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3.1 From smartphones to Netflix: moving past plateaus in growth

Last updated: Aug 09, 2022
I’ve slowed reading a bit and started watching Netflix more. 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.

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Background summary

As a quick recap up to this point, I gave up my smartphone to regain my sense of focus. I tried to make do with a basic phone, only to realize that it caused communication stress for my family. So I returned to my smartphone but still avoided social media apps, GPS, 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 wanted 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. My reading pace slowed with the return of my smartphone, but I wasn’t 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 making sure it works at the basic level. You then add the pieces back one by one, testing the functionality with each 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

As I returned to my smartphone, I started reading less, probably half as much as before. I still averaged a book every two weeks. Though measuring pace by books alone was likely unreliable. Some books were long, others short. Some books were easy reads, others harder to get through. Some I abandoned partway through because they weren’t worth reading end to end. Even so, I felt myself slipping a bit. Here’s what I read:

  • 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 Transportation 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 or some books might just be duds. Another reason I’d been reading less was to write more. I wanted to write some posts related to books I’d read (for example, the wayfinding series), and if I immediately moved on to a new book after finishing the previous, I didn’t allow myself that time to write. So I intentionally slowed my reading pace a bit between books. Despite the worthwhile goal to read more, there was a risk in simply consuming content without taking the time to wrestle with and apply the ideas.

But I also realized what else I’d been doing: watching Netflix more and more. Gradually, I started getting 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 systems have balancing functions. After 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 on overtime pay. 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). The managers still expected similar amounts of work to get done, so the system found a way to accomplish this goal. In doing so, 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 declined. Why? What secondary forces emerged to balance 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’d find something else, such as YouTube. Block Youtube and maybe I’d end up going to local sporting events. Block local sporting events and maybe I’d 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 prompted me toward 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 had to pursue something else instead. Had the smartphone not been available, I would have merely selected another distraction tool.

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, 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 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 (watching Netflix) 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 seeing what pops up next. 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 of distraction.

Distraction as needed during downtime?

Why do we need distraction? My initial reaction was that we all need downtime and decompression. In those moments, my smartphone—the most convenient and available tool for the task—achieved this purpose.

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 cliché of the tired, middle-aged man who comes home from work, sits down on the couch, and watches TV until his brain becomes 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 healthy balance. The researchers say that too much downtime 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 do. The main conclusion of the study is that there’s a right balance between discretionary time and work for maximum happiness—too much discretionary time leads to dissatisfaction just as too little discretionary time does. Anyone who has watched children become increasingly bored as the summer progresses, wanting to return to school, understands this balance.

A range of 2-5 hours of discretionary time a day seems like a lot. 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 different discretionary activities than lying 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 classified as escapism. Do recreational activities that are escapist or discretionary rejuvenate you, or do they accomplish another function? Do escapist activities provide restoration?

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 that they take on a 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; as such, his life is full of constant individual decision-making. No manager tells him what to do. But sometimes he just wants to release that control and follow with the flow of whatever the TV guides him to watch.

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

Unlike Crawford, I work in a corporate job with many tasks and activities. Add to this the many honey-do’s and family errands, and my own time is pretty limited. I’m not in the business of deciding what to do all day, so it’s difficult 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 an addiction

One narrative commonly touted in this literary genre is technology’s addictiveness. The common narrative is that today’s technology, with its data-enriched algorithms and extreme targeting, exploits our psychological vulnerabilities as addictive as a drug. This notion is one Crawford returns 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 experts 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 to 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, for example, in response to stress (such as an increased workload). Drinking makes them feel better for a while, relieving stress/tension and appearing to solve 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 reverse the situation. (108-109)

“Symptomatic solutions” are 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. By releasing stress/tension (through buzz), the symptomatic solution appears to solve the problem. You’ve shifted the burden from addressing the real cause to dealing with the symptoms.

But because the real problem (the increased workload) remains 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 dealing 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 an AA coin he received upon achieving his first year of sobriety.

Celebrating a first year of sobriety in AA
AA coin my father received after achieving his first year of sobriety

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

I’m not sure how my father’s addiction cycle started. 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 a loner. 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 teaching jobs 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 (earning an ABD) and bought a tavern in Burlington instead. What was the point of completing a Ph.D. if there weren’t any teaching jobs anyway? He had no business sense, having studied literature rather than business, and the tavern ran 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 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 feared becoming an alcoholic. Given that my father and his father were both alcoholics, I thought I might be susceptible to alcohol genetically. But I never really understood how addiction cycles began.

How did my father break the cycle? He didn’t break it by confronting the actual reason for drinking in the first place. Instead, my mother took her children (us) to Kansas and threatened never to return unless he sobered up. He chose his children over the bottle. My mother, sister, and I returned and we tried to live as a family again. However, alcoholism emotionally disconnected my parents in ways that would never heal.

In his case, the threat of losing his children broke the addiction cycle. My mother’s constant story is that my father chose us instead of the bottle because he loved us so much. 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 instead of a real cause? In other words, while my workload builds (or whatever), I turn to scrolling Reddit to deal with the stress? I watch 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 social media dopamine hits (getting likes, receiving comments, getting new emails, etc.), the dopamine hits don’t compare to heroin, alcohol, gambling, or other vice addictions. But if there is a soft parallel, that Netflix acts as a symptomatic solution to 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? Like a neglected lawn that becomes more difficult 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 finally start that lawnmower, I can’t even push it through the tall grass.

Probing for the 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 a good tech company and make a six-figure salary working mostly business hours at a place that provides free breakfast and lunch. I get all the lattes, cappuccinos, and cortados I want—someone makes them for me. My children are high achievers. My wife is a rock star mom whose favorite activity is hiking. We’re homeowners in a pleasant suburban area 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 existential ennui and despair of someone who hasn’t been challenged enough? Or discontent from a meaningless tech career that fails to engage? Am I Nietzsche’s Last Man desperate to break free of society’s numbing commercialization? Do I suffer from learned helplessness as a result of living in a world sliding into chaos and oblivion?

One aspect of Johann Hari’s book, Stolen Focus, is that he moves past smartphones as the sole cause of 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 our distraction. He seems to be searching for something more, for that underlying cause beyond tech. Smartphones alone don’t explain it. I also think blaming smartphones for our distractedness might be blaming the symptomatic solution instead of the real cause. What, then, is 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 reading experience 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 thought process, 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, called “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 our brain hardwiring. Developing a singular and sustained focus on reading a long book requires us to undo the constantly shifting attention we have learned over millions of years of human evolution. This is a basic survival technique for alertness that allows us to avoid being taken by surprise. In this sense, I need not look for some underlying cause that I’m avoiding but rather focus on training myself to evolve (or reprogram the previous evolution) 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 technology to blame.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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