The Acceleration of Addictiveness vs Willpower, Productivity, and Flow

on (ttk.me b/4Cy1) using BBEdit

A year ago Paul Graham posted The Acceleration of Addictiveness, and I just re-read it thoroughly. It is a wonderful insightful post. I agree with the whole thing and if you haven't seen it yet go read it first.

There's only one thing wrong with the essay: it's framed in terms of a problem rather than a self-reinforcing solution.

We are living in a world of accelerating addictiveness and increasingly I think the only way (likely lonely, squirming, and eccentric as Paul alludes) we'll get things done is the continuous directed practice and improvement of willpower, productivity, flow, and exercising thereof.

In All Fairness

To be fair 1: Paul does suggest by example taking long hikes and running, both of which I concur with, though I tend to substitute long bouldering sessions for long hikes. I find bouldering much more whole mind-body engaging: simultaneous problem solving, physical challenge, and confrontation of fears.

To be fair 2: The essay is the sounding of an alarm bell, with good reason. The problems he describes and predicts are real, are affecting us greatly, getting worse (from passively Amusing Ourselves to Death to actively texting ourselves to death), and (he stops short of saying this) our industry (technology, internet, web) is making them worse: how many people do you know who are working on designing and building ever more addictive and absorbing interfaces of constant interruption, and see nothing wrong with doing so?

A Metacognitive Hypothesis

Wording and describing (framing) something in terms of a positive, in terms of what it is or what you should do, is far more empowering, effective, and self-sustaining than wording or describing something in terms of what it is not, or in terms of what you should avoid.

A few examples you might be familiar with:

Hypothesis: positive framing is more effective than negative framing because thinking and acting on negative framing unnecessarily burdens you with thoughts of the thing you're trying to avoid, and thus requires greater use of willpower (which is limited) to deliberately reject it.

In short: positive framing is cheaper to implement than negative framing for a more self-sustaining and scaling outcome.

Here are a few illustrative thought experiments relating to the essay topic:

The Stress of Denial

If I say, "Don't think of Twitter!", what are you thinking, and how much mental energy do you have to spend to not just go check Twitter right now? (How many of you did just that? Were you acting on your free will or an addictive impulse?)

If I say, "Don't think of Facebook!", are you able to avoid immediately checking it? Or did you spend the necessary executive control to resist doing so?

And if those didn't distract you, how about if I say:

Don't check your email, feed reader, IRC, Convore, iPhone, or Blackberry?

Either I just lost you (sorry to miss you!) or you just spent some executive control resisting the urge to check one or more of those, and that resistance probably stressed you out a bit. Take a note of that specific feeling of stress. As a shorthand, let's call this the stress of denial.

It's also the feeling of deliberately exercising free will over impulse.

The Stress of Focus

Now if I ask instead:

"What's the most important project, to you, that you're working on right now?" (related: Paul Graham touched on this in his essay: The Top Idea in Your Mind)


"What's the next action you can do to make progress on that project towards a successful outcome?"

How do those make you feel?

Both of those also induce some stress (unless you're already exceptionally organized, prioritized, focused, and/or your name is David Allen or Merlin Mann).

Notice how this specific feeling of stress is different.

Unlike the previous set of examples, you're not denying yourself something, you're instead making yourself figure out what matters the most to you, what matters now, and what can you do towards that. You're forcing yourself to focus. So as a shorthand, let's call this the stress of focus.

Aside from shifting from the stress of denial to the stress of focus, What else can we do?

Filtering Instead Of Denying

Paul concludes his essay with We'll increasingly be defined by what we say no to. He's right, we will and are.

The problem is, "saying no" is expensive. It costs you willpower to do so. Explicitly saying no doesn't scale. We need automatic or default ways to "say no". The best word we have for that is "filters".

We need filters against two sources of things to say no to:

  1. Environment
  2. People

We're far from figuring out how to do this (in fact the other side's techniques, commonly known as advertising, marketing, and sales, are way ahead of us). However, here are some things that I've found work for me, and they may work for you.

A few simple environmental filters:

  1. Minimize your exposure to brands* and ads.
    • Cancel your cable/satellite subscription.
    • Replace your TV with a monitor (or projector).
    • Listen to your iPod (#brandirony) not broadcast radio.
    • Disable Flash in your browser (use plugins like ClicktoFlash for Safari and Flashblock for Firefox).
  2. Choose paths through parks and neighborhoods, instead of malls and along storefronts.

People filters are much more difficult, as it's much harder to clearly determine who you want input from and about what.

I've been deliberately working on this for a few years and have seen what I feel like is only partial success. I've written up some of my specific techniques:

Perhaps we can better solve this collectively, I encourage each and every one of you to create your own personal wiki, write up your preferred communication protocols, how you do and don't want to be contacted, and about what. Share your ideas for how you filter your social activity streams.

