No Instagram until I finish typing this page, you tell yourself. Or I’m not allowed to check Twitter until I send the quarterly report.
All goes well for a bit. You’re cruising along, as efficient as a pre-internet human, when you suddenly remember. The chunk of data that will not wait. You need to know RIGHT NOW when your Amazon package will arrive. Was it by 8 p.m. tonight? Noon tomorrow? It must be addressed. Let me just get it out of the way, then I’ll get back to work.
It seems harmless. It’s actually terrible.
You’re cheating yourself of concentration skills, which are already on life support by virtue of living in the 21st century. As Cal Newport explains in Deep Work, it’s “the constant switching from low-stimuli/high-value activities to high-stimuli/low-value activities, at the slightest hint of boredom or cognitive challenge, that teaches your mind to never tolerate an absence of novelty.”
The ray of hope
However, you can retrain your brain. Next time this happens, wait five minutes between your desire for virtual dopamine and its fruition. That buffer is long enough to instill the lesson: you’re doing something else now, not rewarding your yen for instant gratification.
Put another way, don’t reward bad behavior. Imagine you have a dog outside and he’s barking. (Hey neighbors! This one’s for you.) If you go outside to let him in while he’s barking, he’ll learn maniacal yapping is how civilized canines communicate their desire to go inside. But if you cultivate samurai reflexes and spring the pooch loose while he’s quiet—drinking water, scratching, smelling the roses—he’ll (someday, with luck, one hopes) realize barking accomplishes nothing on the going-back-inside front.
In short, @@you can’t feed your impulses AND expect them to end. You can do one or the other@@ Honor and continue or modify and conclude.
Can’t you wait five minutes and give it a shot?
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