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Raptitude Experiment No. 35 — Renouncing “Feed Scrolling”

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After publishing a post arguing that Most Phone Use is a Tragic Loss of Life, there was such an outpouring of agreement in the comments that I was motivated to make an immediate behavior change. I didn’t announce an experiment in that post but I have begun one and I’ll post updates here.

Basically, I want to eliminate a few phone habits by renouncing them for the period of Lent, which lasts until April 6 this year. The main habit I’m renouncing is what I fall “feed scrolling” which means browsing the kinds of bottomless content feeds that characterize social media. Checking email or browsing blog posts is one way to distract oneself with the internet, but far more insidious are the engineered content feeds of Reddit, Twitter, Tiktok, Instagram, and Facebook, which present infinite content as long as you keep scrolling down. Because there’s this sense that there always might be something great if you keep going, you tend to keep going even if what you’re currently seeing isn’t worthwhile.

I drew up a list of internet-related “sacrifices” I will abide by during Lent. (My motivation here is ethical but not religious — I’m just using Lent as a period because of its association with renunciation, and the fact that it had just started when I wrote that post.

The Terms

This experiment began on February 25th and will last till April 6th, 2023.

Below is the list of rules I typed up for myself:

The Purpose

  • Recover my attention span and equanimity
  • Break the momentum of certain internet habits
  • Experience (and get used to) life without filling free time with the internet
  • Begin to see my phone as a powerful but dangerous tool (or a dangerous power tool)
  • Read more / do more offline things


“If it’s in the house, it’s in the box”

When I’m home, the phone goes in its holder rather than near me. If I need to use it for something intentional, I put it back there as soon as I’m finished. [Note: This holder is a carboard sleeve fixed to my kitchen wall.]

No feed scrolling

This is the main problem behavior. No browsing of bottomless content feeds till April 6 – Twitter feed, Facebook feed, Instagram reels, YouTube feed, Reddit.

I may (1) look up certain pieces of content on these platforms if I need to, and (2) post things when I see fit, but without consuming any feed content.

Block most addictive apps/sites on phone

Block Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit, on mobile – if I need to use one of these sites I’ll do it on my laptop. I will keep Instagram, so that I may still make posts (not scroll its feeds). If it becomes a problem it will be deleted. If I unblock any site/app due to the “absurdity clause” (see below) it will be immediately reblocked after making the exception.

Find another way, rather than make exceptions

If I want to do something I normally do (e.g. listen to something on YouTube while painting) I will find another way (e.g. listen to something on Spotify rather than on YouTube) instead of making an exception.

I am maintaining an “absurdity clause” – if it is absurdly inconvenient to follow a rule, I will make a temporary exception to do only the thing deemed necessary.

No phone use while sitting with people

No tolerance for checking my phone while at a table with others or in similar situations, regardless of whether others are doing so.

No “bathroom checking”

No taking my phone to the bathroom, or checking my phone when others are in the bathroom.

Practice non-checking (and never check & scroll)

I’m not going to officially limit checking email/messages/replies unless it becomes a problem, but I want to practice conscious non-checking – refraining from checking when I notice the impulse to. I will not use message-checking as an excuse for scrolling, and I will not combine it with any other online activity except replying.

Intentional video rule

If I want to watch a video on YouTube, (1) it must be on my laptop, (2) I must not do anything while I watch it, and (3) I must not watch more than one video at once.

Summary of what I’m giving up for Lent

The above rules, expressed in terms of personal sacrifices I’m making from now till April 6.

I am giving up:

  1. Scrolling through feeds (incl video feeds)
  2. Having my phone on me at home (when not using it for an intentional purpose)
  3. Accessing Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit on mobile (except for “absurdity clause” situations)
  4. Checking my phone just because someone goes to the bathroom, including myself
  5. Checking my phone when I’m sitting with people
  6. Putting on videos while doing something else
  7. Watching multiple videos in one sitting

Bare-bones summary of this new behavioral regimen:

  1. Keep the phone in its holder while at home
  2. Don’t use the internet unintentionally
  3. Don’t use your phone unintentionally
  4. Every time you find yourself using phone/internet unintentionally, stop immediately, step back, and decide what you really intend to do right now.

