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We Check Email 17 Times a Day Because We Like to Get High

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At the top of my browser, just below the Back button and Refresh button, I have tiny icons linking to my Gmail and Facebook, my stats counter and Twitter and a few other things, and they are delicious to me.

When I sit down at the computer to do some work, I find it unbelievably difficult to not click each of these buttons at least once before I get on with the task at hand.

Now and then I become aware of what it is I’m actually seeking when I click them. Intellectually, I know it doesn’t really serve me to check email 17 times a day. But new emails and website traffic stats are not what I’m looking for, not really anyway.

I’m looking to get high.

What I’m seeking is scraps of gratification, and sometimes they’re hidden behind those buttons, maybe in a gushing email from a new fan, a spike in traffic when Reddit picks up a piece I wrote, or when I log on to Facebook to see a little red indicator that somebody “Likes” a snarky comment I made on something or other.

It feels good to find these scraps, and so those buttons have become enormously attractive to me. It’s not like there’s really any practical reward for checking email a 3rd, 4th, or 14th time for the day. Those actions come from an emotional motive. They make me high and I guess I like being high.

Sometimes when I’m about to click the little Gmail button, I have a flash of awareness, and realize that my thought process at that moment is exactly as dull and simple as a burned-out rat in a psychology lab, pressing a button that sometimes rewards it with a pellet of food.

This is normal

A lot of the time we’re so compelled by the emotional reward of getting what we’re attracted to that we don’t even bother figuring out what it actually adds to our lives.

A few years ago I quit watching the news, because I realized I only did it to get high. It felt good to feel outrage sometimes. It felt good to take up and defend certain mental positions about social issues, to hate people who did bad things. It also felt comforting to have some socially-acceptable TV to watch after dinner.

I did it because I was attracted to it, not because it actually gave me any advantages or improved my quality of life. When I think of all those hours spent watching the news, it’s hard to figure out quite what I gained in exchange. Those volumes of information about O.J. Simpson, Sarah Palin or any other Outrage of the Month haven’t done me a lick of good since the moment I absorbed it.

Because it was gratifying, I never had any incentive to examine what it was doing for me or what it cost me. In any case, I would tell myself I was “staying informed” like any responsible citizen, as the typical argument goes, but it was really a fairly useless indulgence that just made some part of me feel good at the time.

What you really want

Most people are driven entirely by the pull of attraction and its cousin, the push of aversion.

Attraction and aversion come and go constantly throughout our days, we’re talking thousands of times, though we aren’t usually conscious of their appearance on our radar. We just find ourselves enamored by something (or averse to something) and we’re in the middle of acting on it. Clicking on the email icon. Eating the cookie. Scratching the itch, whatever it is.

And you get a little rewarding hit of “YESSS” because you got what you wanted to get.

On the surface we are only taking the most natural-feeling action. But as we can see from the not-at-all-uncommon habit of checking email 17 times a day, we are often seeking a payoff that has no real value except that scrap of gratification.

I’m not just talking about restraining yourself from acting impulsively. Nobody acts out every impulse. We’re all experienced at life and we’ve learned not to, say, grab food from somebody else’s plate just because it looks good. We know there are immediate negative consequences to that so we don’t do it.

But a lot of times the consequences are not immediate, or at least not obvious, and so we chase the scrap of gratification because it’s there for the taking. For example, you might name-drop because it gives you an ego buzz right there, and not see the consequences: that people might start to see you as pretentious, or much worse, that you are training yourself to seek scraps of approval in conversations by making yourself sound cool.

Most of us act out of attraction for something without realizing what it is we are actually seeking.

I notice, for example, that when the topic of travel comes up in conversation, a desire appears for me to find a way to mention that I’m going to Hawaii in six weeks. It might be a perfectly normal thing to say, given the topic. But if I look closer at what appeals to me about doing it, it’s not that I have a desire to inform people of my trip, but that it feels good to say it. There is really no benefit to my saying it except the little ego boost I get when I drop the fact that I’m going surfing in a tropical paradise.

There is a secret joy that I’m sure you know: the feeling you get when you learn that your friend hasn’t heard the big news yet — that Michael Jackson is dead, that Jane and Dick broke up, that there is a new Radiohead album being released this Saturday. (You didn’t know?? I knew by 4pm yesterday.)

If your desire in that scenario really is simply to inform the other person (as we probably imagine), it shouldn’t matter if they already know or not. But we all know that we’d prefer if they didn’t know, so that we can get the good feeling of being the knower, the informer, the bearer of fascinating stories. That’s a very gratifying human motivation we are all familiar with.

I would like to think that most of our moment-to-moment behavior is driven by the rational, pragmatic parts of our brains — the parts that understand, say, sensible retirement plans, or the benefits of eating enough dietary fibre. But I think most behavior is actually driven by these exhilarating little bits of cheese we know are out there behind certain actions, wherever they lead. Ever wonder why we have wars, monopolies, corruption, abuse, exploitation? Someone wants their high, whatever it costs.

