On the March 25, 2021 edition of his Daily Check-In podcast, Ned Bellavance talks about feeling like he’s putting too many inputs into his brain, and not leaving enough time to hear his own thoughts. I have had similar concerns for myself.
I tend to have something going most of the time. Podcasts in the morning before settling into my office. Music during the day, typically something familiar or non-intrusive so that it’s not too distracting while I write and research. YouTube or a Boston Celtics basketball game in the evenings while I eat dinner and unwind from Zoomday. (Zoomday is everyday! 😂😳😢) Before I go to bed, I read mentally engaging things. Books, a mix of fiction and non-fiction, currently Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Blogs like Astral Codex Ten plus a myriad of tech writers. When the sleepies finally hit, I turn off the glowing doom rectangle and hope my dreams aren’t unfathomable. Like the one two days ago where I was inside a commercial jet taxing rapidly through a city, the jet being chased by emergency vehicles that kept inexplicably bursting into flames. My dreams are fun. But I digress.
Like Ned outlined in his podcast, all of those inputs I’m receiving throughout the day don’t leave much time to think my own thoughts. Ned also pointed out the irony of this, in that when he’s not consuming something, he has his mental breakthroughs. How to solve a problem. How to improve a course he’s working on. Etc.
Similarly, my mind brings revelations to the surface when I’m out in the woods hiking, biking, or running, as I rarely listen to media when I’m out there. It’s the bears, you see. Gotta listen for those bears. So, why don’t I create more quiet time for myself? It’s not like I haven’t had enough of those breakthrough moments to know the value–I have. Plus, Cal Newport, whose Deep Work book I am a fan of, is an advocate of regularly walking for the purpose of thinking deeply about hard problems. This is a recurrent theme on his podcast.
For me, I believe the answer is in my personality type. I love making lists and completing tasks on a list. In my hiking hobby, I maintain lists of trails I have completed and have yet to complete. I have a list for peaks I’ve bagged, the number of times I’ve bagged them, and on what dates. There’s a specific viewpoint near me that I like to visit often. I visit it so frequently that I made a spreadsheet of the 366 potential calendar days, filling in a box for each new calendar day on which I return to that vista.
My work calendar is a list of events that gives me a sense of achievement as I move through my day. My long to-do list helps me track my many projects, and I find joy in completing tasks. Trello boards are another sort of list I enjoy moving the cards through.
As I think about the media I consume, much of it is in the form of a subscription. I subscribe to 126 YouTube channels, 15 podcasts, and 139 blogs. Plus, I have a list with 40 books I’m genuinely interested in reading, a sort of subscription. Spotify offers what are essentially subscriptions–genre playlists regularly updated by Spotify staffers, plus the Daily Mix, Release Radar, and Discover Weekly playlists.
What is a subscription but a self-populating list? A never-ending list?
A subscription creates a list. I find satisfaction in crossing things off of lists. Therefore, I have placed myself on the hamster wheel of media engagement, where the never-ending lists create situations I know I will find satisfaction in. Completing a podcast. Catching up with my favorite YouTubers. Buying and reading that next book.
Therefore, I fill much of my time with consumption. It’s as much about crossing the media item off the list as it is the product itself. Is this the same as the satisfaction of getting fake internet points when people like what you tweet? A dopamine hit? Perhaps it is.
During the 2020 holidays, I took time to disengage from some inputs. I stopped following the Twitterati, rarely engaging now unless folks @ me and a bot notifies me about it asynchronously. I unsubscribed from every newsletter I was receiving. I figured out how to blank the center console screen in my car, often riding around in silence now. I deactivated my account on ~15 Slack groups I was in, leaving only 2 Slack groups active.
Each of those actions felt like big steps, and I could feel the difference. The biggest change is that I can write more easily. But now that my baseline input level has changed and I’ve normalized to it, maybe it’s time to unsubscribe from a few more things.
Like Ned, I am still feeling unbalanced. Oversubscribed. I don’t want to unsubscribe from everything, but I need more quiet time.
Other posts on this topic include The Attention Economy And The IT Talent Dearth and Space To Think My Own Thoughts. After reviewing the “space” article which goes back three years, it seems I haven’t solved this oversubscription problem yet. That’s ominous. I thought older and wiser went hand in hand…