Addiction? That seems harsh. It feels like I’m equating a person who has his phone in hand several times every hour with a heroin junky or a nymphomaniac. But, the difference is in the word “Manage.” I wouldn’t write a post entitled “How to Manage your Heroin Addition.” I’d write one called, “Quit that Shit Before it Kills You.” I’m not suggesting that one needs to do away with checking email and social media. These are great tools that allow us to be much more productive (potentially.)
Still, if we’re honest about it, most of us at some point get caught up in the compulsive checking of emails, social media, internet feeds, click-bait sites, sale pages for online retailers, and stats pages. There’s no denying it. A pile of evidence has accumulated about the extent to which people are dismayed by their own e-world activities. I just started reading Kotler and Wheal’s “Stealing Fire” (out February 21, 2017) and they site a study that found that about 2/3rds of those surveyed admitted checking their status page when they woke up in the middle of the night. It might seem off topic for book about altered states of consciousness to report on such matters, but its not because it’s all about the pursuit of a neurochemical bump. (Also, as I’ll discuss, a major problem of this addiction is in keeping one from slipping into the Flow with one’s work, family, or hobby activities.)
So, below are five methods I’ve found useful in my own on-going struggle with this addiction.
5.) Set a timer: The problem with this addiction is that when one falls into habitually checking one’s status, one isn’t able to stay on task, and that means that one won’t achieve that elusive state of optimal performance called Flow. One needs time to immerse oneself in a task.
When I’m writing and editing, I set a timer, and until it beeps I do nothing off topic. I don’t make it some Herculean effort. I use 60 and 90 minute intervals. After the alarm rings, I can check email, do Tai Chi, get a cup of coffee, or work on my handstands. A longer time period may be more–or less–beneficial for you. (Isaac Asimov was said to only take a break after 5,000 words, but few writers have that in them.) The point is to make it long enough that one can get into a focused state of mind, but not so long that you become distracted and run down.
4.) Know your high energy period: This point relates to the last because it’s about blocking one’s productive time, and putting the more Flow-demanding activities when one is at one’s best. e.g. Are you a lark or an owl? (i.e. morning person or evening person.)
For example, I’m a morning person. This creates a potential problem. While I find it easy to get up with the sun, I’m at risk of saying, “Oh, I’ll just check emails, Facebook, my blog stats, a couple YouTube channels, and then I’ll get to work.” Then it’s noon, and the hours in which my mind was at its very best are gone. From 7pm until I go to sleep is when I should check these feeds because by that time my mind isn’t good for editing or writing tasks that require a high level of attention to detail.
3.) Go Cold Turkey [for a few days]: Sometimes it’s easier to make changes when one is forced by circumstance to quit. Then one can be more conscientious in resumption of the activity in question. (Moving to India helped me break a lot of bad habits.) If nothing else, this will help to give you confidence that the Earth won’t roll off it’s axis just because you aren’t checking on it twice an hour.
I can offer two examples from my own life. Every year my wife and I go on an extended trek in a place where there are no bars and saving batteries is essential. The past couple years, this has been in the Himalayas because we’ve been living in India, but anywhere remote will work. I also did the Vipassana Meditation Course last year. (If you’re interested in the latter, you can read my account of it here.)
2.) Meditate: Why? Because when you start meditating regularly, you tend to do less and less out of mindless habit. You become conscious of what you’re doing, and that’s the first step to making changes. You also start to become attuned to those very subtle dopamine bumps, and in that way you aren’t fighting it the impulse blindly. The high of the click is infinitesimally more subtle than taking mind altering substances, and so it’s easy for this all to take place below the waterline (analogizing the mind to an iceberg but instead of the majority of the mass of ice below the waterline, it’s the conscious mind above and the subconscious below.)
1.) Substitute: In the immortal word of the rock band “The Who.” If your problem is so extensive that it does more than block your attempts to hit the Flow, you may need to find a healthier alternative to wean yourself away.
What does one look for in a substitute? If it’s going to fill the same space, it requires immediate feedback and a mix of “fails” mixed in with “successes.” These are the components that make the e-world so addictive. We know immediately whether we got something or not, and that keeps us clicking–not unlike the famous rats that would keep pressing a button for pleasure even to the point of forgetting to eat.
Some people may work on games that will help build their brain. (Warning: just don’t trade one unproductive addiction for another.) I’m an advocate of working on physical activities (e.g. trying to develop new capabilities in calisthenics or yoga), but these often involve a demoralizing amount of fails to reach the optimal level (the optimal being that one has enough fails to keep it from being boring but not so many that one is brutalized.)