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From smartphones to Netflix: moving past plateaus in growth

Journey away from smartphones

by Tom Johnson on Jul 22, 2022 •
categories: technical-writing

In this post, I note that I've slowed reading a bit and started watching Netflix more. I turn to two system archetype theories to explain these dynamics. The archetypes 'Limits to Growth' and 'Shifting the Burden' from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline, a classic about learning organizations, provide insight into how to move past plateaus.

Background summary

If you’re just coming into this series, there are quite a few previous posts (see the left sidebar). But to establish a quick context, I gave up my smartphone to recapture my sense of focus. I tried to make do with a basic phone, only to realize that it was causing communication stress with my family. So I returned to my smartphone but still avoided the social media apps and continued to follow many of the digital detox rules I’d adopted.

During my time away from the smartphone, I started reading books again. I realized that reading long-form content was the primary goal I was after in giving up my smartphone in the first place. I wondered whether I would continue the same pace of reading now that I had a smartphone again. Well, my pace of reading did slow with the return of my smartphone, but I wasn’t exactly sure why.

In troubleshooting, there’s a technique commonly used to find a problem. You start by stripping down a system to its simplest form and make sure that it works at that most basic level. Then you begin adding the pieces back one by one, testing the functionality with each new addition to see which re-added piece breaks the system. When the system breaks, voila, you’ve identified the problematic piece.

So as I returned to smartphone use again, I started to add back in some other activities I’d subtracted, allowing myself to read the news or ESPN more freely. I occasionally browsed Reddit. I carried my phone in my pocket sometimes, and so on. But I was hesitant to re-introduce everything at once because, as I said, I wanted to identify that piece that might be the culprit behind attention fragmentation.

My initial reading pace has slowed

I said this past month I’ve been reading less, probably about half as much as my previous pace. I’ve still averaged about a book every two weeks, and not all books are the same. Some are long, others short. Some are easy reads, others harder to get through. Some I abandoned partway through for interest-related reasons. So it’s not a steady control to measure. Even so, I felt myself slipping a bit. Here’s what I’ve been reading since my last report:

  • A Profile of the Global Auto Industry: Innovation and Dynamics, by Mike Smitka and Peter Warrian (1/3 finished, paused)

  • Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road, by Matthew Crawford

  • Wayfinding: The Science and Mystery of How Humans Navigate the World, by M.R. O’Connor

  • Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster, by Paul Ingressia (audiobook)

  • The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, by James Kunstler (audiobook)

  • Mobility 2040: Exploring the Emerging Trends Radically Transforming Transporation Systems in the U.S., by Galo Bown

  • Building a Second Brain: A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential, by Tiago Forte (audio book, 1/3 finished, paused)

  • The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, by Matthew Crawford (audiobook, 1/3 finished)

  • The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of Learning Organization, by Peter Senge (1/2 finished, currently reading)

You can see that I have more half-finished books here, which could be a concerning trend indicating a slipping focus, or some books might just be duds. Another reason I’ve been reading less is to write more. I wanted to write some posts related to books I’d read (for example, the wayfinding series), and if I immediately move on to a new book after finishing the previous, I don’t allow myself that time to write. So I slowed my reading pace intentionally a bit between books. Despite the worthwhile goal to read more, there’s a risk in simply consuming content without taking the time to wrestle with and apply the ideas through my own writing.

But I also realized what else I’ve been doing: watching Netflix more and more. Gradually, I started allowing myself to get sucked into different TV shows. Stranger Things Season 4. The Old Man. Resident Evil. It’s easy to start a single episode innocently enough and then realize that, instead of looking at my smartphone, I’m just watching Netflix, especially at the bookends of my day.

