I have no evidence to say whether I am more or less inclined to get addicted than the general population. I used to think that I was much more susceptible than most, but that was probably me just giving myself an excuse for my vices. Now I tend to think that I am about as susceptible as everyone else – as weak-willed as the average man or woman.
Really that doesn’t matter – this isn’t about where I am on a scale. What I do know is that I am too easily addicted to certain things for my liking and I need to take steps to address this tendency.
My current addiction
Recently I have become frustrated by my addiction to social media and email. I have not measured, but I seem to be compelled to check one or both every few minutes. And I have started to understand why.
I read a fascinating article recently about reinforcement of behaviours – a nice way of saying ‘creating addictions’ – and how rewards play a big part in compelling us to click ‘refresh’ on our email accounts or ‘pull down’ the screen on social channels.
The basis of the article is that we are ‘rewarded’ when we refresh our social channels or our email inbox. And of course now we all have our emails and all the social channels on our phones – in our pockets, next to us on the desk, in bed with us – we can get the ‘hit’ of excitement that comes with a new email or an update on Facebook, all the time. Anywhere.
Distraction = Legacy Cancer
Now that I am focused on this as a problem, I am more aware of it than ever. As I write this, I have forced myself to quit the mail app on my laptop, but my phone is inches away from my left hand and the temptation to take a quick look – to see if the emails I have sent this morning have been replied to – is almost overwhelming. I feel like Gollum and his total fucking obsession with the ring.
To help with this I am reading a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is all about how the act of focusing on something meaningful for an extended period in an increasingly distracting world is getting more and more rare. And as a result, more and more valuable. In the early chapters, Newport has set out, very clearly, how those of us who work in the knowledge economy are bombarded by distractions – emails, social media, instant messaging … and that in fact it is possible for people (just like me) to appear to be busy simply by reading, responding to, writing and shuffling digital messages around, which is surface or shallow work, which will not result in the production of anything meaningful.
The scary thing about all this, is that if I just keep shuffling digital messages and consuming minute snippets of entertainment, I won’t create anything meaningful. And that would be a terrible shame. In that sense, distraction is legacy cancer. If you ask a smoker, certainly in Europe or the US or Australia etc, whether they understand the risks associated with smoking, they will say “Yes”. How could they not? They will certainly know that smoking massively raises the risk of developing cancer. They smoke – I smoked – in spite of that knowledge. Perhaps they think the risks are acceptably low. Maybe they don’t believe the advice. Maybe the addiction is too strong. And the same is true for my addiction to the mini-hits of digital dopamine*. I know that distraction will kill my chances of creating anything meaningful. So I have to find a way to unleash the power of deep creative work. And to do that, I have to break an addiction. Just like I did with smoking.
I am sure there is more to come from this book. But the idea of focus – something that I discussed with David Hieatt, owner of Hiut Denim and the Do Lectures, when I met him recently – is one that I am increasingly fascinated by (more on meeting David in a future post). Of course, I think that social networks and being part of a hyper-connected world is a great thing – unlike smoking, which is ALL bad. However perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing and I need to create more balance in my life, with some deep work as well as shallow activity. So right now I have some deep work to get down to. No distractions for me for the next few hours.
* Wikipedia says: Dopamine (contracted from 3,4-dihydroxyphenethylamine) is an organic chemical of the catecholamine and phenethylamine families that plays several important roles in the brain and body. It is an amine synthesized by removing a carboxyl group from a molecule of its precursor chemical L-DOPA, which is synthesized in the brain and kidneys. Dopamine is also synthesized in plants and most multicellular animals. In the brain, dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter—a chemical released by neurons (nerve cells) to send signals to other nerve cells. The brain includes several distinct dopamine pathways, one of which plays a major role in reward-motivated behavior. Most types of reward increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and many addictive drugs increase dopamine neuronal activity.