Lonely Fate?

Second to last Paul mentions: ... this kind of lonely squirming to avoid it [addictiveness] will increasingly be the fate of anyone who wants to get things done. (emphasis mine)

That's the thing about willpower, it's not a collective thing. It's a personal thing. No one is going to give it to you. You have to create it yourself. It's just you.

Willpower is a lonely thing. Exercising it can often mean deliberately deciding to do something different than everyone else.

Addictions are memetically viral (per Paul's example of how the use of cigarettes originally spread the way an infectious disease spreads through a previously isolated population). Fighting and avoiding such addictions requires exercising willpower and thus at times choosing to be a lone eccentric. The person that didn't smoke. Or doesn't drink (more challenging: limits their drinking). It might also mean you have to look harder for similar peers, who are also deliberately choosing paths that minimize and avoid addictions.

Harmless Addictions and Opportunity Cost

Cigarrettes and alcohol have well documented physical harms, but what about supposedly physically harmless addictions (like various internet distractions and interruptions)?

Their harm is opportunity cost.

This is your life and it's ending one minute at a time.

The time you spend giving into your urges and supporting your addictions is time you could have spent being creative and productive.

How you choose to spend your time defines you and your life.

Consumer or Creator?

Are you primarily a consumer, driven by appetite (inevitably, addictions), or are you a creator, driven by directed willpower to be productive and prolific?

Do you identify yourself primarily by your tastes, where you eat or shop, what brands you wear or gadgets you own, what bands you listen to or shows you watch, what websites you browse or feeds you read, or which apps you download and select for your home screen?

Or do you identify yourself by your creative output, what you cook or build, what writing, photographs, music, videos, websites, art or apps you make and publish?

If you identify as the latter and want to continue to do so, due to accelerating addictiveness, you will have to deliberately fight the former, and you'll increasingly need more willpower to do so.

Improving Willpower and Productivity

Being productive and creative comes down to one core skill: willpower, the ability to direct your attention, your focus, deliberately at what matters the most to your conscious rational mind (also known as volition, in contrast to your appetite).

With willpower, you can create the necessary environment and probabilities for inspiration that creativity requires.

Willpower is depleted over time. It's possible to restore it.

More importantly, it's possible to strengthen and grow your willpower, have more of it to "spend", and thus spend a greater proportion of every day being productive.

I'm collecting the techniques I've learned so far on wiki pages:

To be clear, they're far from complete, and I would not by any measure consider myself a master of willpower or productivity.

I have found these works-in-progress techniques incrementally helpful and share them in the hopes that maybe some of you may find some of them helpful as well, and better yet, have suggestions for improvement.

Finding Flow

While increased willpower and focus can help avoid internet distractions, the closest to the opposite of being distracted is a state of flow: ... in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

I've only read part-way through the seminal book on the subject but enough to highly recommend it, and to recognize the state of flow when I've managed to experience it.

My personal experiences of flow have occurred during a few different types of activities, like writing code and standards specifications, or the aforementioned bouldering. In each case I observed a few things:

  1. The absence of distraction by others. This is usually best achieved by signing off IRC/IM, closing email/Twitter, and putting away all communication devices (phone, iPod touch). Interestingly enough, the presence of others in the climbing gym isn't usually distracting.
  2. A dramatic drop in the energy required to maintain directed willpower, that is, at some point I get so absorbed in the task itself that the need to expend energy to concentrate disappears replaced by a self-sustaining state of focus.
  3. Feeling restored. Perhaps related to the previous item, after I've been in a state of flow for some time and complete whatever it was I was focused on, I often emerge not tired, but rejuvenated, as if I have more energy than when I started.

The point is, in addition to working on improving willpower and focus, there's even more to be gained if you can block out time to disconnect and direct those abilities to focus on a specific creative act and achieve a state of flow.

Focus on the Positive

If I could summarize the points of this article in a single statement, it would be:

It's good to be aware of problems we're dealing with now and expect more of in the future, however, it's even more important to stay focused on solutions.

Regarding accelerating addictiveness in particular, I don't have all the answers, but I've been documenting various techniques which may help address various aspects, all listed here together for your convenience:

Try them out and see what works for you. Have additional studies, data, or techniques to suggest? Write up your own respective wiki pages and perhaps both independently, and together, collectively, we can not only avoid addictions, but get more things done, and live more directed, focused, productive, and meaningful lives.

Have a good weekend.

Further reading




Thanks to Erin Jo Richey, Edward O'Connor, and Matthew Levine for reading drafts of this.

Update 2012-131: L'Accélération de la Dépendance vs Volonté, Productivité et Flow, French translation by Christophe G. Ducamp.