Paul Nixon's Blog |||

Beating Distraction

Okay, let’s kick off with a nice quote from Naval Ravikant. The modern struggle…

Lone individuals summoning inhuman willpower - fasting, meditating, and exercising - up against armies of scientists and statisticians weaponising abundant food, screens, and medicine into junk food, clickbait news, infinite porn, endless games & addictive drugs

1. The Attention Economy

We’re under siege from businesses that pretend to be our friends. Facebook helps us stay in touch with folk. Google Maps helps us get around. Gmail solves the spam problem. And much more. Getting us connected. Organising the world’s information. And they do it all for free. Well free”.

So how do companies that give away - or practically give away - their products still make tens of billions of dollars every year? By relentlessly, ruthlessly and, I’d say, nefariously collecting all the data they possibly can about you, building super-accurate profiles enabling their actual customers to target you very precisely with adverts. Nothing is sacred - your search history, the web pages you visit, your location data from your phone, your browser bookmarks. It’s a well-worn cliche bow, but true; if you’re not paying you are the product!

And my goodness how effective is it? See the graph below and then consider that Google and Facebook between them hoover up about 50% of the internet spend.


From the Economist.

And, of course, all the data in the world about you isn’t much use without you being glued to your screens. There are warehouses full of the smartest folk on the planet who’s role in life is a tweak and optimise their apps and algorithms to capture your attention; as frequently as possible for as long as possible.

2. Negativity Bias

All of which perhaps wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for another factor - nature has equipped us with a strong negativity bias. Simply : we are more engaged with information that provokes anxiety and rage than we are by positive and uplifting news. Don’t believe me? Why’s the Daily Mail such a popular newspaper in the UK? Hint : it’s not the puzzles. Fear and hate sell.

More engagement is good for the business model. More engagement is bad for us poor consumers who unwittingly demand a stream of anxiety-inducing content. What’s good for business is bad for us.

3. Fighting Back

Our intuitions fail : we underestimate what this is doing to us. Remember we used to think that adverts don’t affect me’. Well you were wrong then. And you’re even more wrong now. Modern advertising is like old school (skool?) advertising on steroids.

So far I’ve resisted nuclear options; eg cold turkey, non-smartphone, delete the Facebook account, and so on. Instead I have been slowly introducing friction’ to get in the way of consumption. Willpower is not enough - you need to strap yourself Odysseus-style to the mast.

4. Why I’ve done so far

4.1 Current Affairs

Perhaps the most controversial of steps - as close to a blanket ban on all news in my life as I can manage. Would the world be better if everyone did the same? I doubt it very much. Am I happier without a constant stream of anxiety-inducing news that I can do nothing about but worry? You betcha. Is this decision without trade-offs? Nope. Do the benefits outweigh the costs? In this n=1 study definitely.

  • Cancelled subscription to the (outstanding) Economist
  • Removed bookmarks on my browser from news websites
  • Uninstalled news apps from my phone
  • Unfollowed anyone on social media that significantly comments on current affairs
  • Stopped reading newspapers
  • Stopped watching TV news

4.2 Phone

Sit yourself down on a busy train and observe : oh wow, do we love our phones. That’s because they are literally magical. The problem is they’re so addictive they are more interesting than everything else. Including even your children! Accept you are powerless and reduce the potency of the allure.

  • Definitely no phone in bed (!)
  • Uninstalled distracting apps
    • All social media
    • Also reddit, hacker news, news apps
  • Disabled every notification
  • When at home, leave the phone on the charging station - out of hand and sight

4.3 Social Media

  • Stopped posting on Facebook (mostly)
    • I love seeing the great stuff that other people are up to, but I’m suspicious of my own motivations for posting what I’m up to
  • Removed all browser bookmarks
  • Log out after each use, don’t save the password in the browser
    • At least now I have to type a bit of the URL and my password
  • Periodically and ruthlessly prune people and groups you follow
    • For example I followed my local town group on Facebook - in theory a good idea. In reality the stream is dominated by people moaning about the car getting a bump in the supermarket car park, how crime is going through the roof, how the town isn’t as good as it used to be, and so on.
  • Twitter - uncheck Show the best tweets first’ setting
    • This forces a reverse chronological view making it much easier to see if there’s actually anything new

4.4 Browsing

  • Uninstalled Chrome and use Safari instead

  • Installed AdBlock Plus

  • Changed default search engine DuckDuckGo

4.5 Email

I’ve written about email a bit before.

  • Inbox Zero
  • Installed Sanebox
  • Ruthlessly unsubscribe from everything, block senders and report spam

5. Next up

The following is a non-exhaustive list of my next options

  • Delete Facebook account
  • Remove Twitter from phone
  • Regular internet / distraction blocker
  • Review ScreenTime functionality on iPhone
  • Stop liking’ social media posts and instead send a private message

6. Learn More

Way smarter and better informed folks than me have weighed in on these issues.