“Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature…In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.” — Danah Boyd (Principal Researcher @ Microsoft Research)
Neil Postman’s book, Amusing Ourselves To Death, is what I call a “before and after book” — there’s your life before you read it, and there’s your life after you read it. Everything changes. You become aware of man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction; you develop a heightened awareness of media manipulation; you see the extent to which unregulated media consumption paralyzes critical thinking and collective action.
“The people which once bestowed the power to command, the means of war, legions, everything, now forego such activities and have but two passionate desires: bread and circus games.” — Juvenal (Roman Poet)
After reading Amusing Ourselves To Death for the first time in 2008, I became cognizant of my personal, professional and academic inertia. Years of consuming low-quality content (Gawker, BET, TMZ, MuchMusic, MTV, WorldStarHipHop, etc.) had stunted my growth. My range of thought and creativity was restricted to the filter bubble of “infotainment.” In keeping with Danah Boyd’s diet metaphor, I felt sick. And so I desperately recalibrated my teetering psychological health by substituting and offsetting harmful distractions with better ones.
- Books — My library of choice is Amazon’s Kindle. Their selection of minds to borrow can be overwhelming, therefore I peep Actionable Books or Blinkist for recommendations. Don’t have the time to read? Have someone (usually the author) read to you via Amazon’s Audibleservice.
- Discussions — My primary beef with traditional news is its pacing. Topics like war, famine, poverty, etc. which require deeper reflection are constantly interrupted by irrelevant ads that render these dense topics impotent. That’s why I pick a single topic and head over to Quora, Stateand Reddit to deconstruct it. More often than not, I use these curation sites as primary sources to learn about what’s important in the world. No time to read? Perhaps you’re more suited for podcasts.
- Discovery — Streaming > Downloading. It all comes down to discovery. It has never before has it been easier for us to find and enjoy such a diverse and wide-reaching body of movies and music. I happily open my wallet for services like Netflix and Rdio for the opportunity to easily browse, preview and and curate without the tedious process of sourcing and downloading. Check out some great films on Netflix here and here(not listed are the phenomenal television show offerings such as House of Cards or Breaking Bad).
- Courses — Make no mistake about it, we are in the world of the Matrix -you can learn anything you want, whenever you want. With the exception perhaps of Kung Fu and automatic weapons training, you can acquire/hone almost any skill across these resources: Academic Earth,Coursera, Udemy, Skillshare, General Assembly and 99u. At the moment I’m stepping up my Spanish game with DuoLingo.
Demand content that is rich in utility, amusement and information. Demand content from creators who are passionate, hardworking and creative. An easy and effective way to source better content is to seek out the inspiration of the inspiration. For example, I’m inspired by Timothy Ferris. Timothy Ferris is inspired by Lucius Seneca. Guess whose work I’m reading now? If you were inspired by Kanye West’s Power video, know that it was inspired by the work of Marco Brambilla.
Should you completely cut out TMZ? Of course not. But treat it like a cheat meal. The key to better distractions is balance – can you offset your harmful content consumption with a larger proportion of challenging, deeper and thought-provoking content? I maintain an 80/20 ratio. At the very least, maintain a 50/50. Enjoy Keeping Up With The Kardashians sparingly. But when you start getting sucked into the narrative, it’s probably a sign that you’re venturing too far down the rabbit hole.
- DO: Curate your information.
- DONT: Consume anything glutted with advertising.
- DO: Embrace discovery.
- DONT: Get stuck in filter bubbles.
- DO: Prioritize learning.
- DONT: Watch copious amounts of reality television.
- DO: Pay a premium to skip ads.
- DONT: Tolerate lazy content.
- DO: Monitor your distracting activities with RescueTime.
- DONT: Completely cut out unhealthy distractions from you life.
- DO: Live more, and limit your media input overall.
Our brains are incredibly complex and hard-working machines that require regular defragmentation. Sometimes, the only way to achieve this is by marathoning Family Guy and playing Candy Crush. Downtime is anytime that you’re not “on” — your morning commute, the wait before a meeting, in-between classes, your lunch break, etc. Heck, even brushing your teeth can be considered as downtime.
Think about the various moments of downtime in your daily routine. At many of these times, you’re consciously or subconsciously distracting yourself anyways. Why not substitute crappy distractions with better ones? Ultimately, the quality of ingredients in your media diet and your frequency of consumption will affect your psychological well-being. But remember — everyone needs the occasional cheat day.