The Log

Day 1 — Saturday the 25th

From the climbing gym parking lot

Locked up my phone while climbing. Felt great. Afterward, I noticed I was excited to “check” my phone. No texts or group chats in my notifications bar, but I still felt I was entitled to a “cookie” of some kind. So I checked email (nothing fun) and quickly closed it.

I realize now this “checking for treats” behavior is extremely strongly conditioned, after doing it fifty times a day for ten years. Each time I refrain I get stronger and freer.

I am also realizing that I feel lonely today. Without the sense of connection to the internet, I feel isolated. I have in-person plans later but for now I feel weirdly irrelevant and alone in my corner of the world. I’ll see if this continues or is just a minor feeling of weirdness associated with habit change.

Day 2

Broken habits

I’m noticing places where following my phone rules leaves me in a moment where I have no immediate reflex about what to do next, so I have to consciously form one. Normally I would reflexively browse my phone, which automatically supplies another engaging activity — either I find something engaging on my phone, or I don’t and am therefore engaged in the search for one. This is especially obvious after using my phone intentionally. To simply put it down and go on with life feels abrupt and unpleasant, like I have this annoying new responsibility to direct my own life.

To me this means I have been shirkng my responsibility for figuring out the next thing to do by turning to my phone. All I have to do is unlock and thumb through the screens, drifting through my conditioned finger gestures, and a feeling of engagement will eventually happen. It might be a post or a video, or a message, or an ego-stroking reply, or an infuriating reply, or an inner diatribe about someone’s awful opinion… it doesn’t matter, because the mind will latch on to something, and the responsibility for consciously moving on with life will be dissolved.

Day 4

Twitter and the mind

I don’t know how, but I ended up with Twitter on my browser. I don’t remember if I had reflexively typed “tw” + Enter at lightspeed, as I’ve done a million times in response to a slow moment at work, or if I had a legitimate reason to open it and then forgot what it was. But anyway there it was, Twitter, and I clicked on a trending topic out of curiosity, and quickly discovered something appalling — I won’t get into the details but it was someone being treated unjustly and I could almost feel my blood pressure rise second by second.

I have been ignoring the social media circus for four days now, letting the usual pundits duke it out with their pithy burns, entirely without my spectatorship, and I’ve felt great for the most part. There is always that feeling that I’m “ignoring important issues” — an assertion many people make to defend their destructive news and social media habits. It is true that the culture war is going on without my dutiful liking/upvoting/snarkily responding, and for a split second that felt like a bad thing. They need me! The bad takes must be humbled and pwned!

I know this is irrational, as I’ve been using my newly-liberated hours to read long-form writing on the issues that I do think are important. I feel like I’m actually building a more solid understanding of the moral issues of the day, rather than madly clicking and scrolling about them. Along with this new, slower, more considered engagement with said moral issues, I’ve felt calmer and less frantic about all of it. Not because I’m ignoring anything but because I’m engaging with them more methodically and usefully. My inner diatribes, which are rarer, are much more measured and coherent.

It was amazing how quickly Twitter’s energy seized me though. It immediately shot through my body like an energy drink, along with the craving for confirmation — I really wanted to see some smart people articulate what they think — or rather what *I* think — about issue x or y.

Also — and I don’t think I’ve said this yet — I am enjoying life more. I’m happier. Much more present, much less often in rumination. Life seems simple and manageable.

I’m not sure exactly why that is, either. Obviously social media is mostly a waste of time, and I have more time, which takes some pressure off. But I think abstaining also makes the world feel very different. Much of the “content” of social media is just distilled malaise of every type. Anger, injustice, hatred, dread. It makes the whole world seem angry, unjust, hateful, dreadful. You could argue that it is those things, but only partly — those are the exceptions we take exception to. Yet even glancing contact with an unfettered social media feed can make the world as you know it instantly seem like a much more horrible place.

