Step Out of the Digital New York City Matrix, Neo

Michael Loren

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Trust me, I get it. You want to decompress by scrolling Instagram in your Hell's Kitchen apartment for an hour. You want to cultivate your new passion for rearing romaine in your New York window garden. And you want to rewatch all of Game of Thrones from the beginning because you suspect you were too drunk to understand the nuance when you started watching it in college. Wait, which kingdom was Theon from again?

Listen, doing whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it is . . . awesome . . . sometimes. It’s not awesome when what you want to do is not congruent with either your long-term goals or your plans to achieve financial freedom by the age of 35. Or, for that matter, it’s most likely not congruent with the altogether good but unheeded intention to finally send your mom a birthday card in the actual month of her birthday (for once).

Like most people, you probably do want to get meaningful things done. You want to finally start that blog, apply for that job, or call that girl. But, when it comes down to actually doing it . . . you procrastinate. And, rather than doing the things you really want to do to achieve whatever long-term success to which you aspire . . . you decide to spend another 20 minutes “mellowing out” with Animal Crossing. No? Just me?

You want to live your best life along with the rest of New York by ordering Postmates in bed and teaching your dog to retrieve the tacos from the delivery person. But, at the same time, you want to start a company and sell it to Apple for $10 billion by 2030. Well, I’ve got some really great news for you:

Practically everyone in the world feels the same way you do.

We’re all human. We want to do fun things that aren’t necessarily good for us. So, you’re not defective if you want to take a midday nap during episode 4 of season 241 of Dr. Pimple Popper. Unfortunately, though, here’s the bad news:

As lifestyle choices, living your life ordering Postmates on your bed and selling your company for $10 billion in ten years . . . are unequivocally mutually exclusive.

We all think, at some point in our lives, that living a life of freedom is doing whatever we want whenever we want to do it. That’s awesome and all, but if you want to get crap done, your freedom to do anything you want needs to be finite. The other good news is that I have a few tips for how to succeed in New York at both living a life of languor and triumphantly bottling the sweet smell of success (and selling it at a 70% profit margin).

Before we get into exactly how to achieve world domination, though, let’s look into a little bit of the science of the push and pull of freedom and achievement.

Why we want to do unproductive things

I assume that most of you reading this are of homo sapien descent (an assumption that I’m sure the likes of George Tsoukalas would refute). As (mostly) humans, for better or for worse, we are all intrinsically wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Pleasure itself is governed largely by the release of dopamine in our brains. According to Neuroscience News, “Dopamine release tells the brain when to expect something rewarding, modulates how rewarding it will be and drives us to seek rewarding things.”

In the good old caveman days, we were rewarded by a dopamine release when we did things that were important to maintain our survival and/or the continuation of our species — things like eating yummy food and banging fellow cavepeople.

These days, though, brilliant app designers, marketers, food scientists, and creators of all things entertainment in New York and the rest of the world have learned to tap into that dopamine release to get us to do things that aren’t even remotely imperative for our basic survival (Candy Crush, anyone?). And some folks are pretty worried about that messing us up . . . a lot.

Trevor Haynes says in Harvard’s Science in the News, “Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.” And in a very dramatic statement, the former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook stated, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.”

Now, I don’t know if my Instagram is destroying my own societal interactions, but I do know that many of the things on my television, smartphone, and laptop are made to distract me. I’m also aware that they’ve been created to make me crave more and more of that distraction . . . and (thus) spend more money.

So, the point of all this is, at the end of the day, if you want to do things that aren’t necessarily the most productive in the world . . . it’s probably not completely your fault.

I’ll say it again. It’s not completely your fault. The odds are stacked against us. Very smart people are working diligently to make all forms of entertainment and diversion . . . for lack of a better phrase . . . more addictive.

Now, here’s the rub. You can’t immediately unplug New York City. You defintely can't unplug the entire world. You may not have been the person to create the attention-eating machines that we live with, but you can do something about your personal interactions with said devices.

Here’s what you can do:

You can step out of the matrix, Neo.

How to get more stuff done

Yep. I got all old-school-movie-reference on you with that Matrix reference. But, it’s appropriate because, while you can’t control everything in the world, you can control how you interface with the world.

And like Neo, you can forcefully unplug your weird USB brain chord from the never-ending light show of the distraction matrix and you can get stuff done, which will help create yourself a better future and not make you feel like the bed-ridden-modern-day version of Slimer in Ghostbusters (Bam! Old school movie reference number two!)