The rat trap

Not everything we do is just an attempt to feel good, but an incredible number of our behaviors probably only happen because we like to get high — on comfort, on sense gratification, on ego gratification, on feelings of security.

Arguing is one I get drawn into over and over again. We all know that by the time a conversation has turned into an argument, there’s no more mind-changing that’s going to happen. Communication has ceased but the words continue.

I get a little ego trip from arguing. This blog has thousands of comments (whoa I got a little high saying that) and a good chunk of them are probably just records of me trying to feel good by contradicting someone. Not that there was never any value in those debates, but I have to admit that many of them only exist because in the moment I was attracted to what some part of me knew was a chance to feel good.

Again, this is normal. We feel an attraction to do something, we indulge it, we feel good. But what’s normal is often not what’s healthy.

Sometimes we get afraid of the consequences of indulging (think dessert tables at Christmas) and so we develop an aversion. But it’s the same thing happening. Aversion is fundamentally no different than attraction — it’s an attraction to getting away from something.

So either we indulge the desire to get the good feeling, along with its consequences, or we deny the desire, feel deprived and remain afraid of it. Either way, we have very little leverage in the situation and don’t feel free. We’re stuck between two cravings.

Not to turn this into a Buddhist-flavored article, but it is when a desire becomes a craving that the suffering begins. We can’t stop desires from appearing. We can’t snuff them out once they do. Don’t try and beat it there.

The tiny space where freedom lives

Between that initial attraction and the craving that develops from it, there is a tiny space. If you learn to become aware of the attraction as it happens, you get some insight into the nature of the proposition that’s being offered to you:

Hold on, something feels delicious here. A button. A cookie. A chance to tell someone off.

What is it I’m actually looking for here? What am I not wanting to give up here?

The answer, if you look closely, is usually some nice feeling.

In fact, it’s always a feeling. All we want in life and all we fear in life are feelings. Everything you have ever wanted: toys, candy, sex, money, love, letters in the mail, friendship, a clean kitchen — what you really wanted was the feeling they give you.

Just the same, everything you have ever feared: embarrassment, failure, poverty, rejection, losing your job, getting sick or injured — it’s not the situations that are fearsome, but the awful feelings you expect them to give you.

These feelings — the true objects of our attractions and aversions — they run the world.

I want to go surfing because it will bring a lot of pleasant feelings with it. I’m afraid to tally up my bills because it will bring a lot of unpleasant feelings with it.

The problem is that sometimes the actions that reward us with pleasant feelings create situations that will generate a lot of bad feelings later. Like, say, smoking cigarettes, or distracting yourself from your work by checking email 17 times.

These are often really bad deals, but we’re conditioned to seek the high. Advertisers know this and play to it. I got a good feeling for you, just a few dollars away… Television, in particular, sharpens your conditioning to gloss over the tiny space between desire and craving.

And naturally, there are actions that come with an immediate dose of unpleasant feelings, yet which create circumstances that will generate a lot of good feelings later. Exercise comes to mind.

We need to learn to mind that tiny space. It’s the only place to find freedom.

Most of the time we are not conscious of the fact that we’re being pushed or pulled, or exactly what we’re being pushed or pulled toward. We’re still operating at the level of lab-rat, normally. Staying mindful of attraction as it arises gives you a chance to recognize that you’re just being offered a feeling here, a chance to get high, and you don’t have to take it. You won’t miss out on anything truly great or irreplaceable. But you have to be conscious of what is happening to really know that in the moment. Believing it is not enough.

This is a truly voluntary action, light years ahead of the teeth-gritting desire-denial approach most of us grew up with (especially you former Catholics.) It’s free will, finally, not a fearful aversion reaction along the lines of “I will not eat the donut I will not eat the donut I will not eat the donut…”

Consciously refraining by staying mindful when attraction arises is an exhilarating feeling, on an order much deeper than the feeling of eating a donut, and quite the opposite of the feeling of chastising yourself for wanting the donut. It’s the feeling of genuine freedom.

On the other side of it, bringing yourself to act consciously when you are aware that it scares you is also exhilarating. Many people call this courage, and it can knock down long-standing barriers in your life.

How to do it

How to stay mindful? Practice by setting up a trigger: a specific scenario that will remind you to return to the moment and be mindful. A perfect trigger for being mindful of attraction is whenever a plate of food is put in front of you. Notice what happens in your body. Notice what item on the plate you are most attracted to. Don’t pick up your fork until you’ve taken a moment to study the feelings present in the moment. I’ve written more on this concept here.

