Discover more from Thinking Out Loud | Michael Ashcroft
Choose what you want to feel rewarding | #62
Bouncing around apps first thing in the morning like a squirrel on meth might feel rewarding, but is it really what you want to feel rewarded by?
I've been feeling more and more distractible and, to be quite honest, I don't love it. There are many factors at play, but the one I want to explore here is the role of technology and its downstream effects on the rest of my life. To do that, I'll compare and contrast the two kinds of day that I seem to have.
The first kind of day is when I 'check' my phone in the first few hours after waking. Because I'm Very Online, I'm basically guaranteed to have a wave of notifications about interesting things and conversations I've been tagged in. There's a general sense of wanting to connect with and feel like a part of the world that exists beyond my head.
Often I do this within 10 minutes of getting out of bed. From here, if I'm not extremely careful, then something like the following cascade of events happens:
I scroll around the various feed-based apps for a while. Usually this is just Twitter, but with the recent buzz on Bluesky and the launch of Substack Notes, there are now more online spaces that I want to catch up on.
I get ready for my day... with YouTube videos playing. For whatever reason, little chores like emptying the dishwasher and brushing my teeth feel like they need some kind of background entertainment, even if that entertainment is whatever trash YouTube Shorts offers me.
I rapid switch between apps between sets in the gym. It feels like exercise is great for my body, but the way I do it isn't great for my brain. I find myself scrolling, refreshing, watching video clips, and whatever else in the moments that I'm not physically pushing or pulling something heavy.
I play music from my phone while I'm in the shower. When I'm in this mode, not even the shower provides safety from the intrusion of external content. And once I get out of the shower, I might put some more YouTube on, because words are more engaging than music.
Then, when it comes to work... suddenly I can't focus. After a morning like that, I find my ability to tolerate the normal resistances that arise when focusing on work-shaped things is massively reduced. I'm much more likely to flip across to Twitter or a quick game of chess when I don't know what to write next or if I think of some overdue task that makes me feel bad.
On days like this, hours can pass in a flash, because I'm not really all there. I don't realise how much energy and time I burn on either bouncing around those apps like a squirrel on meth or struggling with the fuzzy brain state that I created by having done so. At the end of the day, I find myself strangely exhausted, unhappy and dissatisfied by how little I've achieved relative to my expectations.
Okay, so that's the worst-case scenario version of the first kind of day. Now let me tell you about the other kind of day, where I am diligent about not engaging with any kind of technology in the first few hours after waking. It looks like this:
I go about my morning with greater calm and presence. I do all the same things in getting my day started as above, but I feel much less anxious. The world feels more vivid. Time passes more slowly. My breathing is deeper. I can better notice the shapes and textures of my own thinking and sensations in my body. I occasionally feel the tug of my phone, which hasn't moved since the night before, but since I decided not to look, I simply don't look.
When I turn my attention to work... I can simply work. After a morning without what may have been a couple of hours of preliminary hyperactive context switching, my mind is much more likely to gently slip into focusing on whatever I want it to focus on. I still feel the resistances and challenging emotions, but the idea that I could 'just check Twitter' is simply less likely to occur, and if it does, I'm better equipped to ignore it. My mind feels sharper, my senses are clearer and I get a lot more done.
At some point I look at my phone and engage with the world. These tools aren't bad and I don't want to avoid them completely. But after a several hour period of not really engaging with them, I find that I just have much less interest in them. I can look and engage, but I get bored faster. If I avoid external input early in my day, I am more likely to pick up a book later in my day.
The day feels longer. Seriously, there is so much more time in a day when the grabby grabby apps are less part of it.
This is an enormous difference, even at the daily level, let alone when considering that my life is nothing more (or less) than a sequence of days like these.
The thing is, I'm not one of those optimise your life maximise productivity get out there and hustle sleep when you're dead types. All I really want is to end each day with a felt sense of "yes, that was a good day". This doesn't even necessarily mean "a pleasant day", but at the least a day where I felt fully engaged, having made constructive choices about where and how I focused my time and attention.
Looking at the 'bad' day I describe above, I think one reason it feels bad is that I know, deep down, that whatever sense of reward I feel while scrolling is largely illusory and detrimental to my larger goals. It's generated by teams of engineers who designed their app to trigger a release of dopamine that I associate with the satisfaction of attainment. Of course, it's also generated by my shadow desires to avoid the struggles that would create a natural feeling of reward, as evolution intended. And, it’s important to mention, plenty of actual, genuine value.
Ultimately, the problem is that when I'm not caught up in that cycle of frenetic switching—perhaps when my dopamine is level and my nervous system is calm—the things I would list as 'rewarding' are not the things that technology gives me. This is perhaps a novel way of defining values: what are the things that, when you reflect from your wisest mind, you feel uncomplicatedly good about finding rewarding?
On the one hand, I may feel rewarded when I get lots of notifications, but in the evening I feel bad for having engaged in excessive notification seeking. On the other hand, I may feel rewarded when I write and publish something, and in the evening I still feel good about having written and published something.
This is how I'm choosing to interrupt the rapid app switching pattern when I catch myself in it. I ask myself: is this something I want to feel rewarded for? What would I rather feel rewarded for? Usually the answers are 'no', and 'something more aligned to my long term goals and values, even if that involves greater struggle.'
I don't want to imply that this is easy or that this is the only way to interrupt the pattern. There's a lot that could be said about the functioning of dopamine, in particular, that suggests it gets more and more difficult to escape this pattern once you're in it. Each rewarding thing creates a short term peak in dopamine, which leads to a short term trough in dopamine, experienced as craving for more reward. A very large release of dopamine from an unnatural super-stimulus leads to a large crash and a reduction in baseline dopamine, which feels demotivating. And I recall reading that the waste products of dopamine metabolism (i.e. the cleanup of lots of dopamine) are also inflammatory to some degree, and contribute to that fuzzy, buzzy, brain fog experience.
All of this suggests that engaging in highly and artificially rewarding experiences, like notification surfing, early in the day, is an excellent way to set yourself up for a terrible day. At least, that's consistently the case for me.
The more I choose to avoid technology in the first few hours after waking, and the more I ask myself what I truly want to feel rewarded for, the better I feel at the end of every day.