Again, the “head in the sand” argument might come up here. Shutting the door on plight and wrongness doesn’t eliminate it from the world, yada yada. Of course not. But clearly we are less effective and more miserable when we are imbibing a concoction that is mostly distilled misery. And the concoction is dense with misery not because the world is just that dense with misery, but because distilled misery is an essential part of the “engagement” business model that today’s social media companies depend on. What you’re doing by abstaining is returning your attention to the real world, or something closer to the real world than what you can discern from the distilled-misery energy drink dispensed by Twitter.

Day 8

Leaks and lapses

The experiment has generally been going well, and my mood and clarity of mind have stayed noticeably high. However, a two days ago I looked at twitter on my laptop, to check on mentions and replies…. and I scrolled down. Just a bit. Then I kept going, since I had already broken my rule. I kept at it a bit.

Then I started experiencing this “leakage” in other places. I clicked on a friend’s instagram post, then swiped up, and another video started, then I kept at that for bit.

I can see how close I always am, given my conditioning and muscle memory, to flipping right into these near-automatic feed-scrolling behaviors. It’s just a finger-gesture away from the “allowable” uses of social media under this experiment. I’m not quite sure what to do. I could tighten my rules, or implement more app blocking/deleting measures, I could just try to be more vigilant and stick to the experiment. I guess that’s what I’ve decided to do.

There have been leakages in other areas, particularly in the “if it’s in the house it’s in the box rule” and that’s one where I know following the rule is better.

For the most part though, my phone use is way down and life is better on many levels. This “lapsing” phase is a common pattern in my experiments. It goes really well right of the hop, then my vigilance drops because I feel like I’ve conquered the thing, and then I go back to the old behavior, and (unfortunately) it feels kind of okay, even though eventually I will surely slip right back to baseline. Part of the reason this happens is that when I begin an experiement I’m operating by explicit, written rules. Once I get used to the rules, I end up going by “feel” and that’s when old reflexes slip back in. I’m going to reread my rules right after posting this and be fastidious about them for the rest of the weekend.

Day 15

Grey areas

I really did stray from the original intention this week, breaking many of my rules. Unfortunately it didn’t feel wrong most of the time because I didn’t fall all the way to the floor I’d been at previously. While I did a fair bit of feed scrolling of Twitter and Instagram, I didn’t get “locked” into it in the way I had been.

I’m not quite sure why I did this. As I may have mentioned previously, it’s common in my experiments for abstaining to create an immediate improvement in my life where everything goes better and feels better. I become more clear-minded and free from vice and distraction. Then this resulting feeling of being in control and self-directed feels like license to do whatever I want. Then I end up drifting towards familiar behaviors because I’m less vigilant.

It started slipping in small ways — I wanted to look up a particular tweet, or had been linked from an article, and then when I got there I would scroll down one screen just to see what’s there, then keep going for a few minutes, then close it up. Breaking the rules but without triggering any internal alarms about it. This slips seamlessly to keeping my phone near me so I don’t have to go to the kitchen to engage in further seemingly-relatively-harmless phone behaviors, and then soon enough I don’t even remember what the rules are, I just know I’m not following them.

Part of the problem is that I drifted into a grey zone where my behaviors aren’t yet problematic, yet are violating my rules. So it feels okay, but there’s no guardrail anymore, and obviously my ingrained habits have not had time to change. I need to remember how strongly conditioned a habit becomes when it is a decade-plus-old everyday habit.

So it’s Monday again, the phone is in its station, and I’m playing by the rules strictly. And it feels better — which is a sign that I had slipped far enough for it to matter.

Day 26

Moderation vs abstinence

Ok, wow, this has gone off the rails. Over the past two weeks or so I basically stopped even attempting to follow my rules. I haven’t slipped back to pre-experiment levels of feed-scrolling fixation, but I have permitted myself to browse feeds when it feels “ok.”

Interestingly, for the most part this ignoring of rules has not resulted in long periods of phone-staring. I went from excessive use to abstinence, to moderating it, and the moderation feels better than both abstinence and indulgence, so now I’m not sure what to do. I feel like checking in to Facebook or Twitter feeds once or twice a day is fine, and I don’t get “stuck” when I do. So the hard-abstinence rules I devised seem excessive at the moment, perhaps because I don’t remember what how bad my compulsion really felt when it was bad.