The tiny space grows as you practice. At this point I still probably miss it more than I catch it, at least when it comes to email. I don’t actually check it quite 17 times these days, but it’s definitely more than once. But in other areas it’s completely changed my life. There is so much less fear in my life, much less worry. There are far fewer breakdowns and I can’t remember the last time I felt “stuck.”

Many readers will nod their heads while reading through this article, but most of them won’t bother to practice it. The only benefit to them will be the pleasant feelings they had for the few minutes it took to get to the end.


Photo by jayfresh

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Johnny February 15, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Variable ratio reward schedule

Lisis February 16, 2011 at 7:19 am

I don’t know how you do it… every time. I love it, and I love the tiny space. It’s my own, personal garden plot in which I arduously and continuously toil in an effort to cultivate freedom.

At times I truly despise the act of clicking my laptop’s touch pad, all too aware that I’m clicking for something that does not reside on the Net. I’m working on it, though… actively practicing. Maybe even getting closer. :)

Christopher February 16, 2011 at 9:03 am

Its a *good feeling* knowing that i am not alone :D

Lisis February 16, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Agreed… it’s the very best! ;)

Oak Harrison February 16, 2011 at 7:24 am

OMG, you only check your email 17 times a day??? After reading this blog, I did some mental math and realized I probably check my email well over 100 times a day …. blackberry, Ipad, MacBook, – I’m only moments away from the next high. So right now I’ve tucked the blackberry into my backpack, and I’m not going to check it again until at least 10 am…. (It is now 8:20 am) That should cut about 20 email highs from my count today!!! I will try to be more mindful of this absurd addiction, and I promise myself to cut down to only 50 highs a day…
Love your writings………

David February 16, 2011 at 7:05 pm

Heh… so how’s it going? Did you relapse?

Oak harrison February 16, 2011 at 8:33 pm

I did great….checked ‘my screens’ ONLY every two hours….until about 4 pm, then caved, and am checking every few minutes… Damn… But at least I now have awareness, and tomorrow I get to try again!

Steve Mays February 16, 2011 at 8:27 am

Okay, this is the first time I’ve created a recurring calendar event to remind me to re-read a blog post. And you’ve given me the incentive to try -again- to give up TV news.

Mara February 16, 2011 at 9:10 am

“The way to overcome negative thoughts and destructive emotions is to develop opposing, positive emotions that are stronger and more powerful.” Dalai Lama.
i’ve noticed that “not”, “don’t”, “no”, “stop”, “avoid” etc. do not work because you still think about them, you just put the above in front i.e. i wanted to stop checking Facebook every day and make it only once a week, as you mention you don’t gain much, just boosting unnecessary ego. So rather than reminding myself not to do it i just substituted that action with something else, reading ebooks and articles about things i like. Since i waste my time at work googling around at least i learn and may practice something new. And i’m proud to say i checked FB only once in the last 3 weeks. And this works a lot, at least for me, about almost anything, i want to stop biting my nails, so i bought a ring in order play with it every time the nasty craving was appearing, this worked too. I think substituting bad habits with good ones is quite good option, at least better than setting boundaries even if they are good. Will try your approach for my next unnecessary or bad habit elimination

David February 16, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I’ve had the same experience with “don’ts”. I need to know what to do instead, and I find when I’m tempted to do something, the “instead” that always works is bringing my attention back to the moment to see what it is I’m really looking for there.

Christopher February 16, 2011 at 9:12 am

When it comes to email, i have lately gone as far as checking the spam folder. :)

David February 16, 2011 at 7:11 pm

Yikes. Anything good in there?

LunaJune February 16, 2011 at 9:21 am

words flow…and bring with them such feelings :~)
been thinking these kinds of things for the past couple of years
still trying to catch the pause inbetween ..

” These feelings — the true objects of our attractions and aversions — they run the world. ”

how true…
I’ve given pause to many people, my clients constantly.. being in such an emotional job, Veterinary Technician , has taught me to not allow other people’s emotions, mainly the negative ones to bother me

Thanks for the reminder of waiting…

Lindsay February 16, 2011 at 9:22 am

I’m gonna practice it, David. I check my email an exorbitant amount of times, especially here at work. I’m talking about my personal email, not my work email. I have my gmail on in the background at all times and definitely get the high when I see one in my inbox.

“But we all know that we’d prefer if they didn’t know, so that we can get the good feeling of being the knower, the informer, the bearer of fascinating stories. That’s a very gratifying human motivation we are all familiar with.”

So, so very true. But how can I change this about myself? How can I change from getting a high when I’m the informer, to simply wanting to tell someone for the sake of telling them, and not getting that ego boost? Is that changeable? Or just a part of human nature I have to accept about myself?

David February 16, 2011 at 7:21 pm

The only thing you really need to do is stop to be aware of that sensation of “Oh good she doesn’t know yet” and the delight it promises. It can be very revealing to just ask yourself “Why am I saying this?”

