Ever found yourself in an update loop? You check your email, refresh your twitter feed, check how many people read your blog post, check your website traffic, your instagram likes, the news updates, and then check your email again?
Recently I’ve noticed a negative correlation between the amount of focus and creativity I have, and the amount of updates I check for. Checking for updates is a seductive form of distraction that is built on a need for new, external information. Updates are addictive, and not by chance. Our brains are ill-equipped to handle them.
I’ve noticed that the more I slip into this update-checking loop, my mind is more diffused and restless. It’s harder to get into the zone of deep focus. Being in the zone is required for creative work, but it’s also more fun than having diffused attention. This is especially true if you work remotely / freelance, because you have more freedom.
While reading Atomic Habits I was introduced to the concept of “supernormal stimulus”, which makes it very hard for our primate brains to resist certain aspects of the modern world.
A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.
Junk food is a good example of this. Our brains evolved in a world where liking high-sugar foods like bananas (normal stimulus) increased your survival rate, because it was scarce. But now we have donuts with 100x more sugar and fat (supernormal stimulus). They’re easy to access, and hard to resist.
Similarly, in hunter-gatherer tribes, being socially validated by your tribe’s members (normal stimulus) was important for your survival. Now you can post on social media, and get validated (or invalidated) by billions of people (supernormal stimulus). That’s why it’s addicting - getting an update on your social status on a huge scale is just too easy.
The same goes for our curiosity instinct. Instead of getting news from a traveler who came from the next town south, we can get instant updates on anything that happens anywhere in the world. To add to the mix, we have the best engineers in the world engaged in an arms-race for capturing our attention, and machine learning algorithms that get better at figuring out which content is the most “engaging” (read: addictive). Tristan Harris does a good job of explaining how out-gunned our brains are in this battle.
I think that the addiction to external updates is the real danger when talking about productivity and creativity. You get to a state where if you haven’t had some external input for 5 minutes, you get agitated and restless. You check for updates, and then you’re out of the zone. You become a polling algorithm that constantly polls the server (the internet) for updates. Creativity requires focus and something coming from within yourself, which is blurred by constant input from outside.
I’m not saying we should never get distracted, or do idle things. That’s impossible, and probably unhealthy. It’s just becoming too easy to get distracted. And with the blessing of smartphones, it makes it 10 time easier still.
It’s not practical be completely disconnected these days, but knowing how vulnerable our mind is, we have to set some limits.
Update-checking is a habit like any other, and to fight it we need to use methods from habit theory. In order to change a habit, don’t rely on will-power. Rely on systems. You need to create systems that make it less easy to do what you’re prone to do.
Here are some ideas for systems you can put in place, that will protect you from yourself.
Notifications like “someone liked your photo” or “someone mentioned you in a tweet” are hooks designed to get you into the app. Once in, you’re prone to refresh your feed and get into an update loop. You can still keep notifications for direct messages sent to you, with WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
This is more extreme, but makes it harder to check your feed 100 times a day. It also protects you from walking head on into traffic while checking your feed.
This way you can only access your email explicitly from your desktop. This limits the frequency you’re able to do it. This will depend on your work place of course, sometimes you just have to be available via email.
The idea of not checking your phone when you wake up is becoming almost eccentric. One of the biggest signs of addiction is doing the addictive behavior first thing in the morning. Try putting your phone into flight mode before you go to sleep, and not going out of flight mode until you do some creative thinking / writing / meditation. Starting your day with a mind clear of external input in the morning can be very powerful.
The Pomodoro Technique - basically cycles of 25 minutes of work, and 5 minutes break. This method is something I revert to every time I notice I’m getting too distracted. Update checking is allowed only during breaks, thereby giving you at least 25 minutes to get into deep focus.
Sometimes you just need to go cold turkey, and get completely off any kind of updates for a while. A silent retreat is a perfect setting for this, and I highly recommend trying it at least once. Until you experience it, it’s hard to imagine how it’s like to spend a week without any news from the outside world.
These are all way of making it less easy for us to slip into a behavior that’s designed to be addictive: checking for updates. If you make it too easy, it’s just impossible to resist.
Do you notice that checking for updates is becoming a habit and makes you less focused? What are your methods of dealing with this?