System theories that explain limited growth

It turns out there are a couple of theories that explain my behavior. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, describing systems theory, says that systems have balancing functions. When you have some initial success, it’s often followed by a plateau and eventual decline due to a secondary force that emerges as a consequence of the actions taken to achieve the initial success. The system balances itself out. Senge says this pattern recurs so frequently he calls it the “Limits to Growth” system archetype. He defines this archetype as follows:

Archetype 1: Limits to Growth Definition. A reinforcing (amplifying) process is set in motion to produce a desired result. It creates a spiral of success but also creates inadvertent secondary effects (manifested in a balancing process) which eventually slow down the success. (94)

He gives the example of managers who cut staff to reduce expenses only to find that the company pays contractors more because the same amount of work is expected to get done, or the company spends more in overtime pay. The contractors and overtime pay are secondary effects that emerge to restore balance to the system, eliminating the initial savings gain. Senge says, “The system has its own agenda. There is an implicit goal, unspoken but very real–the amount of work that is expected to get done” (84). In other words, the managers still expected similar amounts of work to get done, so the system found a way to accomplish this goal. In so doing, it balanced itself out.

When I abandoned my smartphone, I experienced a growth in focus. I started reading more. My success was on an upward trajectory. But then I hit a plateau, and my reading rate started to decline. Why? What secondary forces emerged to balance out the system?

When I could no longer find distraction and entertainment through my smartphone, I turned to television, primarily Netflix. Block TV and no doubt I’ll find something else, such as Youtube. Block Youtube and maybe I end up going to local sporting events. Block local sporting events and maybe I start reading magazines from the corner store.

Senge says that you have to identify the underlying cause and find leverage against that cause. What is the underlying cause that is prompting me toward modes of distraction? Perhaps the smartphone was never the problem. The smartphone was an enabling mechanism I used as a tool for distraction. The smartphone provided an opportunity to shift out of whatever focus I should have been pursuing to do something else instead. Had the smartphone not been available, I would have merely selected another tool.

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Countering growth plateaus

Senge says to deal with growth stagnation, you don’t double down on the initial formula that brought you success. For example, in my case, I wouldn’t get rid of my smartphone again. Instead, Senge says you have to identify the limiting factor (the balancing force that emerged) and deal with the deeper cause. Senge explains:

But there is another way to deal with limits to growth situations. In each of them, leverage lies in the balancing loop–not the reinforcing loop. To change the behavior of the system, you must identify and change the limiting factor. This may require actions you may not yet have considered, choices you never noticed, or difficult changes in rewards and norms. (100)

The “reinforcing loop” refers to the initial measures you took that led to the early growth (ditching the smartphone). It’s perhaps a small activity that contributed to a virtuous cycle. The “limiting factor” is the secondary force that emerged (Netflix watching) to counter the early success and provide a balancing loop (back to distraction again).

Basically, if I keep taking away the enabling tools for distraction, it will become a matter of whack-a-mole in seeing what pops up as the next tool. To provide leverage against the system’s balancing forces, I have to tackle what’s fueling my distraction in the first place. With that, let me probe more deeply into the causes for which we become distracted.

Distraction as needed downtime?

Why do we need distraction? My initial reaction is that we all need downtime and decompression. In those moments, my smartphone — the most convenient and available tool for the task — achieved this purpose, but in its absence, any number of time-wasting mechanisms could have easily been used.

Is watching Netflix, or scrolling feeds on a smartphone, simply a manifestation of the need for downtime? Surely everyone needs downtime, and I’m not looking to become a workaholic, but I don’t want to morph into the cliche of the tired, middle-aged man who comes home from work, sits down on the couch, and watches the telly until his brain goes numb and he eventually falls asleep.

A certain amount of downtime is valuable, for sure. According to a study on the subject, “Having Too Little or Too Much Time Is Linked to Lower Subjective Well-Being,” about 3.5 hours a day devoted to doing those things you prefer to do provides a good balance. The researchers say that if you take too much downtime, it has adverse effects:

… people are happiest having between two and five hours of discretionary time, and that the slope is negative beyond that point. The results from our experimental studies similarly show that people with 7 hr of discretionary time experience less subjective well-being than people with 3.5 hr of discretionary time. (13)

“Discretionary time” is defined as “time as the number of hours a person spends in a day doing what they want” (2). Discretionary time doesn’t include every non-work activity, such as household chores, cooking, chauffeuring kids around, etc. Discretionary activities are those things you prefer to be doing. The main conclusion of the study is that there’s a right balance of discretionary time for maximum happiness — too much discretionary time leads to feelings of dissatisfaction just as too little discretionary time does. Anyone who has watched children become increasingly bored as the summer progresses, seeing them eventually long to return to school, understands this balance.