If you try this you’ll notice there are a lot of things you only wanted to say because there was some gratification there, and no other discernible benefit to you or anyone else. It is quite an empowering feeling to refrain from saying what you were going to say, and letting the piece of cheese just sit there uneaten, if you dig my analogy :)

The idea is not to avoid these ego boosts, but to be conscious of our fondness for them, and how they often lead us directly into action without an understanding of what we’re really seeking. Just pausing to notice that giddy feeling, then going ahead and saying it is often still enough to retrain the mind not to grasp unconsciously.

Steve February 17, 2011 at 7:16 am

“If you try this you’ll notice there are a lot of things you only wanted to say because there was some gratification there, and no other discernible benefit to you or anyone else.”

This is a great point David. It’s interesting the sort of things you find yourself wanting to say that fall into this category. Telling one friend what another friend did that was stupid/annoying etc. is a good example I think. Generally I’m referring to gossip. There is some sick pleasure you can get from this.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of talking about people behind their backs, I think it’s extremely destructive, but just this morning walking with a friend to work I had an urge to tell him about how obnoxiously drunk another mate had been on the weekend. I stopped myself and thought ‘What the hell am I actually gaining by sharing this info?’ A laugh at their expense? The answer: absolutely nothing. Damaging this persons view of that person, if anything. So I didn’t say anything and it felt great.

Cheers for sharing David.

William February 16, 2011 at 11:17 am

What you are talking about here is Epicureanism, from Epicurus (c. 341–c. 270 BC), or Hedonism. This is most often related to sexual pleasures, but that’s not really what it is. What you describe is. Your article is interesting, amusing, but it really isn’t as profound as some folks here seem to think. But thanks, I enjoy reading your quips.

David February 16, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Hmm… very condescending comment William.

No, this is not about hedonism. Nowhere did I describe pleasure as the only good. A hedonist could use this technique to get more skillful at setting up their circumstances to generate pleasure, but that’s not what I’m getting at here.

Tor February 16, 2011 at 11:24 am

I think this is the best article you’ve written in a while. I, too, am of course guilty of these highs. There are a few questions I want to ask you, though. Where does the line go for what’s considered a high? Are all good feelings actually “just” highs? Assuming we agree that not all highs are bad: Where do you think it gets to the point where highs are bad? I’m aware of a lot of things I do that aren’t constructive or necessary. I can eat some candy, get a high (?), know that I would’ve been better of not eating it, but still not regret it because I know it doesn’t matter much and it tasted good. Would you call this a bad high as long as I don’t actually crave the candy and generally eat healthy?

Since this is my first comment here, I want to thank you for the wisdom you’ve shared with me and other people on this blog. :) You’re good at taking concepts and thoughts which are slightly “out there”, putting them into words and making them accessible for people.

David February 16, 2011 at 7:37 pm

I don’t want to characterize these “highs” as bad things, and it’s probably not helpful to categorize objects of desire into good and bad. So I wouldn’t call anything a bad high.

The point here is not to do more good stuff and less bad stuff, it’s to be aware of the dynamic between attraction and action as it occurs in real-time. That awareness of attraction, all by itself, gives you a much clearer picture of why you had an impulse to act in the first place. If you then realize you were only after a quick, fleeting feeling, then you can refrain without having to enact willpower or restraint, which is a grating and uncomfortable way to control yourself. Whether it’s a wise or foolish thing to do becomes self-evident, and not doing it becomes much easier.

dequalateral February 16, 2011 at 2:02 pm

introduced to your blog by a friend linking me. You are really really really good.

i could give a lot of compliments on this post alone, but instead i just want to say i have to disagree with you on: “Just the same, everything you have ever feared: embarrassment, failure, poverty, rejection, losing your job, getting sick or injured — it’s not the situations that are fearsome, but the awful feelings you expect them to give you.” I think that was the biggest stretch in the post, and anyone who has felt hungry and not had food would attest to a real pain and not fear of expected awful feelings.

but overall, really good. i am sometimes dimly aware that i base so much of my daily thought process on racking up ego points, and it sickens me. you bring this behavior to light, and elaborate on it extensively. in the end, i fear…what’s the reason we do ANYTHING as humans if not for attraction to happiness or aversion to loneliness? Perhaps i take it too far.

David February 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Maybe the word feeling is causing some confusing here. I’m not just referring to emotions here. Feelings can be physical sensations too. Pain is a feeling. Hunger is a feeling. Water on your hand is a feeling.

The situation itself has nothing in it that could evoke a fear response in you except the feelings it can create in you, both physical and mental.

Anna February 16, 2011 at 7:30 pm

I’m not sure if I understand you on this here:

it’s not the situations that are fearsome, but the awful feelings you expect them to give you.

