I feel like my brain is getting slower.
Some context: when I was a kid, I used to feel like I was smart. Like, really smart. I taught myself to program, I was addicted to learning, and I read voraciously — up to 100 pages an hour at my peak. When I found an activity that interested me I’d sink into it obsessively.
But lately, I haven’t felt this way. I’ve felt less creative, less imaginative. It feels like my memory isn’t working properly. I don’t have anything close to the attention span that I once had. This isn’t supposed to happen when you’re 27.
I think I can chalk this up to lifestyle issues The brain is a muscle, and like all muscles, it grows or atrophies based on what you do with it. I’ve become convinced that a steady diet of Twitter and Netflix diminishes your ability to think deeply and creatively.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr describes this phenomenon as such: Different media encourage different types of thinking. The internet makes the brain into a jet ski – we skim vast swaths of information quickly, but shallowly. Books make the brain into a scuba diver – we cover less information, but do so more deeply.
The brain is optimized for quick, shallow scans of information. It’s how we survived on the savanna millions of years ago, when “living well” meant identifying threats and opportunities as quickly as they emerged. Left to our own devices, we’ll always go back to the quick-and-shallow media – Facebook, Twitter, CNN, Buzzfeed.
But I don’t want to think shallowly. It’s easier, but it also makes me feel out-of-control. An hour watching Netflix leaves me feeling unsatisfied — at the end, all I want to do is watch more Netflix. An hour of reading leaves me feeling the opposite — energized and satiated, ready to take on the world. Shallow media feels like binge eating fast food; deep media feels like savoring a good, slow meal.
All this is prologue. In 2017, I want to reclaim my attention, for three reasons:
- I’m going to be married soon, and I believe that part of being the best husband I can be is to be as present as possible.
- The world feels a little sideways right now, and I’d rather be walking around awake than in a binge-media stupor. The 140-character news cycle of Twitter is unhealthy; to be truly informed takes a mind accustomed to deeper thinking.
- I just feel better when I’m in control of my brain.
Here are some changes I’ve made this year in the pursuit of a deeper, richer thought life. They’ve been working so far, but it’s been 30 days or less, so consider this a continuing experiment:
- No more Netflix. I canceled my Netflix account. Now, if I want to watch something, I’ve found a few iTunes U courses that interest me. The courses are far more engaging than watching the same old sitcoms on Netflix, and it turns out that there’s less of an urge to binge watch a Yale professor than the escapades of Ted, Marshall, and Barney.
- Keep my phone plugged in far away from my bed, so I have to get up and walk to reach it. If my phone is reachable from my bed, I will find myself staring into a beam of light before I go to bed every night, which is terrible for your circadian rhythm, and makes for an unrestful night of sleep.
- Don’t check social media or the news in the morning. How I start the day sets the tone for the next 16 hours. If I start the day with negativity, alarmism, and short bursts of information, that’ll be my mood for the rest of the day.
- Removed Twitter from my phone. I’ve already gone years without a Facebook account, and this was the logical next step. Twitter is now inaccessible from my phone, tablet, and (thanks to the macOS app Focus) computer from the time I wake up until 5pm.
- Read a lot. I’m 4 books in for 2017, and my goal is to hit 50.