Anyone else having problems with motivation? Inability to stick with a particular project for long enough? Compulsively checking your phone for updates, emails, new messages, social media notifications, and even new texts? A constant desire to purchase new things? Get a new job? Buy a new car? Travel to a different country because your day to day life seems sooo boring? Or, it’s just me?
It seems like regardless of what I do, my current task is always interrupted by this temptation to do something else. Something better. It’s like this new, and probably super-duper thing is right there, right around the corner waiting for me to grab it. But when I go there to get it, it’s not enough. It’s never enough. I immediately get bored, lose interest and I fall in love with this new shiny idea. But then another thing comes in and I move on to the next thing. Then on to the next thing. And then to the next one…
Or at least that was me in the past.
But this doesn’t immune me from the random thoughts that are constantly erupting and circling inside my head – the ones seeking novelty and new interesting things to click on. And I bet it’s not only me.
No matter how zen you are. And how much time you mediate a day. It’s simply impossible to ignore the bursting desires inside your head that crave novelty. Because as it turns out, the brain is built to ignore the old and focus on the new.
And as you probably can figure out on your own, the urging desire to constantly seek freshness, new experiences, new things to buy is turning your life into mayhem – you probably have problems focusing, compulsive spending and gambling habits, you get easily bored and things like social media checking, alcoholism, drug abuse are typical for you.
But why is that? Why aren’t we disciplined enough? Why social media feels so good? And what we can do to finally get our shit together and commit to certain task until it’s finally complete?
To explain this best, we first need to take a detour. To go back a few thousand years ago in the past.
The Origins of Novelty-Seeking Human Traits
It all started a long, long, time ago…
Imagine life on Earth 200,000 years ago for a moment. We were half man half monkeys – or as scientists named our ancestors, Homo Sapiens. We were a small crew of folks hanging around and trying to survive all the dangers the savanna had to offer. We didn’t have yet weapons, armor, pottery, nor we could call a takeaway. Life was hard. Or as Tupac would have said – or probably tattooed using black cobra ink on his stomach – if he was alive back then, “Thug Life!”
The scenery didn’t change much. We hang around the campfire and we were trying to communicate using gestures and screaming sounds. Not quite charming. Every now and then part of the gang – the most fierce ones – set on a journey. Or should we say on a mission? Their task was to find food and other stuff that would somehow make our small village a bit fancier.
Though the warriors did walk on familiar paths to avoid unexpected dangerous in most of the cases, they soon realize that the new places, the ones they haven’t yet explored, offered goodies. A different type of luxuries – new animal species that tasted better, new fruits and probably even better locations for setting up a camp and starting a family. So, people began to move across the world. But that wasn’t the only reason. There was a bigger threat – The Ice Age.
70,000 years ago Earth entered the coldest, driest, period of the Ice Age.1 It was time for packing. 60,000 years ago the first humans left Afrika to find a better place to live. But they weren’t all traveling together. Some of them headed towards Australia. Others were heading towards Central Asia.
The point I’m trying to make is the following: Ancient people traveled a lot. It was hard, tiresome, probably not quite fun, but one thing is certain – it was necessary.
This is pretty interesting stuff but why should we care, right?
Well, for two main reasons:
- That’s why we love traveling.
- This is also the reason we crave novelty.
Since the scenery was changing constantly, our brains evolved obsessed with novel stimuli. And while for our ancestor’s seeking novelty was a necessity, for the modern human man this human trait is a curse.
The Curse of The Novelty-Seeking Behavior – The Brain Craves Novelty
Besides prehistoric human migration, there’s another factor that keeps us desiring the potential gains from experiencing new things. When people think about new shiny objects, they immediately imagine the benefits coming along. In essence, new experiences are always coming along with rewarding feelings – opportunity to learn new things and possibility to be delightfully surprised.
That’s why, all human beings, even from infancy, tend to look away from things they’ve already seen and, instead, turn their gaze to things that are new and surprising. Why? Because our survival depends on it. By exploring the new and the unknown we learn. The more we learn our chances of handling different and more difficult tasks expands, thus our chances for survival increase.
In fact, a couple of scientists found – when showing slides to an audience – that only the completely new information stands out among a group of overly familiar objects or images.2
They gathered a group of people and they showed them images of common things – houses, trees, pets, cars. Occasionally, they projected novel images – things rarely seen before. What they found was that the brain was really active only when the new images were shown. The brain was getting a dopamine hit.
And dopamine, if you don’t already know, is the chemical people desire wholeheartedly. Digging deeper, the researchers found out that dopamine levels are higher when people search for new things. Or in other words, the moment you close the book and you prepare to enter the never-ending stream of pictures on your phone via Facebook you’re already receiving rewards in your brain.
Later, this chemical also gets released through the whole process of exploring the online world. That’s why we love comparing products, reading reviews, watching unboxing videos as much as we love getting the products in reality. Sometimes even the pre-buying phase – searching for the best tool for your money – feels better than actually purchasing that product. We simply LOVE fresh new info floating through our brains.
Once again, our brains are hardwired to seek novelty. Marketers and product creators are using this flaw in our system to sell us things we don’t really need.
Yep. That’s right. The most successful tech companies are messing with your head to boost their sales.
