The big trend lately is for people to be in business for themselves. According to upwork.com, more than 1 in 3 workers in America are earning a living from freelancing. For some it’s a result of the 2008 economic shock, others just don’t feel challenged at their workplace. In either case, chasing your ambitions requires better efficiency and more productivity. “Peak Performance” is a term that’s being used not only for athletes’ physical performance, but for people just trying to get ahead at their work place, and more so for those working on their entrepreneurial endeavors. With a lot of popular books like “The Four Hour Work Week” popping up, people are becoming more aware of the fact that doing a 9AM to 5PM job for 40 years is a shitty deal.
One new way to get ahead is by using cognitive enhancers, known as “Smart Drugs” or Nootropics. Nootropics are “are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory, creativity, or motivation, in healthy individuals.” For most people, Ritalin or Adderall would come to mind, but there are many new substances, all with different types of positive effects on concentration, willpower and creativity- which work very differently on the brain with little to no reported side effects (yet). Some with a bit of red tape around them and some that you can easily get without a prescription. Nootropics span from artificially synthesized substances like “Modafinil” (Benzhydrylsulphinylacetamide) to the naturally derived “Huperzine A” which comes from firmoss.
In the aggressively competitive world of silicone valley, Nootropics are seen not just as a pick me up, but sometimes as a necessity. Tim Ferris painted a good picture of the situation in his interview with CNN Money “Let’s just say you’re a 24 year old start up co founder, just got a seed round of funding from a big venture capitalist. Kind of bright eyed busy tailed, ‘holy shit I’m in silicon valley’ and you feel intense pressure to compete against the half a dozen other companies that are trying to do the same thing. Just like an olympic athlete who’s willing to do almost anything, even if it shortens their life by 5 years to get a gold medal, you’re gonna think about what pills and potions you can take because the difference between completely failing, losing all your money and going home with your tail between your legs, making a million dollars and making a billion dollars is right up here” (Points to his head)
Some silicone valley folk have gone as far as taking very small doses of Lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, to enhance their productivity and creativity at work. These “Microdoses” of acid are having very profound effects on the user’s output without any hallucinatory distractions.
Most of us aren’t at the level of seeking out illegal substances to amp up our game. For myself and a lot of people I know, it’s not so much of “Holy shit I need to write 20,000 lines of code by tomorrow morning or I’m fucked”, but something like “OK It was 45 minutes ago that I woke up and I’m still in bed looking at reddit. What the hell is wrong with me?” There are some days where I wonder if I’m hitting even average performance, much less peak performance.
It’s being suspected that some people’s inability to concentrate or lack of willpower is caused by the internet and the near constant stream of novel information they’re accessing all the time. In Gary Wilson’s TEDx Talk he explains that several studies about “Internet Addiction” and its detriments have been popping up since 2009. Gary says “So far, all brain research points in only one direction: Constant novelty at a click can cause addiction“. It wasn’t until after I saw Gary’s talk that I thought the way I use the internet could be harming my productivity.
Until recently, I was a recruitment consultant in Tokyo for 3 years. This was one of the most educational, exciting and competitive times of my life. I met all kinds of fantastic people, but this environment really makes you start to evaluate yourself as a person based on how much you can output in as little time as possible. I wanted be at the top of the scoreboard, and some days I was five times as productive as I ever was in college, but sometimes I couldn’t focus for more than 20 minutes. I was always looking for the magic pill or trick that could improve my performance, but I didn’t know that how often I checked my Facebook feed could be affecting my performance in a bigger way than just the time I lost by opening up the app.
Unsurprisingly, this addictive nature is actually designed into most apps. Nir Eyal explains in his book “Hooked” how websites, apps, platforms et cetera need to be designed in such a way that the product is addictive for the user or the company won’t have a competitive edge.
This technique to magnetize users to the content is called “The hook”. In this video book summary narrated by Nir Eyal, he explains that the hook is an “experience designed to connect the users problem to a company’s solution with enough frequency to form a habit“. The hook has 4 parts- a trigger, an action, a reward and an investment. All the hooks start with an external trigger like “Click here!” or “Swipe right!” or an internal trigger. The internal triggers are what is critical to the user of forming the habit of using the company’s service. “Internal triggers are things that tell us what to do next, but where the information is not contained in the trigger but instead formed through an association or a memory in the user’s brain. So what we do when we’re in a certain place, situation, around particular people, taking part in a routine and most frequently when we experience certain emotions dictate what we do next. The action that we turn to with little or no conscious thought. It turns out that the most frequent internal triggers are these emotions, but not just any emotions but they’re specifically negative emotions. So what we do when we’re feeling bored or lonesome or lost or fearful or uncertain or confused dictates the technology that we turn to next with little or no conscious thought.”
As I wrote out the previous paragraph, I experienced this first hand. I couldn’t quite think of how to phrase one sentence and I felt a slight sense of uneasiness as I struggled to think of what words to use. Right away I opened a new tab and typed in “reddit.com”. This all happened in under two seconds without deliberation.
Actions are influenced by triggers, but what constitutes an action? Behavioral scientist BJ Fogg describes an action as “the simplest behavior in anticipation of a reward,” which for me was a click on reddit, but it could also be a swipe on imgur or tinder, or even a scroll on Facebook or twitter. Pretty simple process then: A trigger [I feel bored] arises, so I take a simple action [open up reddit] in anticipation of a reward [a funny image or video].
