Six months ago, I found myself drowning in a flood of easy information. The internet—and all the lovely things on it, things like Wikipedia, Twitter, podcasts, the New Yorker, email, TED Talks, Facebook, Youtube, Buzzfeed occasionally, and yes, even the Harvard Business Review—provide unlimited sources of delight at the touch of a finger.
The delight, indeed, abounds. But it’s not always delightful. It comes with some suffering too. I was distracted when at work, distracted when with family and friends, constantly tired, irritable, and always swimming against a wash of ambient stress induced by my constant itch for digital information. My stress had an electronic feel to it, as if it was made up of the very bits and bytes on my screens. And I was exhausted.
This all came into a sharp focus when I realized, to my horror (but probably not to my surprise), that I had read just four books in all of 2014. That’s one book a quarter. A third of a book per month. I love reading books. Books are my passion and my livelihood. I work in the world of book publishing. I’m the founder of LibriVox, the largest library of free public domain audiobooks in the world; and I spend most of my time running Pressbooks, an online book production software company. I might have an unpublished novel in a drawer somewhere.
I love books. And yet, I wasn’t reading them. In fact, I couldn’t read them. I tried, but every time, by sentence three or four, I was either checking email or asleep.
I started to wonder: could training myself to read books again help me manage the digital information stress in the rest of my life? Could the cure for too much information be slower information? In the same way that snake venom can be used to produce curative antivenom, I wondered whether that old, slower form of information delivery—books—could act as a kind of antidote to the stress caused by the constant flow of new digital information. Whether my inability to sustain my focus—at work, home, and on reading books—could be cured by finding ways to once again sustain my focus…on a book.
Understanding Our Brains, Part 1: Dopamine, pleasure, and learning bad habits
Recent neuroscientific research is starting to help us understand why we behave as we do with our modern information systems. Humans brains, it turns out, are built to privilege new information over just about anything else (including, some studies suggest, food and sex). The promise of that new information, spurred by, say, pressing the refresh button in your email, or the ding of a Twitter DM alert, triggers the release of a neurotransmitter—dopamine—in the brain. Dopamine makes us more alert to the promise of potential pleasure, and our brains are wired to seek out things that generate dopamine.
There is a learning loop to this process—new information + dopamine = pleasure—that lays down neural pathways that “teach” your brain that there is a reward for pressing the email refresh button (even if that reward is nothing but another message from Dave from accounting).
This loop is reinforced every time you watch a second, third, or fifth, cat video on Facebook. And it’s a very hard loop to break. It’s almost—almost—as if hundreds of billions of dollars of engineering and product design have gone into building the perfect machine for keeping us distracted; the perfect system to tickle certain wiring in how our brains are set up.
Understanding Our Brains, Part 2: The energy costs of flitting around
While the addictive attraction of new information is one side of the problem, the other side is the cost of jumping from one thing to the next and back again.
The typical human brain is about 2% of the body’s weight, but it consumes in the range of 20% of the energy, according to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. What the brain is doing dictates how much or how little energy it consumes: when you are relaxing or staring out the window, your brain is “at rest,” and uses around 11 calories per hour. Focused reading for an hour will use up around 42 calories. But processing lots of new information takes around 65 calories per hour. And jumping from topic to topic is worse.
Every time you pop out of your work to read an email, it costs you not just time, but energy too. As Levitin says: “People who organize their time in a way that allows them to focus are not only going to get more done, but they’ll be less tired and less neurochemically depleted after doing it.”
So what do we do?
My workday is tied to fast digital information: a keyboard, a big glowing screen, an Internet connection, data in and data out, crises to handle, fires to extinguish. While I can make some changes to how I approach that workday, it’s almost impossible for me, for most of us, to escape the digital flows of information during working hours. For me it’s been more effective to start weaning myself from digital inputs during my life outside of work.
I’ve used “reading books again” as the focus of my efforts—to unplug from the flow of digital information, and reconnect with that slower kind of information, the kind I used to get so much pleasure from.
I’ve settled on three hard rules that achieve two things: they get me reading books again, and they give my brain a break from constant digital overload. Here are my three rules to read again:
1. I get home from work, I put away my laptop (and iPhone). This was probably the scariest change—there is an expectation that we are always on, always connected for work. But, for me, there are very few emails that arrive at 10:15 p.m. (or 8:15 p.m.) that need to be answered right away. There are crunch times when I need to work in the evenings, but in general having a clear, well-rested mind when I start my work in the morning is far more valuable than having an overtaxed, exhausted mind from too many emails the previous night.
2. After dinner during the week, I don’t watch Netflix or TV, or mess around on the Internet. This is probably the change that has had the biggest impact. That hour or two of post-dinner wind-down is, for me, the only real free block of time in my day. So, once kids are in bed, dishes cleaned, I no longer even ask the question; I just get out my book and start reading. Often in bed. Sometimes at an outrageously early hour. I thought this change would be most difficult, but it’s been the easiest. Making time to read again has been a real pleasure. (And I enjoy the TV I do watch more than ever.)
3. No glowing screens in the bedroom (Kindle is OK, though). This was my first move away from digital overload, and even if I cheat on the other rules occasionally, this is the one rule I never violate. Not having a connected iPhone or iPad by my bedside means I am no longer tempted to check email at 3:30 in the morning, or visit Twitter at 5 a.m. when I wake up too early. Instead, in those moments of insomnia or an early wake up, I reach for my book (and usually fall right back to sleep).
Following these three rules has made a huge impact on my life. I have more time—since I am no longer constantly chasing the next byte of information. Reading books again has given me more time to reflect, to think, and has increased both my focus and the creative mental space to solve work problems. My stress levels are much lower, and energy levels up.
Managing the flows of digital information in the workplace, and in our personal lives, is going to be an ongoing challenge for all of us in the years and decades to come. Digital information flows will get faster and more voluminous. The internet is just a couple of decades old, and we’ve only had smartphones for less than 10 years.
We are still learning how to live in this information ecosystem, and how to build the ecosystem for humans rather than for the information. We will get better at it—as humans, and as builders of technology. And in the mean time, reading books again will help.
Hugh McGuire is a literary technologist. He’s the founder of LibriVox and Pressbooks, and the co-editor of Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto. He can be found on Twitter at @hughmcguire.