That’s why it’s so hard to close the social media tab, the YouTube list, and to turn off your Netflix subscription.
How Is This Craving for Novelty Affecting Our Daily Lives?
Novelty-seeking is the reason you can’t stick with one project/idea long enough. You can’t save enough money because you’re spending them all on fresh gear. You don’t have enough time because you’re mindlessly scrolling through feeds of pictures and videos. Novelty-seeking is also the reason you look for other sexual partners.
The problem isn’t only that is affecting our daily lives, but this is also problematic because our non-stop craving for new things is messing with – destroying- our long-term goals and missions. Or in other words, we don’t actually have long-term goals because our focus is centered around getting new things, now, at this very moment – new info, new clothes, new partners.
This urge is not allowing you to focus on a particular task. You quickly get bored and you no longer think about things that require efforts. You do the opposite – you only crave things that are new, easy and feel rewarding.
However, you won’t be surprised if I tell you that you can only achieve your dreams and reach your goals if you stay committed to a specific task for a long period of time. I mean, this is something widely spread across the world. “Persistent is key,” people say.
And people are right. Unfortunately, our desire for new things is sabotaging this.
Every time you seek for fresh info you get distracted. The abandonment of the current task stalls your progress and you never achieve anything, you simply accumulate likes.
How Can We Lower The Impact of Novelty-Seeking? What Can We Do About It?
The good all fashioned “be mindful about what you consume and how often you consume it” is rarely working as advice. It simply won’t cut it in our face-paced, highly connected world. Our craving for novelty is hardwired into our brains as described above.
We need to do something more!
Considering the countless threats coming along our desire for new things we need to do something drastic to prevent ourselves from becoming novelty-seeking zombies.
A lot, but it’s not going to be easy.
You see, we’re outnumbered. Tech is everywhere. And though tech is a good thing – it can literally save lives and stuff – in most cases, it comes with a lot of downsides.3 Especially if you’re trying to stay committed on a specific goal.
Television, radio, the Internet, even neighborhood stores, are designed to keep us engaged and coming back for more.
Take YouTube for example. Browsing this video-sharing platform can be endless. Smart AI is suggesting new content based on our previous experiences and videos autoplay. As soon as one video ends, the next begins. Probably they’ll soon disable the opportunity to stop the autoplay so they can make you stay a bit longer.
What can you do?
Well, the most logical solution is this: Quit. Stop using these time-wasters and focus on your thing. Go read a book. Write. Knit. Cook. Go out with friends. Talk to people. Simply do.
But it’s rarely that simple. Novelty always wins. The brain craves for this constant stream of new things and it’s really hard to fight your embedded desires.
So, there’s no way out of this constant flow of things to consume?
There is, yet again, it’s going to be hard and boundaries should be set in a way that is a win-win for both parties – your novelty-seeking behavior and your long-term goals.
For sure, you need to set some sort of a schedule to consume media – both online and offline. Yep, reading books is cool and all, but if you simply read without ever taking action you’re no different than the teenagers glued to their phones, watching Instagram stories, over and over again. Every now and then you need to take a break from your consumer way of living and turn ON your creative side.
The thing that worked for me is the following:
Before I was hungry for more likes, more clothes, more information in general. I was only consuming but I changed at some point. I transformed my desires to consume more things towards something creative and educational.
Instead of using social media for gossip and ego-boosting by sharing pictures of me eating stuff and wearing new clothes, I now use it to learn.
Online I follow only people who are trying to make some sort of progress in the world and I just access Twitter to see what they’re up to. Nothing more.
YouTube? The same thing. I’m subscribed to only a handful of channels that share stuff about our behavior, how we can learn faster, what successful people did in the past and what successful people do today.
What about those world-famous influencers that are sharing spicy stories about their personal lives or unboxing videos of new trendy gadgets?
I’ve blocked them all. After all, what’s the point of watching a video of someone spending money like crazy?
Still, I know that at some point I’ll drift away and search for something stupid online and that a complex AI will try to show me something I mentioned in a private conversation. But instead of falling for click-bait videos, I’m feeding my novelty-seeking behavior with something that will help me towards my goal or will simply help me learn something.
While modern tools are created to show us more ads and keep us in as long as possible, these mediums also offer a great way to learn and become a better person.
Yes, it’s hard. It requires mental energy, resistance, attention, and installing a couple of apps on your browser to block all the spam, but in essence, this is the best thing you can do to convert the destructive, novelty-seeking behavior into something productive. Something that can reinforce you and help you do something a bit more meaningful.
Another thing you can do is to change your working environment frequently.
If you’re living the laptop life or you’re simply one of those folks who are sitting behind a desk for more than 8 hours, is a good idea to change your environment every now and then. Go sit in the kitchen or take a standing desk so you can change the way you write/blog frequently.
Some Closing Thoughts
I know how unsatisfying these recommendations might sound.
“Quick social media? Like I haven’t tried, ” you might say.
But the solution to solve this problem shouldn’t be extraordinary. It’s quite simple, actually. You’re spending an awful amount of time consuming media that is not helping you because your brain craves for gossip and new things to buy? Well, fill that desire with stuff that can actually help you grow as a person.
In essence, the way to cure yourself from becoming novelty-seeking zombies is simple. Yes mentally hard. But simple. The question is, are you up for the challenge?