fall asleep, he thinks just for a minute, "...I hate my life." But then when he wakes up, he follows his poor morning routine and it's on to sugary cereal and playing WOW.
The key there is to reclaim 5 minutes, 10 minutes, anything, and then celebrate. Go for a 10 minute jog before turning the computer on, and then have a big celebration, because that's 10 minutes of the day spent better. Or eat a slightly better breakfast, and then celebrate. Yes, just for getting it right once.
Firm decisions are good. Analyzing your reasons and motivations is good, though it's difficult to do honestly. It's hard to confront fear and stress, or admit that high stimulation consumption is more short-term enjoyable than producing at a lower stimulation level.
The way out of a rut is fundamentals, and celebrating every victory. There's no magic, there's no one coming to save you, there's no technology that's going to magically fix everything. Instead, you do the little things that we all know are good - eat a little better, drink more water, move around (you don't need to exercise, per se, even a little walking is good), spend time in nature, spend time with people you like, read good books, do high upside low downside stuff, find a way to ship that project that's only 92% complete, and so on.
You're not alone. Firm decisions, small improvements, gradually shift time towards where you want it, and celebrate every little victory. Godspeed.
As with many inventions, the internet is one of humanity's greatest inventions as well as greatest detractors. To misquote Oppenheimer, the internet is a great boost to humankind's future, as well as 'the destroyer of worlds'. These worlds are the ones created by those who get caught in the noise rather than the signal, much like TV, video games, music, comic books, and any medium of expression, really. Each has the potential to expand humanity's understanding of itself or take it away.
What do you think of Glasser's concept of positive addiction? Lotta work - examples from my past include running an hour a day and programming Lisp - but not a bad life even if you do overstep moderation, you know?
I'm a long-time (6 month) lurker and one of the 900 who haven't said much (yet). But this article got to me at the right time as I am wrestling with my own distraction demons/frustrations. I think just putting it out there that people are not alone, it's normal (but still something to personally redress) is a great thing to hear. And reading raw footage of your thoughts is also extremely helpful.
Thanks for putting so much of your thoughts and yourself out there. It's a big help.
Phaed commented on "Those Easy Days With Nothing Due…" - it was a good comment, so I thought it deserved its own post:
I had a similar day today to yours yesterday. I did still manage to get a few extraneous things done. But, as a distraction came up, I asked it are you more urgent than the other tasks on my list. Mostly, the answer was no. But a few times, the answer was yes.
Now, sometimes a short, unimportant task can be more urgent than a long, important task, because clearing yourself of it unburdens you, so is sometimes good to do immediately. But you will balance all of these things against the urgency of your top priority task.
This means, on a busy day, aka a day with many urgent important tasks, your “filler,” do it right now tasks have to be equally urgent and important. On a less busy day, not only are your main tasks less important, but the filter for which “filler” tasks you let in lowers as well.
Right now I'm waiting to start a video interview. I called in early, but my friend who is doing the interview wasn't ready, so I've got five or ten minutes to kill before we get started. My first inclination was to catch up on email. I only had a couple to write, so I finished them quickly. Still some time to kill. I took a look at a SETT bug that's high priority, but the solution wasn't the obvious one that I thought it might be. I'll have to take a deeper look when I have more time. Still have a few minutes before we start. May as well write a blog post.
I think that there are two basic modes that a productive person's mind can be in. There's that mode where you're going to get your work done, but you'll fight yourself every step of the way. When you're in that mode, your reticular activation system, the part of your brain that is constantly scanning, looks for non-work things to do. Ooh, five minutes before the call-- why don't you browse Facebook? I call this the distraction-first mode.
I've been in distraction-first mode plenty of times, probably spent most of my life there, but today I'm not, so when I have a few minutes of downtime, my default is to find something productive to do. Email, SETT, blog post. Productivity-first mode. It's not that I force myself to fill these minutes with something productive, it's that it's what I actually want to do. That's the magic of it.
Being in productivity-first mode is beautiful. It's like living your life in a flow state, executing task after task without the mental toll of having to cheerlead yourself into doing. Emails finished, open up my code editor with no hesistation and start poring through the source code. Determine that it needs more time than I have, and before I can even think, I'm two sentences into this blog post.