Nathan Speller

Design & code for people.

Distraction Creep

Dealing with Digital Addiction

The last time I was bored was over a decade ago.

In middle school there would be days where I was in pain because I had nothing to do. Play a game? No one to play with. Go outside? Too cold. A restless hunger would build inside me. Slouched on the couch like a zombie, I'd wait and pray for a distraction.

My wish came true a few months later in the form of a Sony Vaio desktop computer, fully-equipped with purple trim, 56k modem, and the revolutionary Pentium II processor. It was our family's first computer and it was glorious. Send an electronic mail to my friends? Done. Only forty minutes to download a song? Amazing. Google…anything?! I felt like a god.

Yet sometime between then and college, that excitement turned to habit. Without thinking, I started consuming for the sake of consumption, constantly checking my news feed or RSS reader. Refresh, refresh, refresh.

I would decline college events with "sorry, gotta prepare for this exam," only to procrastinate with silly YouTube videos. Adventures were reduced to Foursquare check-ins, jokes were evaluated based on their tweet-worthiness, and personal photos were filtered by how I wanted to be perceived online. My life was quickly being consumed by internet distractions.

So I quit.

I shut down my Facebook, abandoned Twitter and checked out of Foursquare. I got rid of my RSS feeds and limited email to once a day. I blocked YouTube, TechCrunch, HN and Reddit and got rid of every distracting app on my iPhone. And while I waited for the withdrawal symptoms to hit me, something surprising happened: they never came.

Instead, a clear sense of possibility came over me. Without all the little distractions my mind finally felt uncluttered. Small gaps in the day became opportunities to start new side projects, meet up with friends, or even to simply rest. It was like waking up on a Saturday morning as a kid, knowing that the whole day was mine.

Today I've added a few things back. I subscribe to the HN100 and couple other feeds, and I've removed my site-blocker now that the habits have disappeared. I now fill the gaps with activities like writing or learning music. Overall, it's been a tremendously gratifying behavioral change.

The Bigger Picture

Life is about the decisions we make. Yet every time you reach for your phone or news feed, you are avoiding a decision. It may be small, but they quickly add up, and pretty soon you're postponing goals and opportunities. Side-projects go unfinished. Exercise and health gets put off. New Years resolutions are forgotten. Every goal requires a ton of mental energy, but filling your mind with imgurs and instagrams only makes it that much harder.

And this is not just my problem. No other time period has experienced such an overload of information, and anyone can get buried in the noise.

From airports to restaurants, conferences to weddings, I see it everywhere. With smart phones in hand, people are adding filters to photos, scanning countless tweets, and anxiously waiting for enough 'likes' to validate their digital identities. New services appear everyday, fending for your attention, claiming to be the next big thing. Yet the end result is just another consumer-facing digital filler. Millions of people mindlessly swiping, pinching, and flicking through life's distractions.

Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.