For me, I may fear a particular situation because of how it could affect my loved ones, not necessarily for the negative feelings they generate for me.

As I alluded to earlier, I have a major decision to make in my life but I have postponed it for years in order to protect my family. Fear, which is a feeling, is at the heart of my postponement. I want to protect them from a possibly worse situation but in the process I’m killing myself emotionally. I’m still unclear as to how practicing mindfulness will help me to attain the same as you have when you stated:

There is so much less fear in my life, much less worry. There are far fewer breakdowns and I can’t remember the last time I felt “stuck.”

You are truly blessed to have this feeling…however it is you choose to define it. I myself only ever crave peace, if happiness follows that’s just a bonus really. And who has time for email when there are so many blogs to read? :)

David February 16, 2011 at 7:42 pm

I don’t know the situation you are describing so I can’t be sure where the application of mindfulness would fit in. Can you give some details, or even a similar example?

David February 16, 2011 at 7:55 pm

In any case I’m talking here about very specific attractions and aversions to particular stimuli that arise in day-to-day life. This kind of mindfulness is applied to discrete sensations that arise in single moments. A difficult family situation is something that transpires over a period of time and will contain countless experiences and moments, and each will have to be dealt with in present-moment real-time. Again, I don’t know the situation here, but attempting to make a dramatic rearrangement in your circumstances is going to have to happen over a lot of moments. Mindfulness is something you can only apply to the single point of contact you have with life, which is the present moment.

The relative lack of fear I have now comes from knowing that whatever moments my life situation puts me in, I am going to bring mindfulness to it. That gives me my best chances, because that way I can identify whatever attachments I’ll have in those moments, attachments which could cause enormous suffering if I acted without understanding them. Is this making sense?

Anna February 16, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Hmm…that helps a bit, thank you David.

I just found something by Thich Nhat Hanh, (which I have no idea who this is, nor am I going to pretend I know); however his words here resonated with me: “Every time you feel lost, alienated, or cut off from life, or from the world, every time you feel despair, anger, or instability, practice going home. Mindful breathing is the vehicle that you use to go back to your true home.” (-Taming the Tiger Within)

I suppose this is my angle…using mindfulness to help calm my emotions that have surfaced because of what I’m going through personally. Perhaps once I can better control my emotions I can then…(do what exactly?). Stop making a mess of my life.

Anna February 16, 2011 at 7:37 pm

wow, sorry i didn’t type the blockquotes properly! hope you understand my comment.

Vilx- February 17, 2011 at 5:54 am

Whenever I see someone say (or come to the conclusion myself) that “something is wrong” (like succumbing to these attractions), I always wonder – so what would be right? I agree to your statement that these “highs” are what run the world. So it has been since life was created and it is what generally propels us forward (sex being one of the strongest highs out there). But… if we take these away, what else should run the world? Or even yourself? Suppose you’ve mastered total control of yourself, you notice every attraction and can stop acting at them at will. What then remains to drive you? Anywhere. Why would you still continue to work, spend to charity, and be generally responsible, if you didn’t even get a good feeling out of it? In essence I guess this boils down to the basic question -how do we define what is “right” and what is “wrong”? How do we determine which things we should do, and which we shouldn’t? These “highs” were one way of telling. Not perfect, no, far from it. But at least it has worked for thousands of years. Do you have a better idea?

David February 17, 2011 at 7:15 am

Hmm… I never used right and wrong in this post. I never said succumbing to these attractions is wrong, or that we should never do it. I’m only giving you a way to see this process as it occurs so you can make a conscious decision instead of an unconscious action.

The attraction is still there once you’re aware of it, you just have a better sense about what is the wiser move, that’s all. So if you end up doing what you’re inclined to do, it’s not a “succumbing” to the magnetic power of some desire, but a conscious doing in which you’re aware of why you’re doing it.

Yes, the unconscious attraction/aversion model has “worked” for not just thousands but millions of years. But the end it works toward is survival. It propagates the species nicely, but as far as quality of life goes it’s not so efficient. Keeping the species going through reproduction is not a problem for humans, but the destruction caused by unconscious behavior is.

Vilx- February 17, 2011 at 8:38 am

Hmm… I see your point. Well then, I think my question is a bit different – once you’re aware of this, how do you decide what to do and what not to? In your writing you state several cases in which it is apparently undesirable to act on your attraction. Or at least you seem to imply so. For example the ego boost about the Hawaii trip. OK, so nobody cares if you go to Hawaii, and the only reason you mention it is because you get a little ego-high from that. So… why shouldn’t you?

David February 18, 2011 at 6:53 am

Good question.

When you stop and look at what you’re actually seeking before you act, what to do is usually pretty intuitive.