A range of 2-5 hours of discretionary time a day seems like a sizable chunk of time. But not all discretionary activities are the same. Discretionary activities can be further subdivided. Going for a run, playing basketball at a gym, walking alongside a river, and so on, are quite different discretionary activities than laying on your bed and binging Netflix, or laying on the couch while infinite-scrolling social media feeds on a smartphone. These latter discretionary activities fit more appropriately into time-wasting activities that could be classified as escapism. Do these escapist discretionary activities rejuvenate you, or do they allow some other function? Do escapist activities serve some valuable restorative functions?

In Matthew Crawford’s The World Outside Your Head, he describes the way gambling addicts become so numbed by slot machines and other automated actions such that they take on a kind of zen-like state where they abdicate control and just go with the flow of the machine. The gambler zeroes himself out in a mindless trance, having “moved beyond control to pure automaticity and experiences himself as part of the machine.”

Crawford says this “death instinct” parallels the one who sits down in front of Netflix and watches mindlessly until they drain themselves of conscious thought or action. Crawford writes:

….such desubjectivication [of the slot-machine gambler] does look quite a bit like death. This might seem exotically pathological, but I can detect something like a death instinct in myself, for example, in those times when I slump in front of the TV and watch whatever is served up. It becomes an occasion for self-disgust as soon as I rouse myself from the couch, and is no great source of pleasure when I am in the trance. So why do it? I think because the passivity of it is a release from the need for control.

As a writer and teacher, Crawford says he doesn’t have the structure of a regular job, so his life is full of constant decision-making and individual control. No manager tells him what to do, in other words. Sometimes he just wants to release that control and go with the flow of whatever the TV guides him to watch.

Perhaps like Crawford, my desire to watch Netflix is an expression of the desire to release control, to let someone else steer the ship for a while?

Well, unlike Crawford, I do work a corporate job with many tasks and activities required of me. Add to this the many honey-do’s and family errands, and my own time is pretty narrow. I’m not in the business of deciding what to do all day, so it’s hard to see watching Netflix as a desire to release control and desubjectivize myself into a death-like trance. Also, I like being in control, whether it’s driving, leading documentation projects, organizing the garage, or even simple tasks, like arranging the contents of a drawer.

Distraction as addiction

One narrative commonly touted in this literary genre is that of technology’s addictiveness. The frequent narrative is that today’s technology, with its data-enriched algorithms and extreme targeting, exploits our psychological vulnerabilities so much that it should be seen as addictive as a drug. This notion is one Crawford comes back to frequently when talking about attention in the age of technology. Crawford writes:

The media have become masters at packaging stimuli in ways that our brains find irresistible, just as food engineers have become expert in creating “hyperpalatable” foods by manipulating levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Distractibility might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity.

Let’s explore the addiction of distraction for a moment. Is Netflix essentially the equivalent of fast food, or potato chips? You might start out eating (watching) one or two (episodes) only to realize that you can’t stop because the chemical craving for the grease (action), salt (romance), and whatever else they add (humor) optimizes the appeal of the fries is beyond your control to resist (episode 8 already?).

