A few days ago, I wrote on social media about some of the things I’ve been doing lately that seem to help me live a tiny bit better. By better, I mostly mean more peacefully or with less angst. As I shared there, the goal of these micro-practices isn’t happiness, per se. Honestly, it’s mostly survival and avoiding unchecked rage.
At my invitation, other people started sharing their own “one degree” changes: things that move the needle a tiny bit, but they move the needle. Folks told me that they’re doing things like turning off phone notifications, leaving their phones on a different floor at night, or, like me, responding to texts in batches instead of in real-time. I noticed right away how many of the shifts people were making boiled down to a core thing – turning down the f***ing noise.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately since coming to a long-overdue realization. Somewhere between the 18 Trello boards and the thousands of saved Instagram posts and hundreds of saved emails to myself with random thoughts, I started to understand that I am, what I am going to compassionately name myself, an idea hoarder.
This isn’t a new identity, by any means. I’ve shared before about how as a kid I would keep my mind occupied with everything from Anne of Green Gables to the Cap’n Crunch box to help manage my anxiety. But the constant and infinitely available flow of information provided by a tiny pocket computer wasn’t there when I was a kid. Thank goodness.
Now that it is, I find myself perpetually excited by new ideas and concepts I’m suddenly desperate to know more about. So I collect links and articles and posts to return to when I have the illusive Time, and, unsurprisingly, that rarely happens. For one, with a constant stream of new things to explore and understand, going backwards to retrieve the saved ones seems impossible. For two, my brain hurts.
And if my conversations with women tell me anything, it’s that a lot of our brains hurt. They are full of to-do lists and contingency plans and other people’s emotional needs, and then to zone out from all that we scroll on platforms that fill our heads with 26 more ideas about how we can optimize all of the above.
To put it simply – because simple is all that we can really register anymore – we are oversaturated.
It’s been much discussed that while Instagram used to be the app for curated pics of our friends and closest celebs, it now feels like walking into a crowded mall with brightly colored signs screaming about sales and a woman coming at you from a kiosk with a curling iron promising it will change your life.
My own feed is a version of that, but skewed toward self-help and inspiration. So for me those bright signs are screaming about new ways I should be thinking about my parenting, my trauma, my self-concept, and all of my relationships. They are selling me $150 boots, but they are absolutely asking for something of me.
And because of my little idea hoarding problem, I’m a core consumer. Even if I’m not shelling out my dollars on courses or new books (okay, I am on the books…), I’m exchanging an even more valuable resource of my own – my attention.
Attention economists (no, really) are professionals from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, economics, and cognitive science who make the case that the human mind only has so much capacity, and thus our attention is a scarce and precious commodity. Companies and brands are thus vying for this consumer resource in any way that they can, recognizing that without attention at minimum, they have no hope of selling.
And so we end up with thousands of grasps for our attention each day, in the form of social media posts sure, but also through emails, texts, books stacked up on our nightstand, calls from the teacher, and even waves hello from neighbors. We’re taking in millions of pieces of mental data in those messages and interactions, all asking our brain to give them attention.
But what happens when we have no attention left to give? What happens when we are officially oversaturated?
Scientifically speaking, our brains’ executive functioning and working memory start to go on the fritz, which means that we feel fatigued, forgetful, and anxious. We are less productive, less creative, and we burn out. Non-scientifically and more personally speaking, I get agitated and bitchy and start to consider moving to a remote village.
There’s a concept that’s been gaining more traction recently called the second brain. It’s essentially a recognition of the limited attention and storage space we have for all of the information overload of modern life and a suggestion that we develop systems and resources to supplement the brains we already have. There are apps and software systems and books that explain how to download information you don’t need immediately to places where it can stay until you have capacity to pick it back up.
When I first learned about the second brain idea, I was intrigued. It made sense to me and seemed like a solution to this attention economy issue. And, it sounded like a way that I could collect even more ideas. Like building a shed in the backyard so I could throw away even fewer of my trinkets!
It also sounded like another book I should read, another set of ideas I should incorporate. And that felt like too much. To be clear, I have not read the primary book and so I’m sure there are plenty of great ideas and nuances therein. I am throwing no shade on second brains.
But what I really want is a world that’s compatible with the brain I already have. I want one that doesn’t demand that I get an external hard drive for my thinking. I want one that acknowledges the limits of my time, energy, motivation, and attention.
I’m clear on the fact that the overarching culture has no intention of slowing down, at least anytime soon. And so that means that if I want an existence that’s not constantly oversaturated, I’m going to have to build that world for myself.
As I said before, I’ve been thinking about what a personal world that prioritizes less information actually looks like. I know for sure it would privilege depth over quantity. It’s one of the core reasons I’ve been posting less on social and trying to conserve my energy for writing pieces like the one your reading (p.s. if you like them, let other people know).
There are a few more aggressive ways to manage the information overload, I’m sure. I could delete all my apps, for example. But the reality of living in this century, having children involved in activities, and running a business means that going totally off the grid isn’t feasible or desirable for me. I want to be able to be connected but not completely drown in all the data.
Instead, I’m taking the more moderate path of being choiceful about my intake to move out of information over-saturation. Here are some of the things I’ve doing or considering:
- I’ve been subscribing to the newsletters or Substacks of my favorite creators and writers. This has let me have content I actually value delivered straight to me without relying on scrolling and distraction and cuts down on the time I spend on social itself.
- I’ve been letting myself not hold on to information that I don’t immediately need. For example, if the teacher explains at the info night the process for birthday treats, I’m letting those details fall away and trusting I can figure it out when the time comes.
- I’m trying to be more honest with myself about my capacity to read or take in more information rather than saving every essay or post that seems interesting.
- As mentioned above, I’ve been looking at text messages in batches instead of in real-time so that those little pings of information don’t linger before I can respond fully.
- Whereas I historically would have loved every detail of a situation, I’m asking others to tell me the minimum I need to know. My brain doesn’t need anything extraneous.
- I’m no longer scrolling right before sleep and trying to maximize the amount of sleep (aka, brain recovery) I get.
- I’m staying attuned to the traps of the attention economy and where my attention can get hijacked if I’m not careful. I’m noticing the click-bait headlines and trying to unfollow or unsubscribe from proliferators of them.
- My kids’ schools have apps where they update assignments and grades. I’ve decided that I’m not looking at any of that unless one of my kids asks me to or there’s an issue. There is no need to know how every kid is doing in 9 subjects in real-time.
- I’m working hard to practice single-tasking more often knowing that my brain and body are so much less effective in multi-tasking mode. I find myself not even realizing how much I’m trying to do simultaneously until I suddenly do, so this is a work in progress.
I’ll probably always be curious and even an idea hoarder to some degree, and I’m happy that this is part of who I am. But I am definitely not okay with being in a constant state of mental overload. It leaves me far too cranky and exhausted, at which point none of that information is actually being put to any use.
It also feels important in our modern world to protect that which is most precious to us. I talked in the last Sunday Letter about how our attention is the true currency of our love. If that’s the case, then I certainly don’t want to spend mine on do-nothing inspiration memes or the multi-step process for registering for the latest sports app.
I hope that we can squeeze out our oversaturated brains. I believe it’s only then that we can do something meaningful with what’s left.