If you recognize that you’re just after a quickie ego boost (and there are tons of everyday actions that are like that) it’s worth seeing what happens if you refrain. If you decide not to grab the little piece of cheese, you’ll probably notice some benefits you didn’t know you were giving up. In the “Hawaii” scenario for example, I’ve learned to refrain a lot of the time. And I’ve noticed a few benefits:

1) You’re able to listen a lot better. When you’ve got something you’re really attracted to saying, the tendency is to wait for a place to stick it in there, and you can only half-listen at best.

2) It lets you off the hook. You realize you don’t have to say anything here, and you may not have realized that you felt a real need to get that piece of cheese. We develop addictions to these ego boosts, because we condition ourselves to indulge in them. If you’re conscious, you can “leave the fruit unplucked” so to speak, and suddenly you’re free in a way you never knew you weren’t free.

The bottom line is to experiment, understand what you’re really after, and see what happens when you let the chance go by without grabbing at the piece of cheese.

nrhatch February 17, 2011 at 9:08 am

Wonderful post, David.

When we remain mindful of what we are doing and WHY . . . clarity surfaces. We stop feeling the “highs” associated with mindless gratification and make choices that move us in the direction of lasting happiness and inner peace.

We reclaim our FREEDOM by allowing that tiny space to grow until it eclipses all but the present moment.

Here, Now . . . where the dance of life takes place.

B. Walden February 17, 2011 at 11:48 am

Interesting piece and great read. I made some parallels (or tried to) between your work and Sam Anderson’s article “In Defense of Distraction.” http://sites.duke.edu/english109s_02_s2011/2011/02/17/r4-in-defense-of-distraction-3/

Lisa February 17, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Perfect timing! The obsessive checking of my phone has reached ridiculous levels as of late and this is just what I needed. I’ve already put it into practice and just pausing and being aware of why I want to check it has prevented me from picking it up. I’ll definetly need to bookmark this one and re-read it, thanks!

David February 21, 2011 at 9:59 am

I think humanity is on the verge of being swallowed up by its phones. Especially with the emergence of smartphones, every other person now is walking around oblivious to the world, staring at a black rectangle in their hand.

Elisa Winter February 22, 2014 at 6:05 pm

I cannot begin to tell you how “rebellious” I feel because I decline to have a smartphone. There’s quite the “hit” of pride in this, but there is also the “hit” of knowing that I don’t actually need or want this thing. There’s so much pressure to have one! Well, I don’t. And I don’t because I know I’ll become an even bigger seeker of “hits” than I am already. I have also declined cable television, the news at the top of the hour, and gossip, because I did notice the attraction/repulsion and I wanted out. The noticing thing– it’s such a small intimate thing, isn’t it? It feels like a lifeline quite a bit. The non-judging noticing. How very non-technological.

Terry February 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm

David, I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for awhile now; this is my first time commenting.

I connect to what you are writing about in this posting through my study of the Yoga Sutras. Sutra 2.7 says (roughly translated): “Attachment is that which accompanies the remembrance of pleasure.” Attachment arises when the ego desires remembered pleasures, and equates that feeling with the object/experience that first accompanied it.

Likewise, Sutra 2.8 says, “Aversion is that which accompanies pain.” It’s the other side of the same coin that attachment shares. The sutras say that attachment and aversion are responsible for all human misery (woah!).

The trouble with both attachment and aversion is that the mind searches for fulfillment by either grasping for or resisting external objects or experiences. This can only result in bondage of one form or another – a mind which is dependent on external situations for its well-being. The practice of yoga is actually training for the mind (even though the popular practices are mostly posture-based), and a search for fulfillment through internal means.

Through the practice of mindfulness, as you said, and of meditation, the strong pulls of attachment/aversion can gradually weaken. I think the kind of mindfulness you are talking about in every day life is a practice in stabilizing the mind, keeping it centered on the actual nature of each experience instead of swinging wildly between good and bad, happy and sad, etc. When this is coupled with a meditation practice, we can really begin to experience the true nature of the mind.

Thanks for your thought-provoking article!

David February 21, 2011 at 10:02 am

Hi Terry. The first step really is to learn to notice what attraction and aversion really are. Nobody teaches us that. That’s probably the biggest benefit of meditation for me — noticing these simple, super-typical patterns of thought as they happen.

Gerrit February 18, 2011 at 9:52 am

Fed up with email mania, I once initiated an email-free Friday in my company. (That was in my former life when I was still a slave in the corporate world.) I felt that some people had difficulties doing something useful that Friday. They were no longer used to it.

Julie Jarnagin (Divajules) February 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

Nicely expressed. So true! Most everything we do is motivated by this need to get high. Being a junkie is perfectly normal, LOL!

Nea | Self Improvement Saga February 18, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Oh wow, David. Thanks for notifying me that I’m a junkie. LOL. I realize that I, like everyone else, crave that high. I think it’s important to learn to work with it rather than against it.