With Senge’s system archetypes, addiction fits into the “Shifting the Burden” archetype, described as follows:

Archetype 2: Shifting the Burden Definition. An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “Shift the burden” of their problem to other solutions — well-intentioned, easy fixes which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem.” (103)

Senge says people start drinking in response to some stress (for example, increased workload). The drinking makes them feel better for a while, relieving the stress/tension and giving the appearance of having solved the problem. All the while, that original workload keeps building and becoming worse. The worse it gets, the more they drink. Then a physical addiction to the symptomatic solution sets in and makes it even worse because now they have two forces to contend with: the insurmountable workload and the physical addiction. Senge explains:

What makes the shifting the burden structure insidious is the subtle reinforcing cycle it fosters, increasing dependence on the symptomatic solution. Alcoholics eventually find themselves physically addicted. Their health deteriorates. As their self-confidence and judgment atrophy, they are less and less able to solve their original workload problem. … stress builds, which leads to more alcohol, which relieves stress, which leads to less perceived need to adjust workload, which leads to more workload, which leads to more stress. These are the general dynamics of addiction. In fact, almost all forms of addiction have shifting the burden structures underlying them. All involve opting for symptomatic solutions, the gradual atrophy of the ability to focus on fundamental solutions, and the increasing reliance on symptomatic solutions…. The longer the deterioration goes unnoticed, or the longer people wait to confront the fundamental causes, the more difficult it can be to reserve the situation. (108-109)

“Symptomatic solutions” are the solutions undertaken to address the symptoms of the cause, but not the cause itself. In this case, the symptom is increased tension/stress, and the symptomatic solution is to drink alcohol to reduce that tension/stress. The symptomatic solution releases the stress/tension (through the buzz) and thereby provides a mirage of fixing the problem. You’ve shifted the burden from addressing the real cause to addressing the symptom.

But because the real problem (the increased workload) goes unaddressed, the real issue continues to grow more severe (that workload continues to pile up) and only adds more fuel to the addiction cycle. Now the person constantly turns to alcohol as a means of trying to deal with the increased tension from the growing workload until the alcohol’s poison starts to weaken the person’s judgment and capability to handle the workload at all. In a weakened state (constant drunkenness), the person can only see one solution to alleviate the tension: more alcohol.

This scenario is particularly poignant for me because my dad was an alcoholic during my early childhood (before I can remember) and then became sober through Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Despite becoming sober, throughout his life he continued to attend regular AA meetings and celebrate each year of his sobriety. My dad passed away in 2018, and about the only thing I still keep of his is this AA coin he received upon achieving his first year of sobriety:

Celebrating a first year of sobriety in AA

He kept sober for the next 30+ years, but I’m guessing this first year (denoted by the Roman number “I”) had a special significance to him because he finally broke the addiction cycle.

I’m not sure how the addiction cycle started with my father. His father was an alcoholic who shifted from town to town, unable to hold a steady job for more than a couple of years. As a result of the constant relocations, my father was socially awkward and frequently alone. After high school and the Air Force, he pursued a Ph.D. in English literature at the University of Washington but had little prospects for any actual teaching job due to the market. Maybe alcohol relieved some of this tension, helping him build his social confidence and reduce the financial pressure of post-graduation career prospects? He told me he wanted to stay in school as long as possible to escape the world.

After finishing his Ph.D. coursework, he abandoned the dissertation and bought a tavern in Burlington instead. (What was the sense of completing the Ph.D. if there weren’t any teaching jobs anyway?) He had no business sense (having studied literature rather than business) and the tavern went out of business a few years later. He then transitioned into soulless government work, working as a “safety officer” at a state institution called Portal, and later working as an emissions safety inspector for the Department of Ecology. His marriage crumbled and my parents divorced when I was 10.

For most of my life, I have sort of feared becoming an alcoholic. Given that my father and his father were both alcoholics, I figured I might be susceptible to it genetically. (This fear is probably why, in my early teens, I ended up joining the Mormon church, which practices health codes to abstain from alcohol, and pursued more of a clean-cut, wholesome lifestyle for many years.) But I never really understood how addiction cycles began, nor how my dad managed to break that cycle. I hope that, at some point, he avoided shifting the burden to alcohol and somehow faced the real issue.

At any rate, let’s return to the question at hand, considering whether technology (in the form of smartphones, Netflix, or other time-wasting, algorithm-driven sites, like Reddit) fits into the addiction cycle. Do these escapist activities constitute symptomatic solutions that we address in place of the real cause? In other words, while my workload builds (or whatever), I turn to scrolling Reddit to deal with the stress? I see shocking, funny, weird, enthralling video clips and threads about everything and nothing until I forget that mounting workload stress and find, through distraction, some escape-based peace of mind? Maybe to some extent.

