Sometimes it feels like a lot.
The steady stream of tweets, articles, lists, shows, posts, emails, and notifications. The series your friend says “you gotta watch” and the books on your coffee table you’ve been meaning to read, but have shoved aside countless times to make room for takeout.
The list of things that ask for our attention and crowd our minds are quite often not the things that matter. In fact, you might be starving yourself of a greater sense of fulfillment by stuffing so much into your head.
The “to-consume” list isn’t tangible – unless you’re just that organized, in which case I applaud you – but somehow, it’s there and you can feel it. For me, it’s on the weekends when I roll out of bed and think “Man, it’s nice outside. Maybe I’ll get to the park,” but then I see the book I’ve been meaning to read. So I feel guilty about not reading it and sit on the couch, resolving to read it after breakfast.
“Well, I can’t read very well while I’m eating, so I guess I’ll turn on some Netflix – just while I eat. Wouldn’t want to waste this time doing nothing.”
And so I watch an episode of that show that’s “Trending Now.” And then another comes on, but I don’t notice because I’ve already got my phone in my hand, tapping through Instagram to see what happened while I was asleep.
Suddenly, I’ve been up for three hours and glued to my phone for most of it. I haven’t read the book, I haven’t really watched the show, and I haven’t been out in the beautiful weather. I feel horrible. I remind myself that there are only two days in the weekend, so I should be making the most of them.
On one hand, I’m doing what came naturally and just going with the flow of the day. If I gave in to that and gave less thought to all the other things I could be doing, it would be fine (right?). But I can’t – I know I can scroll through social media any day, and there are better things to spend my time on.
The conflict stirs me, and I choose the easier choice between leaving the house and engaging with some media: I pick up the book and read. Go me! Except now, it feels like a chore. I’m making myself do it. When I saw the book fifteen times this week, I thought “I can’t wait to sit down and really dig into that,” but now that I can do it, I don’t want to.
It’s not that I’d rather be outside, either; it’s effort to go do things. In my lazy Saturday mind, it’s just a checklist of finding clean clothes and driving somewhere and finding parking and probably spending money and (I assume) being in uncomfortable social situations. As important as nature is to a person’s well-being, I usually have to force myself to get out in it.
When it comes down to it, my screens are easier. They’re a security blanket, wrapping me in the cold light of their flickering LCD displays (slightly warmer after dark – shoutout to Flux).
When I’m using my phone, my lizard brain is going crazy, like a caveman seeing fire for the first time. The bite-sized content and fun animations when I interact with a friend’s post are just too good to put down. When I fire up my library of games, I have instant gratification and endless options for entertainment. When I turn on Netflix, there’s show after show that will continually play.
I have access to anything and everything, 24/7. I just can’t seem to get enough of it.
And I think that’s the problem. I’ve been trained by my devices to vacuum up content. I get lost in the algorithmically curated feeds for hours on end, and honestly, what I’m looking at usually isn’t enriching my life on any level.
On social media, it’s more often than not something to do with this brand, or that meme, or a click-bait headline pulling me to a website with the sole purpose of pushing ads into my burning retinas. In the news, it’s a hundred articles feeding off each other and screaming that the world is on fire. On Netflix, it’s so tempting to watch The Office for the hundredth time and zone out.
When I started noticing this, I took a couple weeks to get away from the overload. I took a small step and deleted social media apps from my phone, just to see what would happen.
It got weird.
I would find myself with the folder open where my apps used to be, tapping the empty space only to remember they were gone. The check was physical as much as it was mental. I would feel a flash of disappointment that I couldn’t check my precious feeds, then a vague anxiety. I was having a withdrawal. My brain was craving the steady stream.
There are better articles written by smarter people that explain how social media was engineered to leverage the way our minds work, but basically, it’s an addiction – and one that taxes our minds more than we realize. I’m not against sharing or keeping up with friends, but I’ve realized the gradual takeover social media has launched on my own life, and the negative effects it has had on my mental health in the past.
(I’ve since put the apps back on my phone, and I check them much less often. To hide from them or say they aren’t an integral part of my life would be naive, but I’m working to have a healthy relationship with social media again.)
I’m not advocating that we all get out the old hoop and stick for some laps around the yard each night; there’s nothing bad about engaging with quality content. I wish I were reading more, watching some critically-acclaimed films, and caught up on Game of Thrones. There are works of art and entertainment that take thought and effort to create, and inspire reflection and discussion. These are the things I advocate that we all spend more time interacting with, as opposed to mindless garbage that only fuels anger or jealousy.
The thing I am against is staring at our phones when we are together, obsessing over likes or follower counts, or becoming so focused on consuming that we neglect to literally go outside and smell some dang flowers.
In my down time, I sometimes catch myself feeling indecisive and paralyzed by all the things I wish I could read or watch or listen to, when what I really need is a long walk and to sit down and create something for once.
My point is this: we could all take a step back from our screens and make sure our devices serve us – not the other way around. Tools are for creation, expression, and innovation. They are not supposed to make our lives less interesting and make us feel emptier.
I am personally making a goal to consume less and create more, indefinitely. The goal of consumption, whether it’s food or information, is to fuel us to improve ourselves and our surroundings. So I invite you to join me in mindful consumption and purposeful creation. Let’s see what we can do.