The gravitational pull social media has on me correlates strongly with my overall sense of autonomy and responsibility, which fluctuates like a sine wave. There are times when I regress into a dopamine vacuum who eats, drinks, and self-distracts ceaselessly. Other times, gentle restraint is relatively easy, I’m making wise choices across the board, and I have little desire to spend my life scrolling through people’s hot takes.

That’s how I’ve felt for two weeks, and thus I find myself resisting going back to my hard list of rules. It just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. I like this new pattern of “light usage,” I just don’t know how sustainable it is. If I slip into a bad-behavior trough, like the one that triggered this experiment, I might end up wasting hours a day on my phone again. That is a possibility. However, I have the sense that going back to hard renunciation for the remaining fifteen days is less likely to orient me towards a light usage habit in the long term than to see if I can ride the light-usage line skillfully for this fifteen days.

So I guess I’m going to do that. Ultimately the goal is wisdom and sensibility around technology’s dangers, not an ironclad abstinence from it. I want to train that sort of wise, ongoing temperance, rather than tie myself to the mast and never learn to be safely coexist with these technologies.

Post-experiment final thoughts

The official timeframe of the experiment expired over a week ago, but nothing really happened at the end because I had already abandoned the abstinence approach. That decision still feels like the right one, because abstinence is not a long-term solution for the problem. If I had abstained entirely until April 6th and then went back on Twitter and Reddit and Instagram, I can predict the outcome: an initial period of “I can’t believe I ever wasted time on these terrible platforms!” followed by a curious and harmless-feeling visit to each (now that I’m over them) and then a slip into problematic behavior again sooner or later.

Instead, I think I’ve accepted that ongoing temperance is the only solution, since once-and-forever abstinence simply isn’t something I want to do.

I did have an insight about a week ago that has reframed the whole activity of feed-scrolling, and maybe my whole life. I realized that the reason I’m so compelled by my phone is not because of any particular platform or activity I use it for, it’s because I have a lifelong tendency to try to stop my life from progressing. You probably already know I have a powerful tendency toward procrastination, which I know now is a coping mechanism for ADHD, and a handheld bottomless content feed is a perfect procrastinatory tool. It’s stimulating, endless, free, socially and acceptable.

I had assumed the phone was just compelling to me because it’s stimulating, and ADHDers crave stimulation for their dopamine-deficient brains to feel normal. But it’s more insidious than that. Absorbing myself in my phone allows me to defer the next challenge in life — a task or to-do — and ADHD has made life’s challenges disproportionately painful and stubborn for me.

ADHD is known for making it “difficult to concentrate,” but that’s just a psychologist’s way of describing it from the outside. What it really is is extreme difficulty in accomplishing complex tasks, because you don’t have the mental “RAM” or “desktop space” to organize the necessary information and effort. The expectations of others, right down to how tools and standard methods work, are designed for people with more mental desktop space. This means doing anything but the easiest and most familiar things is often frustrating and painful, and sometimes humiliating and demoralizing. When “doing the next thing” has repeatedly resulted in pain, failure, self-hatred, and judgmental responses from others, it trains you to avoid doing the next thing like an Pavlovian dog avoids whatever behavior triggerd the shock-collar.

I always knew I was a horrendous procrastinator, but I didn’t realize until doing this experiment that my procrastinatory tendencies are essentially an attempt to stop the forward progress of my life. The next task is probably unpredictable and complex (it would already be done oif it wasn’t) and could result in yet another episode of feeling helpless and inadequate, and it never feels like good time to volunteer for one of those. This leads me with a powerful urge to stop time. I to anything to delay, renegotiate, or wait just another minute. The phone and its endless fountain of content allows one to do this, with any looming task, while feeling completely normal and okay.

To put it more simply, at any given time, I’m either moving life forward, by voluntarily taking on the next task, or I’m absorbing myself in a kind of stasis, a freezing of life and its procession of painful Next Things. The phone is an always-available way to create stasis with the push of a button. When I’m in stasis, I’m not moving life forward, so there’s no risk of setting off the Next Thing’s inevitable tripwires and humiliations. Of course, constant procrastination creates its own slow-burning miseries — isolation, financial pressure, self-loathing, and missed opportunities.