Fortunately, Netflix doesn’t deteriorate your health and form bonds of addiction in the same way as alcohol (TV just numbs your brain a bit). And for all the hype about the dopamine hits of social media (getting likes, receiving comments, getting new email, etc.), the dopamine hits don’t compare to the addiction of heroin, alcohol, gambling, or other vices. But if there is a soft parallel, that Netflix acts as a symptomatic solution for some larger, underlying cause that I’m avoiding, then surely my life would be better by addressing the cause rather than letting it fester and grow more severe, right? Like a neglected lawn that becomes harder to mow the longer you put off cutting it, perhaps these underlying causes continue to grow the more I neglect them, such that when I do finally start that lawnmower, I can’t even push it through the tall grass anymore.

Probing for underlying causes

What could that underlying cause fueling a predilection for distraction be? My workload isn’t insurmountable. I’m not facing bleak career prospects due to a saturated skillset. I actually work at Google and make a six-figure salary working mostly business hours at a place that provides free breakfast, free lunch, and all the lattes, cappuccinos, and cortados I want. My children are high-achievers. My wife is a rock star mom whose favorite activity is hiking. We’re homeowners in a nice suburban area not too far outside of Seattle. It’s not perfect (some kids have ADHD, my wife gets stressed out, I keep getting injured, etc.), but life is more or less good. So why would I seek out opportunities for distraction?

Is it some existential ennui and despair of someone who hasn’t been challenged enough in life? Or discontent from a meaningless career that fails to engage? Am I Nietzsche’s Last Man desperate to break free of society’s numbing commercialization? Am I dealing with learned helplessness from living in a world sliding into chaos and oblivion?

One aspect of Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus, is that he seems to move past smartphones as the cause for distraction. He doesn’t point the finger solely at tech; instead, there are lengthy chapters about ADHD, abuse, nutrition, pollution, and other causes that he says contribute to reasons for our distraction. He seems to be searching for something more, for that underlying cause beyond tech. Smartphones alone don’t seem to explain it. I too am starting to think that blaming smartphones for our distractedness might be blaming the symptomatic solution instead of the real cause. What, then, could be the underlying cause that nudges me toward distraction?

Distraction as biological wiring

It could simply be that, as Nicholas Carr says, we are biologically wired for distraction from a long evolutionary heritage. Carr says that the linear, immersive process of reading that emerged with the printing press revolution ran contrary to human attention:

To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to “lose oneself” in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. … What draws our attention most of all is any hint of a change in our surroundings.

…. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food. For most of history, the normal path of human thought was anything but linear. To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought, one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object. It required readers to place themselves at what T.S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, would call “the still point of the turning world.” They had to train their brains to ignore everything else going on around them, to resist the urge to let their focus skip from one sensory cue to another. (64-65)

Perhaps, then, there is no underlying cause that drives us to distraction other than the hard-wiring of our brains. To develop singular and sustained focus of reading a long book requires us to undo a constantly shifting attention learned over millions of years of human evolution, to undo a basic survival technique for alertness that allowed us to avert being taken by surprise. In this sense, I don’t need to look for some underlying cause that I’m avoiding but rather focus on training myself to evolve my way of thinking. This might suggest that productivity techniques and other self-help type approaches to increased focus might be more effective than looking for a technology to blame.

References

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. WW Norton & Company, 2011.

Crawford, Matthew B. The world beyond your head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Hari, Johann. Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again. Crown, 2022.

Johnson, Tom. Obituary for my dad - David Tait Johnson, 1935 - 2018. idratherbewriting.com. Dec 26, 2018.

Senge, Peter M. The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Crown Business, 2006.

Sharif, Marissa A., Cassie Mogilner, and Hal E. Hershfield. “Having too little or too much time is linked to lower subjective well-being.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2021).

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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