My Paleo Media Diet

Turning off, opting out, and disconnecting to save my brain for the things I really want to use it for.

I’ve been on a train to New York City for about 20 minutes and it just occurred to me that I haven’t checked Twitter today. In fact, I sat on a bench in the station for 30 minutes without even touching my phone. I watched people walk by, I daydreamed, thought about my plans for tomorrow, stared at the ceiling and generally just sort of zoned out. That would be no big deal except that later I realized I didn’t get that itchy urge to check my phone and do the circuit: email, Twitter, Yammer, G+, Email, Twitter, Yammer, G+ … my little socmed treadmill.

That’s huge! This is the first time I can remember sitting down somewhere in at least three years without immediately feeling the urge, or more like compulsion, to pull out my phone and twiddle with it. And this was at the train station, for 30 minutes! I feel like a smoker just realizing that I forgot to light up when I stepped outside for an afternoon break.

For too long I’ve been killing time on that treadmill, which would be fine if I had time that needed killing, but that’s rarely the case. Plus, once that circuit gets started it tends to keep on going well into time that really should be better used. After a while I began feeling like I was never really present anywhere. Whether I was riding the train, sitting at dinner, watching a movie, whatever … every few minutes I’d get that tug. “See if there’s a pellet. Give the bar a push.”

Maybe you’ll scoff at this, but I’m an addict. I have been for a long time, and I’m sick of it. I’m tired of having the attention span of a meth addict. I’m tired of reaching for my phone at every red light because the urge has been building inexorably since the last one. I’m irritated that my first impulse after any real world human experience is to tweet it. What the hell? Narcissist much?

I’m tired of walking down busy sidewalks full of interesting people and places with my head down staring at a rectangle. I want to be present, in the moment and the place. I want to experience mental flow by the river full and I want to be more productive. And above all, I want to nurture the relationships I have with people that I actually see and touch in all of their materialized-in-atoms glory.

If you have never experienced addiction, be happy. This post isn’t for you. But I’m addicted to those little bursts of pleasure that pile into my inbox, or are prefaced with an “@” in my stream. Each one a new affirmation. “You mean something to someone” they seem to say. Although they needn’t even say that to adequately stimulate. A Skinner Box really doesn’t take much. Hell, I’d probably reach for my phone if it actually dropped little pellets from a chute.

If you’ve read Clay Johnson’s thought provoking book “The Information Diet” you know that he describes his diet in terms of infoveganism. While I get what he means by that, I think it’s the wrong analogy, at least as it relates to my addiction. Going vegan is a moral choice. An approach to food designed to satisfy first and foremost the conscience. Which makes a lot of sense in the context of government and political ideology in which he uses it. But my problem isn’t one of extremism, or TMZ, or empty calorie media of any kind. Most of the pellets I chomp are just fine, probably even nutritious. It’s the fact that I immediately crave the next one so much that is driving me crazy.

So a few weeks ago I decided to take advantage of a mini-sabbatical and go paleolithic. I guess I’ll call it the Paleo Media Diet because for me it’s not about the content per se, but its medium of conveyance. The medium is the message, and the stimulant.

I’m not doing this to satisfy my conscience, I’m doing it to satisfy evolution. Or more specifically, my evolutionary state. If my ancient and maladaptive wiring, that evolved in a different time, can’t resist the lever and the pellet, then I figured I was going to have to get rid of the damned lever. So I did.

Now I own the world’s dumbest smart phone. I removed all of the “social” apps – Yammer, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, Path … all gone. I open up preferences and turn off “cellular data” for long stretches of each day. If there is a specific email I’m waiting for I’ll go through the multiple steps to turn it on and check, otherwise data stays turned off. I’ll get my mail when I’m at my computer, with intention. But I turn my computer off when I’m not actively using it too, and leave it off for most of each day. The first time I turn it on is at lunch. I don’t check anything electronic in the morning — that was the first thing I needed to stop. Compulsively checking messages before brushing my teeth is just ridiculous.

If I’m using my computer to write (like right now) I turn off the Wi-Fi. Sometimes I turn it off at the router to make it a little bit more difficult to “just check that one thing.” In fact, maybe I’ll make a T-shirt with this on it:

NoFi icon

Who knows, maybe it will become the symbol of a movement.

Oh, also, out of a sense of new media / old media fairness I’m leaving the TV off too unless there is a specific thing I planned to watch. No more flicking it on to just see what’s on. After all, for the first 30 years of my life we railed against the “tube” as a flood of stupid coming into our living rooms. There’s no point in letting it off the hook now just because there is a new even raw’er media that has a pellet bar attached to it.

To fill the time I’m getting back I’m meeting people for coffee, drinks, dinner, whatever. I’m spending time face to face with old friends and making new ones. I’m going to great lengths to try to make my social interactions more “around the campfire” and less mediated by a glowing rectangle. I’m reading, a lot.

