My kids have probably heard me say this sentence hundreds of times: “I just need to check one more thing.”
I’m talking, of course, about the semi-compulsive (or, maybe if I’m being really honest, flat-out compulsive) urge to engage with information almost constantly. I just need to check one more thing, I frequently tell them when they need to me to do something for them.
Right. And then another. And another. And so on.
For me, it’s an urge that’s aided and abetted by my personality (I’m curious about the world and I like to learn) and my profession (I’m in the “knowledge work” business, which means it’s my job to know what’s going on out there). And it goes without saying that the advent of the smartphone—for me, for so many others—has only amplified all those tendencies.
Even before I began writing this blog, I capitulated to looking for just one more thing, which means I guess we should add procrastination to that list of contributing factors to my digital compulsivity.
The irony of all the searching we do online is that the search becomes an end in and of itself at times. It’s not that we really need any more information; it’s that our minds have grown so accustomed to the stimulation that comes from searching that, well, we just keep looking for stuff to engage with, never mind that we’re not really processing what we’re encountering very deeply.
Well, it turns out I’m not the only one grappling with this issue. Recently—during one of my many searches and sojourns online—I came across an article by Manoush Zomorodi in the Los Angeles Times titled “Hi, I’m a Digital Junkie, and I Suffer From Infomania.” I didn’t have to read past the headline to know what he was talking about. And as I skimmed, er, read the article, I related to him as a digital kindred spirit. Writes Zomorodi:
I was recently described, to my face, as a ‘modern digital junkie. This diagnosis was given to me, half in jest, by Dr. Dimitrios Tsivrikos, consumer psychologist at University College London, when I described my symptoms to him. After spending my workday tapping, swiping and emailing, I come home and—despite my exhaustion and twitching eyes—I want to consume more online. But I’m not even absorbing the articles, tweets and posts that I peruse. I’m just skipping from page to page, jumping from link to link. There’s another word for my problem. It’s infomania, defined by the Oxford dictionary as ‘the compulsive desire to check or accumulate news and information, typically via mobile phone or computer.’ And I’m far from alone.
So what to do about it?
Zomorodi and Tsivrikos offer several concrete thoughts on corralling a runaway desire to keep consuming online content.
First, get enough sleep. That might sound like a surprising place to start. But there’s growing evidence that fatigue plays a big role in our ability to say no to the temptation to our omnipresent online opportunities. Zomorodi quotes professor Gloria Mark at UC Irvine’s Department of Informatics, who notes, “If you’re really tired, you’re not really mentally prepared to do heavy-duty work. You tend to do lightweight activities like Facebook. It’s easy. It doesn’t involve a lot of mental effort. And, of course, you have a shorter attention duration, which translates into more switching between different computer screens and different activities because you just don’t have the mental resources to be able to focus and concentrate.”
Next, we need to be more intentional when it comes to reflecting on what we’re consuming and why. “We need to put a higher value on taking the time to synthesize, interpret and reflect on the information we take in every day,” Zomorodi says. “We also need to ask ourselves: What’s the point of this insatiable hunger for information? When it comes down to it, what do we really want to get out of it?”
As we begin to do those things, Zomorodi says, we can let go of unrealistic and unhealthy compulsions to always be in the know, even giving ourselves the freedom to pass on stuff everyone else is buzzing about. “We need to reset our own and society’s expectations. It has to be OK to say, ‘I didn’t see it/read it/watch it.’ Otherwise, you’ll have spent life catching up on Netflix, reading a backlog of top-ten lists, or looking at GIFs from co-workers.”
I like what Zomorodi has to say about interacting intentionally with online content instead of doing so compulsively or addictively. Obviously, that strategy is only as effective as our will to confront bad habits and work to change them—as anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight, shed debt, keep a New Year’s resolution or offload any other detrimental habit knows all too well.
That said, I think what he’s offered here is a solid starting point for beginning to reckon with our online habits if they’ve begun to take on a life of their own.