The Terrible Lure of the Next Thing

I’m on too many mailing lists. This happens every few months. I remember before I got an iPhone, circa 2007, I remember talking to a workmate about how whenever we had a situation where people are away from their computers and disagree about a piece of information, how you could just take your phone out and look it up, get the facts.

And wouldn’t that be marvelous!

And it’s come to pass, sort of, not that we don’t engage in wild conjecture even though Wikipedia is right there. But the other thing that happened is that there’s so much information available all the time that seeking it out has become a default activity.

For me, anyway. Some people spend all their free time playing Candy Crush or looking at their social network of choice. I don’t tend to do those things, not that I think it makes me a better person than those who do1.

But I have my own default activity, and that has become the consumption of information: in my case, information about writing and business. And this has two three problems:

  1. I end up in sales funnels for online courses and sometimes spend hundreds of dollars on them but don’t necessarily do the work to get my money’s worth back out
  2. Seeking the information eats up a lot of time
  3. And, related, it’s easy to feel like that time was productive, and not spend a similar amount of time producing instead of consuming.

I’ve been thinking about why information is so… addictive. And the phrase that came to mind was “the terrible lure of the next thing.

As humans we seem programmed for novelty: we don’t just want a given thing— information, a relationship, food—we want the next, new thing, and there’s probably some mechanistic evolutionary explanation for this but for once I don’t feel like exploring it. I just want to talk about the problem of novelty in a life where most of the best things come out of consistency.

It’s so much easier to seek out the next course or blog post instead of, say, re-reading the one you already have and taking notes and studying the notes and applying the lessons.

Sigh. Everything I just said sounds so boring, doesn’t it? I’m already reaching for my phone so I can check Twitter.

The terrible lure of the next thing keeps us from the boring work that we nonetheless need to do, not just to keep a roof over our heads but to fulfill whatever drive it is that makes us want to type out words and send them off into the world to link our brains up with other brains.

That magical act of telepathy. Isn’t that more important than the next morsel? And yet.

I don’t think the solution is to cut off all sources of input yet, although some days I’m headed in that direction2—and look, we know as storytellers we need an ongoing stream of input to keep our idea factories hot and humming—but somehow, somehow, we have to manage our own pursuit of novelty.

And it’s easy, especially if you were born in the 1980s like me, to reflexively think “Just say no!” because you saw those War On Drugs ads on every arcade game you ever played.

But, like, haven’t you picked up a smartphone before, bro? We have built a machine whose whole job is to demand our attention. We have filled it with supernormal stimuli3, and we can scoff at each other for being weak and enslaved by our little pocket gizmos, but the very same we, that is, humans, all of us, we built these machines to have this effect!

Why are we surprised that it worked?

Humans are good at this stuff, at understanding the little levers that make us run around in circles and then producing things that exploit the levers.

What we’re not particularly good at is using that knowledge to overcome our short-term desires.

Next time, I’ll share what I’m trying… and how well it’s working.

  1. Just between you and me, I’m pretty sure it does make me a better person. Don’t tell anyone.
  2. I call these “that’s it, I’m going to go live in the woods” days.
  3. Oh, there’s plenty more to say about this ten-dollar phrase

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D.J. Jacobson

Becoming a novelist, and documenting the journey.