Driving to an appointment recently, I felt the familiar urge to check my email while waiting for a light to change. Ignoring for now the aspects of looking at our small screens while driving, there is a danger in this urge all on its own. The need to be up to date at all times is a lie. A myth. And it's one that should be removed, ruthlessly, from your thinking.
This is not really a new idea. In 2014, most of us are self aware and recognize that the incoming stream of "updates" are probably not healthy. But how many of us have taken concrete steps to stop the habit? Judging by the rise if mobile when it comes to metrics such as online payments, email opens, and page views … not many. Most of us need some help.
A change in perception is needed.
As many studies are showing, the updates we receive stimulate our brains in ways similar to playing the lottery. Dopamine is involved and seeking pleasure is the name of the game. Each new email or Twitter reply holds the potential for something exciting. A win!
Now that we've had the Internet ingrained into most of what we do, we're experts at seeking out this potential. What's wrong with all this seeking? The reasons are plentiful; overstimulation, poor sleep, lack of engagement, and inability to focus are a few. The last really hits home for me. Making anything of value takes time and mastering a craft requires deep concentration.
But the real problem here is not the technology itself, but our perception of value. We've elevated the mundane to the top of our priority list and allowed the possibility of news from someone else to take precedence over our own work. That scares me.
To change our habits, we have to change our values.
This is not a hack
There's a reason the title of this article is not "5 Ways to Hack Your Brain". The solution to this problem isn't to trick your brain, as if it were an animal that needed training.
Instead, we need to believe that the value we receive from completing a piece of complicated, hard work is more valuable to us than the latest update. Or that a prolonged period of no stimulus is something to be enjoyed and savoured. That a lengthy deliberate conversation with a friend, neighbour, or child is worth our energy.
And if changing what we value more is the goal, the tool to make this change is not found in a list of bullet points. It's self discipline, nothing more.
As adults, we learn to appreciate many acquired tastes. How many of us enjoyed that first cup of black coffee, or the first beer? Appreciating silence, purposeful periods of being unplugged, or deep concentration is something that can be learned. But it usually requires discipline at first to make yourself create the opportunity.
So give that to yourself. Take half a Sunday to unplug and take a walk. Or read a book. Or write something several thousand words long. Whatever you enjoy. Just be sure that you give yourself a long enough period of time that your mind says, “What's next?” And you answer, “Nothing … we're staying right here!”
Once you acquire the taste for depth, your perception of what is shallow will change accordingly.
I'm as bad as the next guy, but I'm learning. I do my best to squash that urge that comes when I'm waiting for the light to change, the line to move, or every time I have two spare minutes in my house. And batch email processing, scheduling social media breaks, and turning off the router at night all help.
But most of all I desire to have higher values.