Brian Solis interlinks procrastination, distraction, and device-related addiction to show how they rob us of productivity and happiness.
- The biochemical forces that rewire your brain when exposed to social media
- The key thing you must do to reclaim your attention
- Why devices are often thieves of our own happines
Brian Solis is Principal Analyst and futurist at Altimeter, a Prophet Company, a keynote speaker and best-selling author. Brian studies disruptive technology and its impact on business and society. In his reports, articles and books, he humanizes technology and its impact on business and society to help executives gain new perspectives and insights. Brian’s research explores digital transformation, customer experience and culture 2.0 and “the future of” industries, trends and behavior.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
Brian, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Pete, it’s honestly my pleasure. I’m really looking forward to this.
Oh yes, well me too. I’m excited to dig into the wisdom of your book, Lifescale, but I understand that this is personal for you. Can you tell us the story of how distractions were impairing your life?
Oh yeah. Well, it’s my favorite subject, kind of fall on the sword and be vulnerable to everybody, but in all seriousness, it was not the book that I set out to write. In fact, I was trying to write another book on innovation and just couldn’t really get past the proposal stage. For the first time in my life I was stuck and couldn’t figure out why and had wondered if this is what writer’s block had felt like or if I was just stretched too thin.
But long story short, after a whole bunch of research and time of reflection and introspection, I’d gotten down to the bottom of the fact that I wasn’t able to get into the flow like I used to because I completely changed my life. At that point, when I started writing the proposal, it had been two years since the previous book had published. Before that, each subsequent book had been a little harder and harder to write.
This time was the first time I couldn’t get past the proposal stage. I had just basically succumbed to all of the digital distractions that define my life. In the time that I had written the last book, I had grown exponentially on platforms. I was using my phone more and more and more and it had an incredible effect on depth and creativity and flow and productivity in ways that I just didn’t realize until I had to go back and dive deep or try to.
That’s interesting, so you’re kind of a victim of your own success. You had so many fans, followers, et cetera, that there’s just more to respond to and more potential for beeps and buzzes and claims of your attention.
Yeah, absolutely. Not only that, but with that pressure of maintaining a presence and also trying to stay relevant and continue to build that audience because there’s always somebody or something new to follow or at least be entertained by.
The other side of it is the dark side of digital, which is what it does to your brains. It rewires it. It makes it operate it much faster. It makes it jump around from task to task to give you sort of the semblance of multitasking, but essentially all you’re really doing is task hopping. It sort of drives you to float at a much more superficial level rather than allowing you the freedom and space to dive deeper and be content there.
I could list out a million different things that it does to you, but it also affects you chemically.
You mentioned that it rewires your brain, these digital devices and these interactions. Can you share with me perhaps one of the most frightening bits of research or studies that points to this phenomenon?
Oh my goodness, well, there’s so many. Just going outside of the brain rewiring thing. For example, if you use social media quite a bit, whether it’s Facebook or Instagram, one of the things that tends to happen is that when you post something or based on the designs of those apps, they are designed to create micro doses of anxiety.
For example, if you open the app, there’s going to be a millisecond delay before you see how many new notifications you have. That’s meant to sort of create this sense of anticipation so that when you see that number, you feel like you’ve won. In that moment what it’s doing is unlocking a series of six different chemicals within your body.
Also the same types of chemicals swoosh about you when you do get a new like or when you do get a new follower or when people are connecting with you, so essentially getting these micro doses of the semblances of joy or happiness or validation or connection or desire. Your body learns to crave that, not unlike smoking or not unlike other types of drugs or alcohol that your body just starts to produce these chemicals in the absence of using those apps that sort of feed that addiction for you to come back.
That over time plays out in all kind of things. For example, I studied the effects of Instagram and Snapchat on a woman’s definition of beauty and also the effects on their self-esteem. I wish I could publish the results, but I will say this is that it’s not good. It leads to all kinds of things and not just loneliness, but depression.
Because if you think about it, there’s this sense of them trying to always keep up with what the internet’s standard of beauty is or whomever you follow and what that standard is. Even then it’s not necessarily always a real standard. They might be using FaceTune as a way of sort of making themselves slimmer or more attractive or younger.