More and more I’m trying to surround myself with sources of pleasure that are simultaneously productive. Writing, or course, is one of them. Writing feels so very good to me, but Facebook can serve as a distraction if I’m writing while on the computer (obviously that would be typing instead of actual writing). So, I write my articles on paper & keep the laptop closed.

That’s just one example. I’ll be even more conscious now of filling my day with ways to feel the high without risking the negative consequences.

BTW…you are an excellent writer. I always look forward to seeing what you’ve come up with.

David February 21, 2011 at 10:04 am

Hi Nea.

More and more I’m trying to surround myself with sources of pleasure that are simultaneously productive.

That’s what I’m all about these days. Why watch TV when I can try a new recipe or write something fun? There has to be more of a payoff than just fending off boredom.

Sonya Culverwell February 19, 2011 at 1:09 am

Are you a student of More To Life? Everytime I read you I think okay, THIS is the quintessential More To Life statement. And then you go and do it again. And again. Thank You!

David February 21, 2011 at 10:07 am

No, I hadn’t heard of it. What is More to Life?

nickyO February 19, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I actually found myself doing this type of thing with fanfiction/poetry. It became a bit compulsive because I did like the positive feedback and the attention. And I still write every now and then, but less driven by the feedback. Hopefully I’m not kidding myself that when I write now it is more about the communication and the discovery that comes about in writing.

One thing that has worked well in my life when I feel conflicted about a course of action or inaction or train of thought is to ask the question, “is this helping me or hurting me?”. It’s kind of like the advice I received from a police officer about staying safe at work by being more aware of your surroundings–look up from what you are doing every 15-20 minutes and scan the room. Asking myself that question, “is this helping…” is like a scan of my inner self. It helps me to be more aware.

Great article, by the way, lots to think about.

David February 21, 2011 at 10:07 am

It’s tough when it comes to creative pursuits because feedback is an essential part of it, and good feedback can become addictive. I have said before that this site wouldn’t exist if nobody read it.

The “scanning the room” analogy is right on… it’s all about stopping and asking “Ok, what’s really happening here? What are the forces at play?”

Tracie February 19, 2011 at 8:22 pm

The fact that I’m commenting on this so late is a good beginning to what I’m about to say. :)

A year ago, I moved 1500 or so miles away from almost everyone I know. I already spent a lot of time on the computer, but once I relocated it was an even stronger compulsion. It was pretty much my only source of words from all of the people I’d left, and I checked my email and chats and facebook as often as I could just to hear a little scrap of what was going on in my old home. Several months later, I even had to talk myself into taking up a project that got me away from the house and meeting new people, partly because I was afraid of not seeing words from old-home as soon as they happened, which felt almost like being there.

It took what may seem like a long time, but I’m starting to carve out a full life in new-home, and I’ve found that I feel less “need” to pounce on every email. I don’t feel any less connected to people for being a few hours later seeing their words, and I Do feel more able to comfortably be away from the computer lifeline.

This is a pattern I’ve been thinking about for the past couple of weeks, and your post brought the last bit of focus to it, so thank you. :)

David February 21, 2011 at 10:09 am

It’s weird how the online world has become like that: a lifeline. I was worried about what would happen with my blog while I was traveling. But I spent a lot of time away from it, and I didn’t die, and neither did it.

Tracie February 22, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Despite my brave words, I still spent most of today trying to make my precarious home internet access work better so that I could spend more time with the comfort of my computer. I’m thinking of adopting a raptitude-like experiment with purposeful internet use, but to be honest the idea is pretty scary.

David February 22, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Scary is good. It represents a chance to get stronger quickly.

Daro February 20, 2011 at 7:42 am

Very insightful. I do neuro research on self control and this reminded me of an article that compared neural activity during ‘action’ and ‘non-action’. The article stuck in my head because it mentioned the idea that, rather than a free will, we have a ‘free-won’t’, i.e the ability to veto an action originating from some a deeper drive within us. This veto can only arise through consciousness/awareness/mindfulness I guess. Its mentioned in this blog article:

David February 21, 2011 at 10:10 am

That’s what it comes down to: a conscious veto.

I’ll check out the article, thanks Daro.

