Today’s deck-pacing returns me to a frequent refrain: what do I need to see accomplished in order to die satisfied? It’s surprisingly difficult to nail down.
I had reason to visit the Twitter website earlier. According to the bright little adornment on the “Notifications” tab, I had 60 items of note waiting for me. As I looked at it, it updated to 61. I didn’t click on it.
My phone lets me know when Kobo has new book recommendations for me, and when my wife is trying to get in touch with me. A few other odds and ends. It does not tell me about new emails, or Tweets, or any of a half-dozen other urgent, trivial events it used to angrily buzz about. I have seen to it that it does not.
There are emails streaming in to my inbox. Comments. Updates. Tweets. Exciting special offers. I know this. But Google Inbox is serenely blue, and will stay that way until I go through my email again tomorrow morning.
Is the world really moving faster, or do we just have more and more opportunities and temptations to look busy? Who really gains value from all this busy-ness? Day-traders, maybe.
We used to just laugh ruefully about distraction. Now we monetize it.
I am less busy than I’ve been for a many years, but I think I’m better-informed. I may be be lagging a little behind everybody else, but I gotta say I feel more on top of things than I have in a long time.
So last night I revealed my secret shame.
I gotta say, there have been lots of times I’ve been tempted to go full convert. Point to some social media kerfuffle as “everything that’s wrong with people today”, have myself a road-to-Damascus moment, condemn everyone on social media as fools, and use that self-righteous energy to go stomping off into the sunset.
But I can’t let myself do that. It’s not you, it’s not the medium. It’s me, and my avoidant behavior patterns.
Social media is still vital to me. Whether I like it or not, Facebook is how my close friends and family keep up with each other. Twitter is where my peers keep up with each other. I still want to talk to them. And, pragmatically speaking, for better or for worse visibility on Twitter is essential to my business, which in turn is essential to my family.
So, I don’t get to use any tricks to make this easier. No convenient righteous indignation. No hostfile mappings to 127.0.0.1. Just good old-fashioned gritting my teeth and getting my shit together to make hardest conversion of all: the conversion to boundaries and moderation.
Wish me luck.
I do not want to write this post. I don’t mind admitting weaknesses. I dislike admitting banal weaknesses. I am writing this post because I don’t want to write it.
I am a social media addict. This is not a medical diagnosis. Nonetheless, I mean it in a technical sense: I am sufficiently self-aware to take note of the dopamine rush I get every time I see that little “notifications” count. It’s cheap thrill. A reliable buzz. Day in, day out, minute after minute, hour after hour.
Mostly, I seek approval, which is easy to come by. Occasionally, less defensibly, I just want a reaction. Reactions are cheap on social media. Especially when you have 14,000 Twitter followers.
I don’t have a sob story about being broke in a gutter and selling my shoes for one more retweet. I am by all accounts functional and productive. Judging by the number of people who ask me how I do all that I do, I am apparently super-productive by some standards.
But I’m not happy with myself at the end of the day. I’m not OK with finishing the bare minimum of work to keep my head above water. I’m not OK with the barely repressed shame of knowing, in the back of my mind, just how many times I hit “refresh” today. I’m not OK with the diminished self-respect. More pressingly, I am not OK with the number of evenings I spend with my attention split between my kids and my phone.
I’m going to especially regret that last one. Like a diet of twinkies, it may not be hurting me much yet, but it’s going to catch up to me. And it’s not going to be an “oh, darn” kind of regret. I will hate myself. I will rage against those memories.
I am certain that Twitter and Facebook, et. al., hone their user experience to encourage this kind of mindless pavlovian response. But I don’t blame them.
I’ve been prone to this behavior off and on for as long as I can remember. A long time ago, when I had a boring job I didn’t particularly care for, it was Slashdot that I reloaded endlessly. Later it was LiveJournal. Oh, the delicious smell of fresh LiveJournal drama in the morning, I remember it still.
I am not so naive as to think that this addiction is a root cause. Social media is a distraction, a way to procrastinate. And procrastination is always a logical emotional choice to substitute something less emotionally threatening for something more emotionally threatening.
I find much of life to be tremendously emotionally daunting. This week I needed to make a quick, trivial call to my doctor’s office. It was on my TODO list for Monday. It took me four days to actually bring myself around to making the call.
The one complaint that I have about the personal planning software I use is that it enables me to rate tasks by how long they will take, but not by their emotional cost. I’ll bet a lot of people are like me and would love that feature. But none of us has the guts to actually admit we want that feature.
The items on my TODO list scare me. Sometimes I don’t even want to look at them Completing them might have an emotional payoff—maybe. Or maybe, completing them will leave me with an emotional bombshell. Like going through my inbox, and discovering a monstrous medical bill I hadn’t expected. It’s a gamble.
I don’t hate my job anymore. Far from it. But there’s still a cost to it. Most days it still takes me far too long to buckle down and just do it. And there’s still fear involved: what if I can’t think of a good topic for an episode? What if I come up with something dumb and sub-par?
Social media is low-cost. Social media isn’t a gamble. The worst thing that can happen is that there’s nothing new and I don’t get a fix. More often, there’s a fresh telltale that someone out there is paying attention to me. And I get my little dopamine shot.
But it’s not just about avoiding the tasks that frighten me. It’s about drowning out the noise in my head. The constant whirl of panic. Panic about providing for my family: is my business OK? Will it sustain, or will it suddenly vanish out from under me? Panic about doing right by my family: what about all those things I told my kids we’d do, that we haven’t done yet? Panic about my life’s work: Am I going to do some good in the world, or am I frittering away my energy on blind alleys and getting-by? Panic about doing right by myself: Should I be running right now? Practicing guitar? Meditating? Why haven’t I signed up for piano lessons yet? Panic about unkown unknowns: is there some terrible event bearing down on me that I simply can’t predict or plan for?
I can’t pretend that cracking down on my social media habits will address these root causes. But maybe it will throw them into starker relief.
And emotional muscles can be exercised like any others. Maybe it’s time I forced myself to do the kind of calisthenics that will render all of these fears less overwhelming.
I’m not going to talk about my strategies in this post. I’m a firm believer that talking about a plan is a good way to kill its mojo.
But writing this is one step. I can’t pretend I don’t have a problem anymore.
Now it’s time to kick some ass.
Dear current and future grown children of mine:
You probably remember how sometimes, you’d come to my office and ask if I wanted to play with you. And I’d snap at you and try to get you to leave.
I want you to know that I wasn’t angry with you. I was angry with myself, because I hated the way it felt to say “no” to you. I hated the “bad dad” that made me into.
That doesn’t make it OK. I’m not writing this to justify. I’m writing this to remind myself why I get upset. So I can remember not to take it out on you. And maybe, remember to have a little compassion for myself for being a working dad. Instead of tying myself up in guilt and taking that out on you.
I think maybe that will be better for both of us.
It’s 2015 and I’m 34 and I know less now than I ever have before. I used to know so much about software and human behavior and morality and relationships and public policy and man’s place in the universe and all kinds of things. Inexorably, every year, the realm of things of things I know about shrinks smaller and smaller.
And I guess I’m supposed to draw this into some rousing, TED-style conclusion about wonder and the joy of ambiguity. But honestly I just feel kind of tired and dis-empowered. Because I don’t know, anymore, what I can do that will help things. I don’t know if my advice is good, so I don’t feel so much like giving it. I don’t know where to apply myself such that it will make a meaningful difference without accidentally hurting someone.
The more I learn the less I know, and the more I feel lost and small and irrelevant.