I’ve had many ways of creating stasis in my life, but there are five basic forms I tend to rely on:

  1. entertainment / internet / phone
  2. eating
  3. substance use
  4. mental monologuing
  5. fiddling with / lingering on the details of something (a book, something I’m writing,

Life, for me at least, is an ongoing choice between intentional doing and stasis. I can do the next sensible thing, the thing a clear-minded go-getter would do, or I can halt everything by latching on to a habitual form of stasis. And the smartphone, especially its bottomless content feeds, is designed to enable kind of comfortable stasis. It’s designed to absorb as much attention as the user will give it, and a user who’s trying to stop life from happening can give tragic amounts.

I had this epiphany a few days ago — that my life is an ongoing, zero-sum choice between forward progress and stasis, and I’m powerfully inclined to seek stasis. So my smartphone trouble isn’t really about smartphones at all, it’s about my aversion to moving on to the next thing in life. This insight is disturbing, but also feels very clarifying. Forward progress, despite its pains, is the only way life gets better, and I did not realize that’s what I was actively avoiding.

Since then life has been easier. My challenge is not to wrangle all of my quirks and habits, or navigate a complex landscape of possibilities with many hazards, one of which is the smartphone, but to recognize that life is a binary choice, and take the 1 instead of the 0. There’s the mode of intentional doing, where everything worthwhile awaits, and the mode of stasis, where nothing worthwhile awaits. I get to choose in each moment. Timshel.


Photo by Prateek Katyal


Max Pekarsky March 2, 2023 at 12:24 pm

Hey David! Funny enough, I completed a similar type of experiment (inspired by the Digital Declutter from Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism) just this January. You might be encouraged to hear that it made a major difference, and after being a decade-long Twitter and Reddit obsessed, my use of these platforms has dropped 90% since. Looking forward to hearing how it goes for you!

I wrote about my experience here: http://www.tinylogger.com/max/HuIz8o0FIDgolot8

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David Cain March 3, 2023 at 11:17 am

Good to hear from you Max.

I am experiencing a lot of what you describe here. I am seeing (not for the first time) that my usual online time-sinks offer very little value. Unlike you, I have kept email on my phone, but I’m considering changing that, because I do find myself checking it way more often than I need to. There are some ways that it is extremely helpful to have on my phone, such as quickly transfering things to people, and sending notes to myself, but there are other ways to do all those things.

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Amanda March 2, 2023 at 6:04 pm

Hi David! Thanks for putting it out there in unambiguous terms… phones are hijacking our brains, and we’re trading precious moments of our real, irreplaceable lives for those dopamine hits.

I recently completed a similar “phone fast” when I realized my phone habits bordered on addictive behavior. My useless phone use is mostly about numbing/ escaping from discomfort. That 40-day phone fast changed my life. I can’t encourage people enough to try this. The harder it is, the more we need it! I did not know how short my attention span was or how much I relied on my phone for emotional distraction until I tried living without it.

The most important rule is not taking the phone into the bathroom! For real :) That one change is half the battle!

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David Cain March 3, 2023 at 11:23 am

I think the “escaping from discomfort” function is what’s really really so addictive, at least for some of us. So much of the discourse around phones is that they’re “distracting” but I think it’s something much stronger than distraction that’s happening to us.

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yorch March 3, 2023 at 2:42 am

For the longest time I haven’t had any social media, meaning Twitter, FB or the likes.
However, and it may be because of the nature of my brain, I have found myself addicted to checking instant messaging apps, to the point of every time that I needed to focus on a task my mind would justify how I need to check if something has said something important -spoiler: no one had. This would go to absurd extremes: I would check my email every 10-15 minutes, same with the IM apps; couldn’t go to the toilet without the phone; any time I felt a slight pause in what I was doing I would take out my phone. Worst of all: my ability to focus had plainly disappeared swallowed by the sludge the phone habit had created in my brain.
At around the time of your post cigarrette-phone post (which I really enjoyed, btw) I switched to a Nokia with no internet. I can now receive and make calls. Old habits die hard, and I still get the “need” of checking my mail while at work, but I can feel so much freer when not in front of a computer.
The battle for my brain has started and I’m sure that I will prevail!