This is also creating new types of plastic surgery products that are catering to what’s called dysmorphia or filter dysmorphia or in some cases, Snapchat dysmorphia because people want to look the way that they do in, let’s just say, their selfies self, their aspirational self.
Wow, that’s so fascinating. I guess I didn’t realize that the platforms deliberately put in a little bit of a gap before you saw the notifications. I just thought that that was dumb like, “Didn’t you know that’s what I wanted to see first? How come I have to wait for this?” It’s like, “No, it’s by design, Pete.” Now I know.
Yeah, Pete, it’s by design. It’s even worse, it’s called persuasive design. It’s actually taught at Stanford University. It goes further than that. Some of the techniques that they use are also for example, called variable intermittent rewards, which are designed to emulate the types of things that go into, for example, digital slot machines or even analog slot machines. It’s really meant to kind of cater that every time you use it, you feel like you are you.
I’ve called this sort of resulting circumstance accidental narcissism because everything that you do in these platforms essentially tells you that you’re the most important person in the world. If you don’t like what you see online, so for example, if you post something that really mattered to you, but you didn’t get enough likes or reactions to it, chances are you’re probably going to delete it because that’s not your best foot forward, at least in the way that you think about it.
Okay. Well, so there we go. There’s some formidable biochemical forces at work when it comes to these devices and social media accounts and generating some addictive stuff. Tell us, what have you found are the most powerful practices to get liberated from this and reclaim your power to focus?
This is a challenge that I face with this book as well is how do you sell a book to people who don’t necessarily realize that they’re distracted or suffering from any of this. In total honesty, as I mentioned earlier, I didn’t know I had a problem until I failed in a pretty significant life milestone. I would hate for anybody else to kind of have to get to that point. I want everybody to optimistically or proactively come to this conclusion on their own.
I share this with you because, for example, Google and Apple are putting what they’re calling digital wellness tools inside of your smartphones that sort of document how much time you spend on your phone every day or your tablet, where you’re spending all of your time.
I’ve noticed in many cases in my – it’s called digital anthropology – in my work that people don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. They see it almost as a badge.
Somebody I talked to while I was at South by Southwest recently told me, “My gosh, these digital wellness tools are killing me. It told me yesterday that I spent over five hours, over five hours. Can you believe that?” And not once in the conversation did they say, “I need to change,” or that there’s a problem or-
Just like, “How about that?”
Yeah, pretty much. To get to the answer of your question, there has to be a much more mindful approach to how we use technology. I’m not asking anybody to disregard it. I need it in my work and in my world. But we have to take a much more mindful approach to how we use it. In a sense, it’s taking control of us and we have to take control of it.
Even getting there, it’s even in the smallest of things. It’s starting to build the muscle memory and the expertise and the rigor to be able to just focus on one thing, whether it’s mono-tasking or whether it’s some type of exercise or whether you’re practicing meditation.
Whatever it is, just focus on one thing for at least – studies show at least 25 minutes to build that discipline so that you aren’t getting pulled in a million different directions because if you are getting pulled in a million different directions all the time, you’re never building the skillset necessary to be more creative.
Creativity is what the world needs now in a time where everybody’s using filters or augmented reality, where artificial intelligence and machine learning is starting to take and automate everybody’s jobs. This is the time for creativity because creativity is the source of innovation and that’s what we’re trying to get to.
Okay, so you’re saying it’s just sort of like building a muscle. You’ve got to go ahead and challenge yourself to focus on one thing, be it mediation on a given task for at least 25 minutes in order to get some gains bro.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Then I’m also curious when it comes to taking breaks, like if you want to have more rejuvenation and restoration to have more creativity, I’m guessing you wouldn’t recommend, “Hey, check out what’s on Facebook,” as a refresher. What would you recommend instead?
I’ll tell you this. One of the stats that blew me away was every time you reach for your phone – and look, the first couple of times I tried using what was called the Pomodoro Technique, which is a little tomato kitchen timer, a little analog thing, but they make digital versions. The first time I tried to focus for 25 minutes, I was reaching for my phone without a notification. That was the muscle memory I was working against.