When discussing human behavior, most of us have an inkling that the neurochemical dopamine influences our actions. This, for the most part is correct. However, dopamine is widely misunderstood as the neurochemical that makes you feel good because you did something. Actually, as Standford lecturer Robert Sapolsky explains in this excerpt, dopamine rises in anticipation of a reward rather than in response to the reward itself. Not only does it rise in anticipation of a reward, but it spikes when you are uncertain of whether or not you will get the reward. Dr. Sapolsky talks about an experiment in which they had monkeys pull a lever in anticipation of a reward. When the situation went from ‘You will get a reward after every 3 pulls’ to ‘maybe you’ll get a reward after a couple pulls’ you see a massive spike in dopamine. As he put it, “it’s one of the biggest rises in dopamine in the brain, short of cocaine.”
This is very important because it means that a company’s content doesn’t even have to be good to get you to keep coming back. It just has to be designed in a manner that keeps us anticipating and searching for rewards. For example, take a look at the feed on Facebook. Is that cute girl from high school posing with a Starbucks cup that interesting? How about the picture of someone’s lunch that comes next? Neither of those probably interest you, but the new tech article your best friend posted that comes afterward might be. The feed is taking advantage of that spike in dopamine that we experience due to the anticipation of a possible reward, so we keep scrolling and scrolling, excited at the possibility that something good will pop up.
“Addiction” is thrown around in contexts like “Oh gosh this is so addicting!” all the time. However, hearing someone say “I need to get treatment for my addiction” has a completely different nuance. Using it that way would suggest the “addiction” is affecting their lives and needs to be fixed. Why people turn to drugs despite the social and legal repercussions is complicated, but it can boil down to the fact that the users aren’t satisfied with their lives. It may even be that they’re not satisfied with the current year, the month or the moment that they are experiencing. People pursue success in business, fitness or relationships mainly because they are anticipating some reward – usually a good feeling that comes with achievement. “But why work towards these types of fulfillment for so long when you can invest a couple seconds snorting cocaine or taking some pill?” Surely a terrible mindset, but not completely different from getting the rewarding delicious flavor of a donut immediately, rather than chasing the great feeling of women complimenting your hard earned six pack? Or even swiping through a couple profiles on tinder to feel excited when you see a sexy girl versus investing a couple more minutes to read a chapter of that book that you like. When you look at it like this, the idea of not just substances, but behaviors being addicting is more plausible.
How are we to notice that the internet could be affecting us? I mean I’ve had high speed internet ever since I was in High School. David Foster Wallace told a joke at his commencement speech for Kenyon College class of 2005 that went like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ and the two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’ ” Gary Wilson also mentions the fish situation in his talk to show how hard it is to realize how the internet is affecting heavy users. He explained how the only symptom that did cause internet porn loving men to realize it was having an effect on them was Erectile Dysfunction. Young men are being diagnosed with and medicated for ADHD, Social Anxiety Disorder and depression due to symptoms like less interest in day to day activities, lowered ability to concentrate and eroded willpower. They are going to psychologists and psychiatrists to treat these symptoms, but don’t realize it could be alleviated by simply changing their behavior.
One study in China shows how Internet Addicts have impaired executive function control ability. Executive Functions are “a set of cognitive processes – including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, as well as reasoning, problem solving, and planning – that are necessary for the cognitive control of behavior: selecting and successfully monitoring behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals.” Having an impaired attention control, inhibitory control and ability to “select and successfully monitor behaviors that facilitate the attainment of chosen goals” would definitely explain my unfinished to do lists.
If you have enough willpower to right away stop continuously swiping, scrolling and clicking then great. But for myself and a lot of people, it’s not so simple to get out of the habit. The idea is not to immediately stop using all these platforms, but to pull yourself out of the ‘hook’ inherent in their design. There’s nothing wrong with taking a 10 minute break from work when you need to and doing something that you enjoy. When you’re unconsciously spending more time than you intend to, then there’s an issue.
Getting out of the hook
The good news is that understanding how your brain is being manipulated by this “hook” was the first step towards avoiding it. In his TEDMED talk, Judson Brewer describes a two part technique that several smokers have used to successfully kick their smoking habit. The idea is for the participants to just be mindful about smoking. That is – to be aware and really think about what the experience of smoking is like – feel the heat of the cigarette as you take a drag, to smell the smoke and taste the tabacco. One subject used the method and quickly realized smoking smells bad and tastes like shit. She started to become disenchanted with her behavior. The other part of the technique was to be mindful about what the craving felt like when it came up. They’d crave a cigarette and then notice their body was a little tense, heart rate maybe sped up a little bit, and some noticed they were fidgeting in their chair. By simply being mindful about these aspects, subjects were able to step out of the craving and realize what exactly it was and let it pass. Next time you feel the urge to check twitter, take a moment to think why you’re doing that. Maybe you’re a little bored or frustrated with the task at hand. Maybe you’re hungry so your concentration has waned. Then, think about the experience of twitter itself. Scrolling through that feed for more than 5 minutes, is it really engaging you in a fulfilling way? Are you really happy that you’re 10 minutes in and still spending your time scrolling through all those tweets hoping a good one will pop up? It will take a bit of time and practice, but you’ll quickly learn to catch yourself and reel yourself back in.
You could always Louis C.K.’s method if you’re getting impatient: