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Overstimulation is ruining your life | Just Reflections - Issue #44
When I was young the world was so small. It didn’t just feel small because I was a child. People didn’t have smartphones. Regular people didn’t have internet access. So you only knew the details of the lives of the people that you had actually met. The sizes of our social circles were limited by our location.
Celebrities and movie stars felt incredibly distant. Sure, you could still buy People magazine and read about their lives but we could only reasonably get dated issues from a few weeks or months back. So the news was stale and we only knew them from the journalist’s perspective. We had no direct window into their direct thoughts and their lives.
Today, I can wake up and read what Kim Kardashian was thinking 15 minutes ago. And for personalities like Elon Musk who are very active, I could almost trace how his random thoughts are changing through the day. Hell, I can even weigh in with my own thoughts and if I’m lucky, the richest man in the world will respond directly to my reply that I sent while sitting on the toilet. Think about that for a second! No, not me tweeting from my toilet seat. That we all have a front-row seat to the random thoughts of the richest man in the world. And you can contribute your own random thoughts. For free. Without leaving your house.
This is great! Right?
Well, not so fast. While we have access to the entire world in our palms, we all need to remember uncle Ben’s words, “With great power comes great responsibility.” One consequence is that we’re massively overstimulated. Let’s talk about that.
Is overstimulation ruining our lives?
Many times, I find it very difficult to focus on doing important things. I need to complete a task for work or I need to write the next newsletter issue, but it’s very difficult to break out of the internet media limbo. I’m just watching random YouTube videos, constantly refreshing my Twitter and Instagram feeds, and waiting for someone to post a cool photo or a witty tweet. Waiting for something interesting to happen and entertain me.
Trying to stop and apply myself in doing the important thing is extremely difficult, and borderline painful. In fact, I’m having this exact problem right now as I write this. And I’m pretty sure that many of you reading this can relate.
You’ve probably seen many videos on YouTube trying to teach you how to focus better. Maybe you even use them to procrastinate. I do this a lot and they give me this feeling of being productive because “at least I’m learning something.” But one thing that’s often lacking is an explanation for why it’s usually difficult to focus on important things.
What’s the deal here? Why can’t we just sit down and focus on important things? We already understand that they’re important and need to be done. So why do we struggle to get motivated to do the things that would actually advance our lives? Why is it hard to do important things?
The short answer, important things aren’t as stimulating as everything else they’re competing with. Let me explain.
We live in a world of hyperstimulation. Our attention has been commodified. So through massive technological advancement, everything is now designed to be as pleasurable as humanly possible to capture and hold our attention. This constant unnatural stimulation is messing with our natural reward pathways.
Every notification bubble, every animation, every sound and every colour on your favourite app is hyper engineered to make you feel like you’re about to do something incredibly important. Your other “important” work pales in comparison. Our brains are convinced that we will get a big reward soon. So when you post something, you keep coming back to see if anyone likes it or if there’s any comment. You feel you might miss something important if you turn your phone off. And that notification bubble makes your heart jump a bit.
So what’s the solution?
We’ve programmed ourselves to only get satisfaction from very high levels of stimulation. It’s not that your work is not stimulating, it’s that it has a natural, un-engineered level of stimulation. So it feels like it will be less rewarding than the reward you get from hanging out online. So the long-term solution to being able to focus on important tasks is to reprogram ourselves to remember that the important things are actually pleasurable.
That’s a really difficult thing to do but I think it can be done. Let me give you an example.
One step I’ve been taking to intentionally reduce my exposure to hyperstimulating things is to not use my phone as a filler for those empty moments. But allow myself to be bored (I wrote about it here). So when I’m in a long boring queue, I just stand in the queue and spend time with my thoughts. When I’m commuting to and from work on the train, I just sit there and take in my environment and just observe everyone else who’s busy on their phones (I promise it’s not as creepy as it sounds).
This has obviously been really difficult because the hand reaches for the phone almost of its own will. But I’ve realised something after doing this for a few months. For a long time, I was convinced that I learn better from watching videos than from reading articles. So anytime I needed to research something or learn about something the first place I would go is YouTube. And when I’d try to open an article, I’d immediately start yawning. Just the sight of all those words would drain the life out of me (ironic for someone who expects people to read his newsletter, I know). But now, after getting used to sitting through long periods with little stimulation, I can easily pick up a long article and read it with no problem. In fact, it’s slowly becoming my default, I look forward to it. I still enjoy videos from my favourite creators by I’m also able to read long articles without feeling like it’s torture.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting taking social media breaks as a sort of “overstimulation fast” as some do. I’m talking about putting long term systems in place in your life that will reduce your exposure to hyperstimulation and allow you to rediscover the pleasure in the simple things. Systems like allowing yourself to be bored, putting your phone away, reading more and others. You don’t have to know what’s going on in the world as soon as you wake up. You don’t have to the blow by blow progression of the Johnny Depp - Amber Heard case. Take a walk in the park without your phone and without headphones. Talk to your husband without your phone in your hands. Don’t turn on the TV as soon as you get home. Leave the house without the filler background noise from the TV.
Unfortunately, the quarantine made things even more difficult for many of us. All that time spent indoors turned us into screen addicts. We spent so much time looking at screens that our baseline for stimulation is sky high. The disparity in stimulation is so wide that we almost feel physical pain from doing less stimulating things.
That’s partly the reason many Christians who had gotten used to attending Church online are finding it difficult to go back to physical church. When they were home, they could switch to multiple services in one day. Even change preachers mid-sermon if they’re not connecting with it, all while scrolling through their Twitter feeds and chatting with their friends and family on WhatsApp. How does one service, in one place with one preacher where it’s bad manners to get on your phone during the service, compete with that?
I want to challenge you to think about the amount of stimulation that’s in your life. What’s adding value to your life and what’s desensitising you? How can you reduce the amount of super-normal stimuli that you’re indulging in daily? You might find that by reducing the time you spend looking at screens, you could start to look forward to socialising in real life. You might feel excited about your work again. It’s possible that you’ll even look forward to reading a book instead of watching a TV show, who knows?
I’ve got a lot more to say about this subject so I’ll talk about it again next week. I’ll be talking about the chronic outrage culture that the internet encourages and how that’s stealing our joy. Keep an eye out for that issue next week.
That’s all I have for you this week. If you like the newsletter, consider sharing it with others on Twitter, WhatsApp or Facebook. Hit the thumbs up or thumbs down below to let me know what you think.
I hope I’ve given you something to think about this week and I wish you ever-increasing curiosity.
Until next week.
Weight: Get to 75kg by April 28 and 70kg by July
Sleep: Consistently sleep avg. 8 hours per day
Averages this week:
Duration: 6h 06m.
Avg. bedtime: 02:29.
Avg. wake-up time: 08:08.
Business: Start a business in 2022
The platform is relatively stable now so this will be the last week of purely focusing on phase one bugs before work starts on phase two.
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