Scattered. No sense of focus. Persistent mind fog. The internet is winning. Another vacuous tweet I’ve barely given attention to before I’m onto the next. Just one more go on that pathetic block game or capital city memory game I’m playing. Forgettable videos I won’t recall watching in a week’s time. Thoughtless, idle scrolling and swiping as the screen time racks up. The relentless dull hum of activity and stimulation, but none of it remotely rewarding. I’m a modern day Erysichthon – the ancient king, who at having offended the gods, was cursed to a hunger that could not be satisfied, and by eating, his need to eat became greater.
He, in sleep, in imagination, dreams of feasts, closes his mouth on vacancy, grinds tooth on tooth, exercises his gluttony on insubstantial food, and, instead of a banquet, fruitlessly eats the empty air. But when indeed peace departs, a desperate desire to eat possesses his famished jaws and burning belly… All nourishment in him is a reason for nourishment, and always by eating he creates an empty void
The internet is hollow sustenance for the mind, the ‘empty air’, causing only more hunger, feeding only itself in a vicious cycle that leads to a listless and frustrating existence. My quality control with the internet has been at an all time low over the past few weeks. I know we all have times where we manage this better than others, but I thought it would be useful to share what a low point in virtual-discipline looks like to me. Allow me to outline the cycle at work when I get into these patches: what does a typical day in the losing fight against the internet look like?
It starts immediately.
I wake sluggishly. I’ve slept poorly. In the haze of morning tiredness I will typically roll over and grab my phone, scrolling listlessly, going through Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, back to Instagram, back to WhatsApp – skipping between them, forgetting what I wanted out of each, allowing my brain to become numb as the haze of dopamine seeps in. I hate starting the day looking at the screen, but it’s so easy to just pick up the phone. Too easy. From this point, I spend the rest of the day trying to claw back a sense of presence and focus that I will never truly be able to get back.
I login to work and, after years in the role, I have a pretty good degree of efficiency and productivity at work in what needs to get done. It’s not as if I do nothing – far from it – I’m busy, yet the mind never feels that sense of flow. It’s as if the morning scrolling has set in motion a splintered mindset. In fact, work often feels not only like a blockade to a quiet mind, but something that worsens the sense of listless distraction. I’ll furiously hop between work apps for hours – email, call, meeting, email, call, meeting – in the same way I do through social media, further entrenching shattered sense of focus.
And I’ll double down – during work, I’ll allow myself scroll and swipe in the breaks, or I’ll play podcasts in the background while working on a repetitive task. I’ll excuse this with the lie it is an aid to help ‘me focus on work’. On reflection, the reverse is true. I’m further training my attention to be fractured and split, and so my focus is becoming completely shot. I will flit around in this pattern most of the day, perhaps taking some time to read a book during lunch (this is a ‘good distraction’, something part of a project, another small effort to feel productive).
Exercise is my most powerful sticking plaster on the wound that is another lost day of presence and focus. Because if I went to the gym or ran in the day, it helps ameliorate the feeling of frustration and loss as it’s an hour where it’s impossible to scroll. But it’s not enough to outweigh the deep-seated yet nebulous internet-induced lack of focus.
There’s a menagerie of cold comforts alongside exercise – maybe I will have cleaned the flat, practiced my Spanish, or something monumental has happened in the news so it was only fair that I was distracted or listless today. Excuses abound. I’ll tell myself I’m probably far more productive than most people, my screen time still far less than most people, reassure myself by casting an eye over the growing pile of books I’ve read this year or that list of new albums I’ve listened to – ‘look how much you’ve done, it’s all ok’.
These cold comforts often mean I usually resist all efforts at genuine leisure, or gain little joy from them, as there is a sense that I have not earned them due to my listlessness throughout the day. I’ll refuse to watch the film my girlfriend asks me to, and if I do I’ll find myself idly double screening. I’ll find myself hiding away from responding to the texts of friends or forgetting to reply altogether. This death of joy and presence of mind will extend to any weekend plans that take away from my vague and nebulous hope of rescuing a sense of mind during that time.
So mentally exhausted by the days of distraction, of fractured focus and atomised attention, there is only one remedy: consume more of the same. I’ll return yet again to idly consume mindless content, scrolling and swiping – skipping from content to content, from vlog to tweet, from stories to reels – in order to dull the acute sense of anxiety.
I will read before sleep to try and once again settle the mind, it’s one last Hail-Mary-Cold-Comfort, as it were, at earning a sense of focus.
As the light goes off, and I begin to drift off, sleep may come but rest does not. A weird sense of loss and disappointment weighs on me heavily, and I sleep all too lightly. The bitterest pill is the last before I fall into sleep: the vague hope that ‘tomorrow will be different’, promising myself that from tomorrow I will find a peace of mind, from tomorrow I will be present in what I do.I sleep poorly because it is a restless, unearned sleep.
So in the morning, I wake sluggishly.
Rinse and repeat.
It’s this hope that compounds the growing sense of frustration as one circles down this spiral day after day. More than that – the hope fuels the downward motion, because the knowledge that each day is another straw in the growing haystack of your failure to find presence of mind means that each straw feels heavier under the awareness you put it there.
It’s difficult a cycle to break. As with Erysichthon, the distracted, splintered mind craves more distracted, splintered nourishment, yet it will never be satiated.
I have patches of the year where I hardly touch my phone or laptop, but as with anything, these cycles have much larger cycles they are a part of. And, I know that I’m far better than most in terms of screen time. I don’t even have TikTok.
The knowledge that the apps and algorithms are purposefully designed to create a powerful sense of unease, to create splintered anxiety ridden attention deficit disorder, that it’s literally me versus the most powerful minds in Silicon Valley, is yet more cold comfort. It always feels like a personal failure. I’m well aware I’m hardly the first to have this revelation (see: Bo). The apps are designed to make you feel less present, to splinter your mind, to detach a sense of accomplishment from being busy, so that you crave them, and return your attention to them more and more. A feast of empty air.