The inspiration for this change was simple. First, I was getting nothing done. My productivity had been decimated by my inability to focus for more than a few minutes at a time and I desperately had to do something about it. So when I had the chance to take a break from work I knew I had to detox, and more importantly, change my habits permanently. This can’t be a temporary “cleanse.” This has to be me taking control of my interactions with media again, for the long run. These new habits have to be ingrained before I get back to work and back in front of my computer all day.

Second, I started a paleo-inspired dietary regimen in December in response to a different set of addictions: sugars and gluten. I started following the Perfect Health Diet because it seemed reasonable that during the bulk of our evolutionary past we ate very differently than we do today. As a result, the way we are eating now is poorly aligned with our biology and is probably killing us. We simply haven’t had enough time to adequately adapt to what we actually eat in the mere 10,000 or so years of agriculture. Especially as our recent style of agriculture is being warped by farm subsidies into producing huge quantities of cheap fructose.

With three months’ worth of results I think there is something to the theory. It was brutal to get off of sugar. It took two painful weeks of feeling like my head was made of wood, but then it passed and I’m eating and feeling better than ever. Energy is up, weight and body fat are down and blood work is trending in all of the right directions.

Once that basic idea — that in the timeline of human history and pre-history we simply haven’t had time to adapt to our new circumstances — took root in my brain it seemed natural to apply it to other domains besides food. I think “going paleo” is going to be the catch phrase of an emerging counter culture and it isn’t going to mean just diet. For me, at this point, it means a variety of lifestyle choices that recognize the limitations of my physical self to adapt to modern life. My approach now is going to be: “Where I can, adapt to my surroundings, where I can’t, adapt my surroundings to me.”

I know that we’ve always worried about the development of new media and what impact it might have on our culture. “The loss of oral culture will devastate us” etc. etc. I know I run the risk of getting lumped in with Nicholas Carr and all of the other Internet pessimists. But really, that’s not what I’m saying. I just believe that my brain is maladapted to the networked Skinner Box, so I want out. My brain is plastic, but not in a sufficiently adaptive way. In fact it’s probably adapting just fine, but in a fashion that creates a destructive feed forward loop.

I’m not trying to get all Walden Pond on you, and many of you will no doubt see this as nothing more than faddish crazy talk, but I’m going to work really hard to be both present and informed. I’ll keep taking advantage of networks to live a better and more productive life, just as soon as I get through the part of my transition that makes my head feel like wood, but they’re not going to keep taking advantage of me. And well, if a paleo media diet sounds stupid, do what works for you. We’re probably different. But I’m turning off, opting out, and disconnecting as much as I can to save my brain for more of the things I really want to use it for. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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  • jcburns

    You may want to rethink your iconography…it really conveys “baseball” more than no wifi to me.

  • gregorylent

    yogis, who know more about awareness than anybody, would say don’t worry about the externals, just pay attention to the self, and the right thing will come at the right time.

    in other words, WE are the filter we are beginning to look for.

    pay attention to the self, and not the stuff, in short.

  • thibaud

    Tolstoy’s children’s story poses and answers “Three Questions”:
    1. What is the best time to do each thing?
    2. Who are the most important people?
    3. What is the most important thing to do?

    Answers:
    1. The most important time is now. The present is the only time over which we have power.
    2. The most important person is the one you are with.
    3. The most important thing is to do good to the person you are with.

  • http://hablantia.com Peter Bennett

    Sounds good weaning yourself off social media. I’m here partly in work-denial mode having followed a link on Twitter…. I’ve already deleted my G+ and Facebook account as the signal to noise ratio was approaching SETI levels.

    Here’s a proposal – write info diet versions of major social media clients (Twitter, Facebook etc.) which put a price on your interaction. Perhaps 1cent per tweet displayed to you, 50cents per tweet made, one dollar per facebook update etc. You commit to give that money to charity each month so the app locks until you’ve tapped the button and paid.

    If you want to go on a diet, maybe there have to be some penalties :-)

    Peter

  • Bill Back

    This is something I’ve been considering for a while, but haven’t quite worked up to. I’m crazy busy and still find myself spending amazing amounts of time online not being productive. Good article.

  • Kazam

    Gray post Jim, I am going through similar phase and am looking into things that bring me to the present. I stopped bringing my laptop home from work and bought a kindle. I had jitters for a few weeks but it was amazing how much more energy I have and reading is making memore creative. I have been training martial arts for 5 years but added yoga recently and looking forward to learn meditation. A book I am reading in the topic is power of habit , hopefully sheds light on residing the brain. Good luck with your journey.

  • Wenchypoo

    A housewife’s view: when the internet first came out, and computers to use it were more affordable, it was dandy–I spent hours of every day on it. Then it seemed the whole net-o-sphere was shrinking down to a dumb, numb nothingness…definitely not worthy of hours-a-day use. Then came web 2.0, new content, and I still haven’t gone back to my old hours-a-day habit.

    One major thing that helps is having to share a computer with hubby. I have about 3 hours daily to do what I need to do on the web, and I don’t dare go over that for fear of reigniting my old habits.

    We never jumped on board the whole smartphone thing–just getting a regular cellphone that sends and receives calls only was a big enough leap into technology for us, and no, we don’t carry the damned thing everywhere we go. Phones are for TALKING to people, computers are for SENDING DATA. The older we get, the less we seem to want to do much of either.

    Social media? Please. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned TALKING TO ONE ANOTHER FACE-TO-FACE? Are we THAT afraid of each other’s presence that we need devices and programs that allow us to hurl unintelligible rocks from several countries away?

    I just have too much shit to do as a housewife. With ever-increasing food allergies for both me and hubby, plus the recent addition of 2 cats, each with their own health problems/food needs, this means I have to prepare EVERY SINGLE MEAL at home from scratch, plus all my other ancillary duties: continue to be Family CFO, continue to arrange for car maintenance, ongoing eventual retirement planning/portfolio management, household maintenance, animal maintenance, yard/garden care, Paleo food procurement from the least-costly sources, etc. etc. etc…everything but work an actual job–that’s hubby’s job.

    It just seems that in this day and age, not much of anybody has much to say (no matter how or where they say it) that I’m willing to make the time to hear. We ditched the TV, the satellite, and the Ma Bell phone, and replaced them with cheaper and/or less-used equipment. Remember the old AM/FM battery-powered radio? It’s that, the neighbors, a little e-mail, and the occasional Hulu as our primary sources of communication.

    I, for one, will NOT be going to my grave tweeting all the way!

  • Andrew

    I stopped reading when you said attention span of a meth addict. If you knew anything about meth you’d know that you end up extremely focused, not switching tasks every 30 seconds.

  • Jim Stogdill

    Hey Andrew, thanks. Good to know. Are they super focused when they are between doses too? Oh, and you might enjoy this: http://xkcd.com/386/ ;)

  • http://www.fuzzleonard.com Fuzz Leonard

    As in all things moderation is key. I follow fewer than 200 people on Twitter (gave up Facebook long ago) and they all enlighten me in ways that random strangers are not likely to do. I participate in international intellectual conversations that would not be possible otherwise. Like the Internet itself, social media is what you make of it–you can teach yourself quantum physics or you can has lolcats all day. Don’t hide from information, master it.

  • craig

    Thanks for blogging this. Its hot on g+. ;)

  • Donal

    Great post! Last year I took specific steps to reduce my infobesity: I decreased “noise” and improved quality of consumption. I haven’t got as far as time-boxing my digital interactions yet, but I’m taking baby steps…

  • http://www.mein-tagwerk.de Gerald

    I love that graphic! may be we have non wlan areas one day, like non smoking areas nowadays!

  • http://Http://theparentdujour.com Lisa Duggan

    I like that the no-WiFi triangle evokes a ball field – what better reminder to stop and smell the infield. But make it a minor league game, where everything is shrunk to human size. You can see the players – and they can see, and hear you (which inhibits the more evil heckling). Even the sky seems a little closer, and a little bluer. There’s always a place at these stadiums for the kids, you know how bored they get. The Cracker Jacks taste sweeter. Your spouse, too.

    Yes, I like this symbol and your Paleo Media diet. The world is beautiful and our time here is not guaranteed. Let’s not bury ourselves prematurely, with any excess.

  • http://hudsonvalleyeats.blogspot.com Sign me Christian Gehman

    Color screen addiction’s roots may be found in the rat experiment that demonstrates endless button pushing behavior (more and more frantic) when the expected reward does not appear.

  • Tim Dunnington

    I’ve been wondering how long it would be before a movement such as this started. I feel that it’s inevitable that facebook, twitter and the rest of the social media will become persona non grata just as quickly as they rose to popularity, and it will become a fad to reject all this media just as much as it’s a fad now to accept it.

    I’ve taken a huge step back from these media sources too, and I’ve found that I don’t miss them, and I have time to learn the guitar and read and play with the kids.

  • http://bradjcox.blogspot.com Brad Cox

    Really feel like a geezer now. But I never really got this social “media” thing, and probably never would have if I wasn’t forced to by my work (there’s a big “Big Data” and “Mobile Data” jihad on around DoD). Good to hear you’re getting off the hook and congratulations on the new job!

    I still keep hoping somebody would explain the appeal of signing up for an endless stream of twaddle. Just don’t get it.

  • http://twitter.com/MasterYourTools Master Your Tools

    Great article. Ironic, then, that I shared it via twitter.

