You Aren’t Lazy. You Are Overstimulated.

Sean Kernan
Editorial rights purchased from PeopleImages via Istock Photos

Every now and then I write an article that unintentionally exposes my own problems. Here I am, pushing self-help content each month, showing people how to live more effectively. Then I begin my research and realize I’ve got holes in my game.

This is one of those articles. It’s about overstimulation. Too often, it is ignored or mistaken for something else. Its effects are vast and ongoing. Learn to avoid excess stimuli, and you’ll unchain an industriousness that was always there waiting for you.

The surest sign you are overstimulated

Many of you already know about the danger of social media and flashing screens. It is becoming old science that they impair cognitive function and the ability to complete tasks. Yet people still don’t seem to get how severe the impact is.

Consider this, your eyeballs aren’t just tethered to your brain, they are considered actual brain tissue. Your retina made of the very same substance as your frontal lobe. Technically, when you look someone in the eyes, you are looking at the only visible part of a person’s brain. These organs are the highway for destructive stimuli.

For example, when mice are exposed to screens that resemble cell phones and TV, they perform significantly worse in cognitive tests: mazes, memory, and various forms of problem-solving. When they are less engaged in screens, they move through mazes with cold and natural efficiency. Distractions are ignored.

Practice dopamine fasting to boost work ethic

I still have days when I look back and wonder what I actually got done. I’m sure I did nothing. But technically, I was still doing things. I was in my bed scrolling Facebook and watching YouTube. I checked my Medium stats a few dozen times. Everything becomes about pleasure. That’s all dopamine hits do. Data scientists are not hired to do what’s best for you. They are hired to boost engagement, which often involves you swirling the drain of app notifications.

This is why dopamine fasting is so effective. You are unwinding your instinct to juke your pleasure receptors. When you actively disengage from this loop, you are priming your brain to engage and get things done without feeling that tug of applications.

The big idea here is cognitive awareness, also called metacognition. The highest performers are great at it. Rather than living like a wild animal, giving in to each whim, they step outside of themselves and observe their performance. They take a critical third-person view. They see the chaos and put a stop to it.

To practice this, take a piece of paper and begin marking a line when you catch yourself itching for a dopamine hit. As you begin marking your paper, you drive awareness of that impulse. It’s not unusual to have 50 lines on your first try. Focus on lowering that number each day.

To take it a step further, notice when other objects trigger bad habits. For example, I have a blue Yeti cup that often triggers me to pour myself a soda. When I hide it, I tend to drink less soda and sugar crash less often. I’m far from a metacognitive master, but it’s a step.

Doing nothing becomes everything

When you are feeling unproductive, don’t allow yourself to do anything. This means no entertainment devices, no books, nothing. It is very boring. But if you make this rule and allow yourself only to do only one thing, you will find yourself walking the plank and doing that very task. It feels like putting yourself in time out. But you’ll find your task beats the despair of boredom.

Distraction tracking reinforces your executive function, your ability to complete tasks in spite of other desires. It also saves you from wasting your day drip-feeding your tasks to 2% completion.

Meditation is also extremely effective if you can’t get focused. When I’m most distracted, I close my eyes and focus on not allowing in any thoughts. It is in those moments that mental silence is most difficult. My head is full of chaotic energy and thoughts that gust and jerk around inside of me. But in the end, I feel still and focused. I am prepared to work. Start with 5–10 minutes. A little bit goes a long way.

Why objectives help defeat overstimulation

Robert A. Heinlein once said, “In the absence of clearly defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”

Having goals streamlines your efforts into a tunnel past the noise. There doesn’t need to be a huge checklist. It dilutes task importance. Keep the list simple and short. It heightens your connection to your goal. It fortifies you from useless distractions.

Unlike with mice experiments, we don’t see the results from the “control self” that is outperforming us. Like an efficient mouse, start by knowing what maze you want to get through. Then ignore anything that distracts you from that journey. Stay vigilant. Consider any distraction as a wrong turn in a maze that is hard to come back from.

The takeaway

Too many people are chained to repetitive, unproductive habits that are designed to keep them in a feedback loop. Focus on slowing down your mind. Do this by practicing meditation and having forced disconnect periods from technology. I have a two-hour window each day where no screens are allowed.

Productivity isn’t about getting everything done, it’s about getting the right things done. Have clear goals. Force yourself to do nothing if you are procrastinating. Doing nothing has a habit of turning into doing something. Above all, be selective about what you allow into your mind. Filter out as much noise as possible.

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