See, the freedom to do whatever you want to do is overrated. Because, eventually, that freedom will earn you more time-consuming problems in the future. A little bit of discipline now can pay off in spades later. Stepping away from the bright shiny “entertainment button” to get stuff done can give you more future freedom (hopefully on a tropical island with a piña colada).

So, how do you unplug from the matrix now so you can buy your own island in 20 years? How do you become a productive person instead of a slovenly slacker? Well, unfortunately, it takes a little bit of discipline.

Without further ado, here are two ways to become just a little more productive and hopefully feel better about yourself in the future.

Schedule yourself with . . . yourself

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can be the biggest flake in the world when it comes to keeping dates with myself. I’ll tell myself that I’m going to go running at noon and then I get wrapped up in writing and give up by 5 pm. However, when I do decide to do something at a specific time and I actually follow through with it, I get a rush. A rush of . . . you guessed it — dopamine.

Here’s the thing — you don’t have to be all work all the time. In fact, all work all the time makes Jack a pretty lame boy. So, schedule fun time and work time in New York. And keep your appointments. Why? Because you should be the most important person in your life (put on your own oxygen mask first, Cowboy) and if you flake on yourself, you’re screwing over the most important person in your world.

Here’s what I do. I schedule myself some “required fun time” during the workday and the evening. Between 12:30 pm and 2 pm, I go running, I read cheesy books, and I watch Real Housewives of Orange County while I eat ice cream.

The same goes for 9 pm until I go to bed. I play video games, I scroll Insta, and I do all sorts of other dumb crap. All fun and extraneous things are shuffled into these 2.5 (ish) hours of the day. The rest of the time? I slay it writing, choreographing, educating, eating, working out, and doing every crazy combination of those three things.

The fact that I schedule myself fun time frees me up to work like crazy when it’s not fun time. So, you can have your cake and eat it, too. You just need to know when to do each one. Freedom and productivity can coexist as long as they play nice together in the same 24-hour sandbox.

Brainwash yourself

Your brain believes what you tell it to believe. No joke. But don’t believe me. Believe what Dr. TS Sathyanarayana Rao wrote in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry:

“When we choose to change our thoughts (bursts of neurochemicals!), we become open and receptive to other pieces of sensory information hitherto blocked by our beliefs! When we change our thinking, we change our beliefs. When we change our beliefs, we change our behavior.”

So, if you happen to want to become a famous pop star (who doesn’t?), but you dislike practicing, you could, in theory, choose to think of practicing as Super Bowl concert prep. Eventually, you would then come to believe that you enjoy practicing, ahem, prepping for your Super Bowl concert, and then you would elicit the desired behavior — practicing more often.

If you’re not into tricking your brain (or you think you’re too smart for that), I have also found that reframing tedious tasks also works. For instance, I previously really really disliked editing my own writing. Recently, though, I chose to reframe my editing process and to alter the process as well.

Instead of silently fuming while I reread my own words, I now read my articles aloud to my (slightly impatient) husband as I search for errors. The performance and inevitable accolade parts of the new process have superseded my previous ickily impatient feelings. Reframing success!

Whether you choose to actually attempt to alter your thoughts and beliefs or just change up your process so that it’s more pleasantly perceived, the moral of the story is that you will get more stuff done if you either tell yourself you enjoy it or you change your process to include things you do enjoy. And voila! Increased productivity.

At the end of the day, you will never involuntarily step out of the New York City digital matrix. Because of the distractions that have become a part of our everyday modern world, you are not necessarily set up for success if you want to be focused and productive. There are ways, though, to take control of the hours in your day while maintaining [some of] your freedom.

So, rewatch Game of Thrones, order Postmates, and train your dang dog. Just schedule yourself some productive time and find a way to enjoy getting stuff done while you’re at it.

All-the-time freedom = lawn chair and a malt beverage in 20 years. Sometimes-freedom-balanced-with-scheduled-productivity-put-in-a-positive-context = chilling on your new yacht with a properly mixed Belvedere martini in 20 years. Your choice. Step out of the matrix, Neo.

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Professional writer and journalist with concentration in data analysis. I specialize in interpreting data to give you unbiased, understandable information related to the state of California.

Los Angeles, CA
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