Tobi February 21, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Wow, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. Actually, more accurately, I feel like I’ve been given the tools to lift that weight off! Dave, we never got into any arguments but I did leave comments complaining or I guess sort of debating and you set me straight and, I don’t know if you remember, but I relented and said “Oh OK, yes you’re right.” Or something and I’ll bet that gave you a great high. Well, it gave me a great high too. ‘Look at what a great humble smart person I am to be able to admit when I might be in the wrong. ^_^’ lolz. There’s no real reason to bring that up I guess it just kind of reminded me of it… lolz. Thank you for writing this… I know in the past you said there’s no ‘magic phrase’ from any self help book or anything that will suddenly make life easy, which is probably what people mostly look for. But I think this comes darn close! lolz. Thank you again

Chelsea February 24, 2011 at 10:35 am

I actually dread and hate checking my e-mail, especially if I’m waiting on a response, be it good or bad. I get really anxious, maybe afraid of a negative response, a response I don’t want, or who knows. But I’m terrified of it. I’m the same way with blog comments -sometimes-.
I can’t say the same for facebook though. I don’t post status updates nonstop, but I am always reading, scrolling to see something new. I always catch myself though and get up and leave the computer when I realize what I’m doing. I realize that I’d rather be out doing things than reading about people sitting at their computers, or being absorbed in their phones rather than being out there living, doing and really enjoying things. The internet does feel like a lifeline, especially in the winter for me. I don’t go out much, I hide in my warm room with the computer sucking me in, but taking a long leave from the internet really does feel amazing.

Cate February 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm

“In fact, it’s always a feeling. All we want in life and all we fear in life are feelings. Everything you have ever wanted: toys, candy, sex, money, love, letters in the mail, friendship, a clean kitchen — what you really wanted was the feeling they give you.”

This part really resonated with me. Lately I’ve been suffering from a serious case of “I Want That” and feeling a little out of control with the things (especially material things) that I feel like I just “have to have.” So I’m going to try keeping this in mind and realizing that it’s not the thing I want, it’s the feeling. And I can probably get that feeling without spending money.

David February 26, 2011 at 1:46 pm

Ah, Cate you pulled out the most valuable part of this whole long-winded post.

Material things are not what we really want. We want a feeling of satisfaction, and a we get a temporary spike of that feeling when we acquire something new.

Two things that people very often do when they’re stressed or upset are 1) shop, and 2) eat. Both of these things provide a short-lived spike of pleasure, along with long-term downsides. When we don’t feel so good, we are inclined to do things that do make us feel good. The benefit is highly temporary, and the downside is long-lasting.

Throughout a normal human life, these kinds of impulses will pop up thousands or millions of times, and if we’re not aware of what we’re reacting to, we can let those passing feelings rob us of our money, health and self-control. Not to dwell on the consumerist angle of this issue, but nearly all of the marketing influences in our lives are aware that humans act on feelings very predictably, and they want us to react to our desires in the most unwise and costly ways possible.

Myran June 6, 2011 at 4:04 pm

Thanks for the article, great read.
I’m inclined to try this for a week or so, to start with, in my social circle.

I usually stop and think before I say anything to anyone but usually the question in my head is something along the lines of “how will they feel if I say this?” and only if I think it won’t upset/hurt them I will continue. But in this article it says to question your motives by asking “how will saying this make me feel?” I think, for me anyway, this will be a harder question to answer but we shall see. As for the reasons behind why I do the things I do, I can honestly say that I have never questioned myself. This will be very hard to put into practice but I shall try.

It’s amazing how often I check my phone for emails and text. The sound of my phone saying “You have a mail” is like music to my ears. The sound of “You have a text” is even sweeter. When I get an email, I always get a short pulse of what I could only describe as “hope”, Yes it’s a “high” but with the anticipation of something else. I’m not sure what it is that I am hoping for – maybe validation, recognition, praise, a compliment, a pat on the back, a question from a friend which makes me feel important and intelligent and wanted – whatever it is, it is another “high” I’m after. Usually however, it’s my ‘daily dish’ mail from Allrecipes.com or another form of ‘junk’ mail which leads to a feeling of “disappointment” or a sudden “low” point – surely this cannot be healthy! Come to think of it, I seem to be setting myself up for a fall/low every time I check my email!

A text on the other hand is almost always personal hence the high is much more intense but there is still an element of “hope”. So while the potential for a “high” is greater, what I failed (until now) to realize is, so is the fall, the disappointment, the low when I don’t get what I had hoped for. So after all, although a text may seem sweeter on the surface, it has the potential for a more disappointing end.

Thanks again.

evelyn February 22, 2014 at 9:52 am

I’m so addicted to your skillfulness of putting simple words to the complexities of human behavior. A lot of times, like a lot of other humans, I think of the kind of things you write about but I never dig deeper to analyze or understand them. Thank you so much for your valuable insights!

Luís February 22, 2014 at 11:59 am

This is great, and skillfully writen. So easy to understand… Wish I had read it sooner though… Cheers from Portugal, keep up the good work.

jazztimes.com June 23, 2014 at 10:20 pm

calorie counter apple and peanut butter

Tracie February 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm

True, and as usually seems to happen, when it’s time for something to change it just does. I was still mulling over the idea when readily available internet and I parted ways. So… I’m off to begin an experiment. If it goes well, I won’t have to add an internet bill to my monthly expenses, but I may have to add in a chai allowance. :)

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