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David Cain March 3, 2023 at 11:25 am

Social media gets most of the criticism, but there are a million other ways we can get hooked into a behavior pattern with these things. Glad you found a way through that works.

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Gayle March 3, 2023 at 7:07 am

Love this and the following comments! Good to know I’m not alone in the phone struggle. I’m in sales and I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my phone for years. I’ve even had to silence the ringer because I noticed it was totally stressing me out. PTS??? from my phone ringer????
Anyway, I’m going to leave my phone on this table while I do my other morning duties. Let’s see if I can get through this day….
Thanks for your writings! I always enjoy them!

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David Cain March 3, 2023 at 11:26 am

I find leaving it elsewhere in the house makes such a huge and immediate difference. Good luck.

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Ann March 3, 2023 at 7:22 am

I received an Apple Watch as a gift and, paradoxically, it reduced my use of phone use. The watch is not conducive to browsing, so if I want to answer a text, see when the rain will stop, check my calendar etc, I can do these things without temptation to further engagement. This was totally unexpected!
This is my first post, but I’ve read much of your blog. It’s a treasure!

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David Cain March 3, 2023 at 11:27 am

Interesting — I suppose one way to interpret this is that the watch adds friction to the browsing-related functions, but lets through some of the more more useful functions.

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jon March 3, 2023 at 10:34 am

David. As usual, a little behind this, but I am an infrequent web visitor, therefore I do not get stuck and eaten for lunch. However, I wanted to say, to all those who feel this is a novel proposal. David is doing it. You thought of it also, you know about your social media problem, you just will not allow yourself to look at it as a problem. Well, it is. Take your life back, please. Us other folks not staring blanking at tablets and phones would love to “talk” with you.

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Bernadette Parker March 3, 2023 at 3:58 pm

After reading “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari I realised how I was being manipulated into wasting my life staring at a screen. This pissed me off and now I notice what my time is being stolen from – time with my cat, time in the garden, time just sitting and being with said cat and garden.
Seeing people staring at their phones while walking their dogs, or at the park with their kids, breaks my heart.

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Noa March 7, 2023 at 10:43 am

Good luck with the experiment, be strong!
Myself, I found it relatively easy to let go of social media on the phone since I don’t currently need it for work, and long ago I already found socializing there is so superficial that I find little joy in it.

My time sinks are silly phone games. ^_^
And yet, being mindfully aware of it I can mostly manage to divert phone use to doing more reading instead – by installing a reading app on my phone and placing it within easy reach on the main screen. Now, even when unintentional game-reaching happens, I “cancel” this action and choose reading instead. It was easier of course when I uninstalled the games…

Still, finishing 32 books last year was strongly influenced by making the phone a nominated reading device.

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Mia Green March 17, 2023 at 6:02 pm

> I’m not quite sure why I did this. As I may have mentioned previously, it’s common in my experiments for abstaining to create an immediate improvement in my life where everything goes better and feels better. I become more clear-minded and free from vice and distraction. Then this resulting feeling of being in control and self-directed feels like license to do whatever I want. Then I end up drifting towards familiar behaviors because I’m less vigilant.

Have you ever read “The Big Leap” by Gay Hendricks? There is a lot in there, but your above paragraph made me think of one of the takeaways that has made a big difference for me personally. Hendricks suggests that when we start to experience success of any type, we often reflexively engage in self-defeating behavior. It’s a subconscious psychological mechanism designed to keep us in our comfort zone of the level of success/achievement that we are used to. He nicknames it “the Upper Limit Problem” or ULP. Overcoming an ULP (and moving yourself beyond your existing psychologically-enforced “upper limit”) involves (1) recognizing that you may be experiencing an ULP, and (2) making a conscious effort to wrap your mind around the idea of *actually* transcending this fake upper limit and making your life (job, hobby, whatever) better than it was.

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Julia Kasdorf March 23, 2023 at 8:14 am

David, consider your inboxes constantly over flowing with ego-stroking comments because I, Julia, Earthling, love your posts. “Taking off shoes w/o untying them!” A rebellious indulgence I can appreciate!

So don’t delve around for the ESC because it’s already there and always will be.

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