Reduce Digital Distractions
April 9, 2020
My son is working on a class project on the impact of gadgets like Smartphones and Tablets and other new-age digital tools on human wellbeing. He wanted to get my thoughts on be benefits and pitfalls with all the latest technologies and how they impact human behaviour.
While I shared my views with him, we also had a healthy debate about how he is experiencing the use of these tools.
With school happening from home, he is busy with his academic work till late afternoon.
However post the academic work, he doesn’t have a problem committing 2 or 3 hours to catch up on his favorite Netflix serials and browsing for his interests on the Internet with full commitment and concentration (Thankfully, he is not into video games!!)
But outside academics, when it comes to pursuing music practice, going for a run, reading a book, there is a lack of motivation and desire on his part.
He understands the apparent benefits and expectations, but he is struggling nonetheless.
There is a battle royal for his attention and focus between the easy, no effort “digital activities” and the essential effortful activities that require concentration and commitment.
I could completely empathize with his challenge. While I may be unfairly bringing him in as a reference point here, this is a common challenge even I face from time to time, and I am sure many others encounter too.
Is this just an issue of will power and discipline, or is there something else at play? Some people have a natural motivation to tackle difficult things while others struggle. More importantly, is there a way to make the process of doing difficult things easy.
There is enough material out there on the Web to indicate that there is a physiological and chemical basis for activities like binge-watching serials, video games, or constant browsing of social media. These activities are inherently pleasure generating through the release of Dopamine, the “reward” chemical as some experts say. Our desire is not just directly to indulge in these activities but also to experience the feeling of pleasure that comes from the release of Dopamine. The more we indulge in these pleasure-seeking activities, the more habituated our physiology becomes to the release of this chemical.
Just before I sat down to write this exercise, I did a small experiment on myself. I kept my phone facing down on the table, and I tried controlling myself from not turning it over and looking at the Whatsapp messages, emails, and Linkedin notifications that were landing on my phone with a ping every 2/3 minutes. It was ok for an hour. After that, I sensed something interesting. More than the mental, there was a physical urge to pick the phone up to see the notifications. I had to dumb-down the voice in my head, not to touch the phone.
So, what is the best way to deal with this? Here are the two things I concluded in discussion with my son.
- All the easy things produce the desire for more through Dopamine production. My son and I will give ourselves a Digital detox two days every week. Overexposure to digital distractions is a bit like eating junk food. At the time we are eating junk food, it feels good, but after consuming the food, we feel horrible. For junk food, the feedback loop is immediate; for digital junk, the feedback of regret comes much later.
- We agreed to convert the problem into an opportunity. We will focus on getting all the hard and disciplined work out of the way through the day, and for every hour of work done, give ourselves back say 15 minutes of fun stuff to do. The consolidated fun time will be taken at the end of the day, such that it does not interfere with the productive day in any way. That way, there is a motivation for doing the important stuff.
Before looking at more sophisticated ways to build the motivational muscle to do the stuff that requires discipline, there is a need to take away the alternative of pleasurable activities like video games and social media browsing. When that happens, the difficult but boring stuff will also start looking like fun.