Stats show that when you allow yourself to break free in a moment like that, it takes about 23 minutes or so to get back to work. Your body has to just sort of shift its gears because what’s happening is when you’re shifting tasks, you’re actually – there are nutrients in your brain that you’re using up and you’re having to sort of refocus it into a certain area where you were before and that takes time. That also depletes those nutrients over time. They say you’re freshest in the day.
But ultimately, one of the things that I learned here and I hope this answers your question, Pete, is you have to want to get your task done and not only get it done, but get it done in the uniqueness of you so that it stands out in a world where everybody is really starting to look the same. As amazing as everybody’s life looks online, it’s pretty much all the same.
You have to express yourself in the truest sense of you. You can’t do that if you don’t know who you are outside of what you’re trying to project and also if you don’t know what you’re capable of.
I dig it. Well, Brian, tell me, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?
Yeah. One of things that I found was that we tend to procrastinate more because it’s really so hard to shift and focus. It’s actually easier to give yourself to distractions and notifications and also because we’re chemically drawn to it. In a sense, we’re addicted without understanding that we’re addicted. We were sort of subjected to those designs that got us there. It wasn’t really our choice to get there.
But what happens over time is that procrastination becomes sort of this subconscious attempt to avoid those unpleasant emotions or those unfamiliar disciplines that we sort of lost or gave up in exchange for our devices.
There was this quote that I had stumbled on from Muhammad Ali that said he hated every minute of training, but he told himself not to quit. The suffering that he was going through now, he was going to be able to live the rest of his life as a champion. That got me to think about whether it’s my work or your work or whatever it is that we’re trying to do, individuality really is a competitive advantage.
Also, creativity is, honestly, a scientifically-proven key to happiness. If you can’t visualize what it is that you want to achieve and why, then you can’t appreciate it and you can’t learn and you can’t build upon it to celebrate it. Essentially, that means that the devices and our relationship to them become sort of thieves of our own happiness.
That’s what I want to leave everybody with is that really what we’re talking about is not just taking control of technology, but actually living a happier, more creative life that we get to say what we use technology for and how and why and what we get express that’s uniquely us and then and only then can we live our truly best life.
Well said. Thank you. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
I think it was that Muhammad Ali quote, but I think I have another one too. It was this quote from one of the designers, who shall be unnamed, who was basically whistleblowing on the whole industry about the techniques they use to define some of our favorite apps and it was that “We were given the power of the gods without their wisdom.”
That is nice. Thank you. How about a favorite tool, something that helps you be awesome at your job?
I started with this Pomodoro Technique to build that discipline down to 25 minutes, but I also found the equivalent in vinyl, listening to vinyl again. One side of a record is roughly about 25 minutes.
The process of focusing for 25 minutes is fantastic, but also the physical routines that you go through to pull that vinyl out of its sleeve and kind of enjoy the senses of the smell and the feel and putting that needle slowly down on the disk and hearing the crackling a bit. It’s also very cathartic and therapeutic. You build this muscle set, but you also calm your mind into this way of being able to jump into a much deeper way of work much faster.
That’s cool. I haven’t heard that as a tool before. Vinyl, awesome. How about a favorite habit?
A new favorite habit that was an old favorite habit has been the arts. I grew up playing guitar and sort of shelved it in favor of chasing a paycheck. What I had slowly lost in my life was that sense of artistry that really unlocks parts of your brain that you can’t really get to without it.
I’ve started playing around with all kinds of different things like I’m not even an illustrator or an artist in any way shape or form, but I try to pretend like I am one. I’ll draw. Sometimes I’ll throw the pen in my left hand and try to write sentences and just kind of activate much more artistic behaviors to keep that brain firing in new and unique ways.
Brian, this has been such a treat. I wish you much luck with the book, and your speaking, and your work, and all the fun you’re up to.
Well, Pete, I appreciate it. I’m on a mission. Like you said at the beginning, this is my eighth book, but my first personal book. I’m hoping to just bring anyone who is willing along on the journey with me.
Cool. Thank you.