Bing. Buzz. Flash. Glance. Unlock. Refresh. Lock. Set down. Start over.
Surprisingly, I’m not having a stroke. The above is my rough transcription of what happens when I finish streaming, set down my phone, and try to do some writing. Or rather – to bring this into a realm everyone can identify with – a rough transcription of what every human on the planet has experienced every single time they’ve ever tried to do anything productive for nearly a decade now.
(Speaking of productive, here’s how I’m doing in terms of fans…)
Unfortunately, trying to rise through the Yingke ranks pretty much requires allowing notifications to stay on – capitalizing on the success of a new video (i.e. streaming when there’s a flood of new potential fans already on my page) means needing to know when an unusual spike in comments or messages is happening. Turning off notifications would be like if the card-counting guys in “21” didn’t actually watch the dealer, but rather just glanced at the table once every 10 minutes or so. Pile on the standard suite of texts, emails, fb messages, tweets, snapchats, etc. and my phone starts to feel less like a miracle machine of the future and more like the anchor that’s dragging me down to my watery grave.
Suddenly those crazy social media *cleanses* don’t seem so insane.
Of course, going cold turkey isn’t really an option. My incessantly buzzing phone is the thing allowing me to stay connected with my friends and family back home. Being able to read and respond to messages in real time is the only way I was able to spend last week sitting on the beach 7,000 miles away from anyone I work for. And submitting myself to the increasingly unmanageable flood of messages and comments on Yingke is why I’m being given this platform to routinely talk your digital ears off.
It’s not just that I think that fighting the good fight against notifications and social media distractions is a lost cause; rather, I’m starting to think it’s not a good fight. That’s right – I’ve had a little column on a brand new website for seven weeks, and I’m already meandering off-topic to offer unqualified life advice. Now’s your chance to pull the ripcord.
Still here? All righty then.
Sometimes it seems to me that our big smart monkey brains are mostly good for tricking ourselves. For example, 8 am Taylor knows that alcohol is poison and that his body is terrible at dealing with hangovers; yet 10:47 pm Taylor is always convinced that another shot of tequila is a great plan. He’ll drink a bunch of water, eat some food, and go for a 5 am run that will banish whatever little fuzziness he’s feeling. Everything will be fine! Similarly, 3 am Taylor always gets really into the idea that 2-hour blocks of sleep are optimal for productivity and thus it would actually be irresponsible to not watch another episode of House of Cards.
My point is, we use the twisted remains of logic to convince ourselves that we can have the good without the bad. By mentally separating benefits and side effects, we stop allowing them to exist as simultaneous results of a single action. And while with something like drinking or staying up late, the link is so obvious that only our caveman brains deny it, we seem to exist in a much more cognitive dissonance-y state when it comes to our poor beleaguered phones. At the end of the day, all those buzzing notifications exist to tell us things we want to know via services we can’t imagine living without – the distractions are part of a package deal that makes us the luckiest living things in the history of this planet.
Last week – just to be utterly and contemptibly pretentious – I was in Nepal, which has to be at least top 10 in terms of places cited as ideals of “getting away” from the irritations of modernity. It’s got Himalayas, yaks, monks, temples, cool street markets everywhere, and the kind of poverty that looks exotic rather than depressing with the proper Snapchat filter. But you know what else it’s got? Low life expectancy. Limited access to safe drinking water. High illiteracy rates. Regular headlines about kids drowning in sewage drains because the roads are so awful.
But2: it also seemed to me to have the kind of vibrant energy of a place that’s quickly joining the 21st century. There’s cell phone stores advertising 4g coverage and sim cards on every block – and advertisements for modern schools and online classes every ten feet or so. The overwhelming chaotic flood of traffic throws up a level of dust and smog near the roads that makes Beijing seem tranquil by comparison, and yet I can’t imagine the Nepalese would prefer to give up all the cars and motorcycles in exchange for peace and quiet – similarly, I doubt an increasing number of buzzing phones has convinced anyone that wifi and social media have brought a plague upon their nation just yet.
To be clear, my point isn’t “the third world exists, therefore our first-world problems are irrelevant and in fact you should feel guilty for worrying about them.” It’s not “you don’t get to complain about being distracted by social media because you’re lucky enough to have access to social media.” My point is that when we upgrade our lives, we upgrade our problems as well. People in the developed world don’t generally have to worry about clean drinking water or civil wars (knock on wood) or figuring out how their child will learn to read. Instead, most of us feel like we’re being pulled in a million directions at once by things that are somehow simultaneously of critical importance and utter irrelevance. To borrow a phrase from Zits (that’s the witty cartoon strip, not the skin problem), it’s like being nibbled to death by ducks.
All the lifestyle/productivity blogs and books and YouTube channels tell us that we would be billionaire CEOs of massively disruptive tech startups with our second book on the way if we could just stop being distracted by social media (and start every day with butter-filled coffee). And I’m not judging – I’m an unapologetic consumer of everything Tim Ferriss puts out, after all – but for the purposes of live streaming, limiting my social media consumption or not checking my phone every few minutes aren’t viable options. And I don’t think feeling guilty about what a horrible millennial I am every time I experience a notification-fueled hit of dopamine is a great way to live my life.
But, I’m not disputing the distractive powers of a constantly buzzing phone. I understand that every time I open my email or Facebook or Yingke, whatever I’m doing loses momentum as my brain switches gears. Believe me, I’d love to get this column sent in on time for once. [Editor’s note: We’d all love that, Taylor.]
So do I have a point here? If I do, it’s probably buried in the marble and requires a more thoughtful sculptor than myself to carve it out. Mostly, I just hope I’m building towards a more interesting/less hackneyed conclusion than “balance and moderation in all things is the optimal approach.” What I think I’m clawing my way towards here is that minimizing the negative side effects of notifications and social media and such should probably start with a greater level of acceptance – or at least less outright hostility. That doesn’t mean don’t try to carve some distraction-free time out of your day. By all means we should attempt to maximize our productivity and try to find focus and calm in this crazy modern world and blah blah blah. But personally, I’m finding that the *focus* that comes from ordering myself to turn off my phone and attempting to meditate my way through the next thousand words or few chapters or whatever is, at best, a forced calm.
If there’s a thesis statement here, it’s this: rather than resenting our many modern distractions, I think we should try to take them as a pleasant reminder that we have so many interesting opportunities and pursuits to be distracted from and so many entertaining diversions to be distracted by. So – to end on what is just objectively terrible advice – check that Twitter notification, take a sip of your bulletproof coffee, breath, and get back to whatever ever-so-important thing you were doing. I’m gonna go reply to a few hundred comments asking why the foreigner is on Yingke.
[Editor’s note: the fact that you’re late again with this column means readers can probably ignore everything you just said, right?]