  • hatsix

    Hey Jim, loved this article. Good Luck! I just started a low-gluten/sugar diet myself… about two weeks in and just getting over the moody portion.

    FWIW, I think you meant to say “destroy” instead of “decimate”. Decimate means to reduce by one tenth… so if you decimated your productivity, you’d be at 90%… The word sounds terrifying, but in reality, it’s only a big deal in it’s original context: Roman armies forcing a squad of 10 to kill one of it’s own members. (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decimation_(Roman_army) )

    You’ll find your usage in the dictionary, but only because so many people have started using it incorrectly that they need to make sure people know what is meant.

  • Graeme

    I would buy that T-shirt.

    I’ve been going on a media fast for a week. I added Hacker News back in, once per day, but otherwise avoid the usual suspects. Feels great.

  • http://nerdfiles.net/ Aharon Alexander

    I think the only problem here is that your workflows entail a lot of work (moving the mouse, clicking, “parsing” instead of reading, etc.), whereas the information you want shouldn’t be so gorram hard to get to. The more I pull information gathering practice into my commandline, the less I feel frenetic and anxious and compelled.

    All that clicking and ad space gets in the way of reader’s attention. I do one scrub through my media sources, post them to the things (Kippt, Twitter, etc).

    No mouse is ever involved. I can have ~10 articles scanned, excerpted, and posted in about 30-60 minutes.

    At the same time, I think it is important for one to take on the role of “information beacon” or “information lighthouse” in one’s community.

    I live in Houston, and I have met one developer who knew what “SASS” meant when I said it. I don’t hang at the Hacker Space. At the same time, I’ve been informed to avoid it.

    I’ve ditched my phone (for a Skype number — honestly, why not use my computer as my “desk phone”? I don’t want any calls after 5, anyway. And, quite honestly, with all of the woe-as-me and lack of GTD in most people, it’s not an inconvenience for me to miss some house party or a social gathering. I’d rather create appointments anyway, so at least I can keep track of them with my calendar). Hipsters think it’s throwbackcoolfad enough not to knock it completely; yuppies “respect” it. I tell everyone to go to my website (for my e-mail addy), since Facebook is ultimately my competition anyway. And I’d rather promote healthier cognitive systems by at least getting people off of that site (and, shamelessly, onto mine).

  • http://workerwrites.com/ Jodi Barnes

    Congratulations. Inspirational. I’m going to try it next week when my husband and I re-start our paleo diet. Thanks.

  • James O’Beirne

    Superb article. I’ve been enjoying the paleo diet as well, and recently came to a similar conclusion as what you present above; the time off of social media has been well worth it.

  • http://andrebartholomeufernandes.com/ André Bartholomeu Fernandes

    Thanks for some nice insights. I have been struggling and thinking about my new life dimension: plugged head into the web and living inside the matrix. As we build what technology wants, we certainly are loosing our physical selves.

  • Philip Irminger

    Very inspiring. I am a stay at home ‘personal assistant’ for my husband. The extra time caused me to have enough Facebook time to actually get bored of it and make plans to keep my mind focused on more productive things. I still check it daily, but I took the notifications down to a minimum, and I treat it like an e-mail box. No notifications means the window gets closed. Same thing with e-mail; check it once a day only and put it away. I believe I have gotten more done in my days as a result. — Elise

  • Carolee

    Jim, thanks for posting this. I tried a similar experiment a couple of years ago, with many of the same impressions you had. I still continue self-imposed limitations: no smartphone on my 40-minute train commute; no smart phone or headphones walking to the train in the morning–and I get to work feeling much more centered.

    I made a little booklet about my impressions during my experiment, and it’s a free download on my website (yeah, I know…but it was originally available as a limited edition, and I thought more people might like to read it).

    Superdilettante.com/human/PracticeBeingHuman.pdf

  • BK_man

    Drop Paleo, go to plant-strong engine2diet.com !

  • vickytnz

    For those that need a bit more help with the wifi, Freedom (ignore the URL address, it does work on PC too http://macfreedom.com/) actually blocks the web for set amounts of time, and there’s a related app Antisocial which just blocks the social sites.
    Still, if you want to really detox and are doing writing, I recommend going to a cafe with a pen and paper, no computer, no phone. I hadn’t done it for ages and couldn’t believe how more focussed I felt!

  • Doug Hill25

    Hi Jim,

    Really enjoyed this piece. I find it interesting when those of us embedded in the technological culture feel it’s necessary to apologize for questioning that culture (“I’m not trying to get all Walden Pond on you,” etc.). I realize why you feel those disclaimers are necessary — it doesn’t take much to be labeled a Luddite in some circles — but being able to step back and honestly evaluate the value of what we’re doing is something to be congratulated, I think. Well done.

    Doug Hill