We are a generation saturated with cultural 'musts', constantly consuming media, from podcasts to articles, TV shows to social media. But we're making little headway or real connection to any of it. The term 'infobesity' was coined in 2013 to describe "the condition of continually consuming large amounts of information, when this has a negative effect on a person’s wellbeing and their ability to concentrate." Sound familiar?
A survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft in 2015 concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found. Satya Nadella, the chief executive officer of Microsoft, said at the time: "The true scarce commodity of the near future will be human attention." Since then, our worlds have only crowded further with other people’s narratives – our focus diluted by podcast listening, binge watching and social media scrolling.
When rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington DC earlier this month, I, along with the vast majority of those I follow on social media, reposted my disgust. That's not to say I wrote my own post about my own feelings; I reposted one with the same sentiment. Same thing, right? In this particular case – an attempted coup and a hideously blatant example of systemic racism – there was only one opinion worth having. But what about when the topic is something a little more nuanced?
Reposting culture makes having opinions easy and efficient. It acts as a buffer between us and the vulnerable and timely position of exploring what it is we really feel. Yet aligning with and reposting other people's opinions clouds our ability to form our own, more specific narrative. And as an increasingly worried society, it sometimes feels much easier to adopt other people’s rhetoric than risk the anxiety of being 'cancelled' for creating our own.
Offline, self-help book sales have reached record levels as burned out millennials turn to psychologists and celebrities like Russell Brand, Ruby Wax and Fearne Cotton for advice on how to cope with life and all its uncertainty.
We muddle our way through the likes of Speak Your Truth, Declutter Your Mind and Think Like a Monk and yet we're not really thinking for ourselves at all. We are so caught up in consuming the narratives that other people are telling us to live by – from how to think to the 'correct' way to organise our knicker drawer – that we have forgotten how to form our own opinions. All because we lack the ability, or the motivation, to sit alone with our own thoughts. We're scared of being bored.
But what if a little bit of boredom is actually good for us? What if, in good measure, boredom allows us an opportunity to debrief and ponder – a way to avoid knee-jerk decisions based on a quick survey of everyone else’s opinions? Perhaps boredom, some thinking time, a chance to just 'be' – rather than constant white noise – is essential to our happiness and even to our productivity.
In his book Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, former Stanford University lecturer and behavioural design expert Nir Eyal says that all distraction is unlearnable if we take ownership of it. "It’s too simple to say tech is ruining your brain," he says. "Clearly, it plays a role. But even if you stopped using tech altogether, distraction would not go away."
There is a huge emotional element to seeking out distraction. "Time management is pain management," says Eyal. The brain, he says, has evolved to feel dissatisfied and the reason you seek distraction is to escape those uncomfortable feelings. Over time, picking up your phone or plugging in Audible to listen to someone else's narrative in a bid to avoid boredom becomes habit.
Eyal has developed a technique to teach people how to sit with this discomfort of being alone with your own thoughts. It is called ACT: acceptance and commitment therapy. Whether you want to regain focus or simply allow yourself some time to reflect, he claims that with ACT, you can rewire you brain to do so.
The first step is to learn to notice the discomfort that leads to your distraction by keeping a 'trigger diary'. You might repeatedly delay a particularly monotonous work commitment with mindless Twitter scrolling, for example. Recording your thought processes in a note on your laptop or scribbling them down on a piece of paper will help you recognise what’s happening and how often.
The next step is the one that'll make you go "ergh". Your task now, is to sit with and to question the sensation. "Most people feel self-contempt or blame themselves for their distraction," says Eyal. "Instead, you need to sit with the temptation and be curious about it."
The third step is to be mindful during those triggering times. When you next go to seek distraction, be it via Instagram, Netflix or the fridge, try the 10 minute rule. "I tell myself it’s fine, but not right now. I have to wait just 10 minutes," explains Eyal. Psychologists call this "surfing the urge". Think of your urge like a wave – it will rise in intensity, peak, then eventually crash and subside.
Increasing the amount of effort that it takes to do an undesirable action can also help you overcome your impulsivity. Turn off push notifications, remove distracting apps from your homepage and be selective about the hundreds of group chats you have pinging on WhatsApp. Apps like SelfControl and BlockSite restrict access to websites and can encourage more phone-free time, too.
Finally, Eyal suggests we make time for "traction". This means deciding what you want to achieve in every area of your life – in your relationships, professionally and personally – and planning time for each one daily. "This is especially important when we lack structure," he says. "We need to bring back that structure into our lives to give ourselves some routine."
So earmark time for your work responsibilities, another family Zoom, your next workout and that hour to ponder on what you really think. In an era when conspiracy theories and fake news are rife, it is more important than ever to become a critical thinker. Blocking out some time to sit with your own thoughts and consider what it is you really think is not only important, it's crucial.
And if you decide your knicker drawer is better left unorganised, good for you – that's one less thing to do.