Two men stare at a technological art exhibit with many screens

By now it's well understood that modern technology is designed to capture as much of our time and attention as possible. What's less well understood is the mechanism by which that happens and what can be done to prevent it. (Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash)

Power is a theme that occurs often in legend, folklore, and fantasy. The worst fate that can befall a hero is for someone or something to gain power over them. This can happen in many ways: for example, through a curse, a talisman, or revealing their true name (the name that “perfectly describes something’s essential nature”). While the idea sounds fanciful, as with most legends, it contains some truth and wisdom. And, as I’m beginning to understand, there are other ways in which we commonly give things and people power over us.

Every time we turn our attention to something, we give that something some power over us. This is as true of small activities like reading a book or going for a walk as it is of big enterprises like going on a long trip, or starting a company or a new project. If there is a human in the loop, as when we start a conversation with another person—or, to use a particularly modern example, engage with an app operated by a tech company—we give that person or that company power over us as well.

The most obvious way in which this is true is the straightforward commitment of time and attention. Time and attention are our scarcest resources, and there’s no way to manufacture more of them. This much is self-evident, but what’s less obvious is that the time and attention consumed by a task is often more than we intended. We’re not capable of starting and stopping things instantly. There’s always some overhead, some cost associated with switching activities or preparing for a task. And then there’s the opportunity cost, the fact that that time and attention could have been spent on something (or someone) else, which we often choose to ignore. This is the first example of how the things we do have power over us.

But costs aren’t only measured in time. There’s also the psychic cost of a task. Different sorts of task have a very different associated psychic cost. For something simple and straightforward, something we’re used to doing, the cost may be quite small (but it’s never zero). If a task is complex, unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or dangerous, the cost may be quite high, doubly so if it causes stress such as cognitive dissonance. Reading an academic paper with a lot of complex math totally drains my psychic energy, for example, because I’m not very good at math.

Tasks that require preparation exert more of a cost than those that don’t. Even tasks that don’t require preparation can begin exerting a psychic cost on us long before they actually happen, in the form of anxiety, worry, doubt, or fear. And some tasks continue to consume our mental energy long after we finish them. This may be true of a pleasurable experience like reading a good book or an engaging article, or having a deep conversation, which we may turn over in our head for hours or even days. It can also be true of a traumatic experience. This is another example of how the things we do have power over us.

Imagine that you start each day with a certain budget of “psychic energy points.” On a day when you’re feeling relaxed, well rested, healthy and generally not under a lot of stress, the budget may be higher. On a day when you’re unwell, exhausted, or feeling stressed, it will be lower. Different people start each day with different budgets depending on their overall level of stress, ability to handle stress, and mental fortitude more generally. Every task and every stressful activity that you undertake depletes some of these points. As described above, there is a cost associated with switching tasks, and some tasks start to deplete the budget long before you begin working on them or continue to do so long after you finish. When you run low on points you’ll begin to feel mentally exhausted and you’ll need time to recharge, something you might accomplish by sleeping, spending time in nature, exercising, meditating, etc.

They say that you are what you eat. They say that you become like your friends. If these things are true, it’s certainly also true that, over time, the things we spend our time doing shape who we are. They shape how we think, and how we see the world. Soldiers who return from war continue to see threats and enemies lurking around every corner, even in civilian life. Software developers who spend all of their time interfacing with machines sometimes lose the ability to interact with other people. A cardiologist who spends all of her time studying the heart inevitably begins to see the human body as a machine that exists to serve and protect the heart. This is the third and most powerful way that the things we do have power over us: they have the power to shape us.

Here’s another metaphor that I find helpful: your mind is like a home. You make every effort to keep your home neat and clean so that you may reside comfortably in it, and you keep things (thoughts, memories, ideas, etc.) in their place so that you can find them when you need them. Every time you engage in some activity, you invite that activity into your home for a time. While the guest is present, you have a duty of hospitality towards them: you must show the guest generosity and courtesy, and make sure they’re safe and comfortable. Some guests will be well behaved: they’ll be neat, and they’ll leave when it’s time for them to go. Others will be less well behaved: they might get rowdy, overstay their welcome, or leave a mess behind.

The best guests bring gifts, stories, and good cheer, and leave a home feeling warmer and more comfortable than before. After an ill-behaved guest has left, we have to clean house, which can take some time. We must be exceptionally careful about whom we invite into our homes. To invite a guest into your home is to give them some power over you. To engage in an activity is to give it some power over the state of your mind.

Understanding the power that tasks and activities have over us, and the patterns of how psychic energy is depleted and recharged, has had a big impact on how I spend my time. I used to naively think that being productive meant filling every moment of every day with wholesome, valuable activities, e.g., listening to podcasts or audiobooks while on the go, exercising, or in the shower. I used to think that it meant rarely if ever doing things like playing video games, watching television, spending unstructured time with a friend or family member, or just leaving an empty hour on the calendar.

I now see how wrong I was. First of all, by trying to fill every moment with productive activities, I wasn’t giving myself enough time to recharge. This approach totally neglects the collateral costs described above: the costs of task switching, preparation, and the “hangover” cost that lingers after finishing a task. Secondly, it measures input, not output. Counting the number of hours I spend consuming “productive” content or engaging in other “productive” activities is a vanity metric. It would be better to measure quality of output—and sometimes doing less results in better output. Finally, it ignores intangibles like frame of mind. What good is being perfectly productive if we lose our minds in the process, or aren’t enjoying ourselves?

These days I’m much more comfortable spending time in silence, reflection, and meditation. I don’t rush to open a podcast the moment I walk out the door, often choosing instead to walk in silence and appreciate what’s going on around me, or just turn things over in my mind. I don’t immediately pull out my phone when I’m on the train or in line somewhere. I check the news less often, and engage more deeply when I do. I’ve turned off all notifications on my devices, which allows me to be much more intentional about what I engage with, when, and how. I spend a lot less time on social media, knowing the psychic toll it takes. All of this has made me happier and more productive.

The next time you consider starting something, whether a task, a new project, a trip, or something as simple as picking up your phone, consider carefully what power you’re giving it over you and whether that’s a trade you’re willing to make.