Counter-Programming: the 9 principles that retrained my internet-addicted brain

Are your digital habits compromising your happiness, motivation, creativity? This is a comprehensive guide from a former tech junkie on how I reprogrammed my brain. 

Who this guide is for: Heavy tech users who worry that their digital habits might be interfering with their happiness, productivity, creativity and motivation.

What’s in it: A few years of intense self-experimentation condensed to nine principles.

Grab a free PDF of this post. It’s one of my post popular of all time and is currently the third highest-ranked post ever on Reddit’s r/getdisciplined forum. The PDF is the latest, most up-to-date version.

Introduction

Maybe you’ve had the experience recently of sitting down and trying to read a book, and finding your mind start to… wander. Maybe you’re having trouble focusing at work or school, sitting through movies, or even TV shows. There’s a little itch there. “This is cool, I guess… but what’s happening on the internet?”

Or maybe you’re just more anxious these days. Depressed. Cynical. In a “The World Is Shit” rut. You’re thinking about all those IDIOTS out there who are ruining the planet for the rest of us. The Nazi/Fascist/Islamist/Patriarchy/Feminist/WhitePrivilege complex.

Here’s what’s going on: years of heavy internet use have (literally) reprogrammed your brain.

Your smartphone, your laptop your social media accounts, your streaming sites, your inbox and your favorite blogs are all working together to hijack your brain’s natural reward system. On a daily basis, you hit the brain with a barrage of chronic overstimulation that it simply isn’t adapted for. This is why it’s harder than ever to focus, to chill out, to make it through a meeting or dinner or bathroom break without stealing a glance at your phone. Your brain craves moremoreMORE.

The reprogramming of your reward system is hampering your motivation and creativity. It’s stressing you out and hurting your social life. It’s decreasing your academic or career performance. It’s turning you into a smartphone-addicted zombie. And it’s convincing you that the online virtual reality world is necessary to feel human.

The good news: it’s all programming, which means you can counter-program. This guide will show you how.

Ready? Let’s dive in…

Monkey brains pressing dopamine buttons

The reason it’s hard to have a healthy relationship with digital media is because our monkey brains see it as a low-cost way to trigger happy feelings.

Aside from fear, pleasure is the most important behavioral motivator. Pleasure is administered via the brain’s reward center, which releases feel-good neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) when we do things that have historically been linked with survival.

Here are just a few of the things that trigger dopamine:

  • Social interaction
  • Sex
  • Punishing those perceived to “have it coming”
  • Novelty and the unexpected
  • Humor
  • Information intake
  • Winning arguments/being right

Unlike in nature, when all of these things are tightly correlated with survival, the artificial reality layer of the internet can present them in rapid sequence to be consumed endlessly from behind the safety of the screen.

The internet, smartphones, your favorite blog, your inbox, your Instagram account — your monkey brain just sees these as big, shiny dopamine buttons. Press the button, get the hit. Repeat.

This wouldn’t be much of a problem, except the brain is malleable—highly malleable. Sustained exposure to stimuli programs the brain to expect and value certain things. What you expose your brain to cultivates patterns within it. With respect to the internet, the programming cultivates (among other things):

  • Mindlessness. A need to avoid the present moment and escape into the on-screen world, which is associated with safety and comfort.
  • Scattered thinking. An inability to set priorities and focus on what’s important.
  • Ego and insecurity. When more validation comes from externalities (one’s social media profile or online rep), it’s impossible to develop real self-esteem. People struggle with neurosis and self-loathing.
  • Diminished motivation. When your reward system is tuned to expect easy rewards from vicarious onscreen pleasures, why pursue difficult, messy real-world achievements?
  • Increased anxiety. Animals are meant to handle regular stress from stressors that they can react to, like predators. But stress systems are compromised, badly, by a diet of world-is-ending-and-you’re-powerless news.
  • Meanness and cynicism. People get used to indulging their inner child online, ranting and complaining, and it leaks into their real life.

The good news is that, just as you programmed your brain, you can reprogram it. You can create a healthier relationship with digital that will make it easy for you to:

  • Think clearly
  • Be more productive and creative
  • Be kinder to yourself and to others
  • Introduce more stillness and contemplation into your life
  • Reduce anxiety and cynicism

Or, more simply: You can move from a state of perpetual scatteredness to a state of calm, clear thinking.

The rest of this guide is all about how we do that.

Finding your sweet spot

Digital isn’t like cigarettes. You quit cigarettes. You don’t worry about “creating a healthy relationship” with your Marlboros.

Digital is like food. We have to eat. (I guess you don’t have to use digital, but going full Amish is neither realistic nor preferable for the majority of humanity). Within that obligation, however, is a vast spectrum. We can call it the “utility/fun” spectrum.

On one end, pure utility. The stuff that nourishes. Raw veggies, lean protein, eggs and tuna. Quinoa and lentils.

On the other end is fun. Chili fries and movie theater popcorn. Red velvet cupcakes. Dark chocolate and red wine.

What are we looking for? The sweet spot — mostly healthy, but with a few sensible indulgences. You probably can’t eat chili fries every day and maintain optimal health. You probably can enjoy a few if you’ve been eating well and working out. Certainly, a life with red wine and chocolate and a slice of birthday cake every once in a while is more fun than a life without.

Our relationship with digital is very similar. On the utility side, there’s work emails and Youtube videos about proper leaf raking techniques. On the fun side, there’s BuzzFeed quizzes and snarky Tweets and porn.

Your goal: figure out a “sweet spot” between utility and fun that allows you to lead an excellent, productive life while enjoying fun stuff online.

But this is much easier said than done. To get to the sweet spot, you’ll need to take a REALLY GOOD LOOK at your own digital habits. You’ll have to cultivate the inner honesty to recognize what is and isn’t working. And you’ll have to commit to making real change.

Sound good? Let’s jump in.

Counter-programming

These are the nine major principles of counter-programming your brain. Follow these rules and you’ll dramatically increase the health of your digital habits — not to mention your overall quality of life. These have all been tested by me. They work. Put them to work for you, and watch your happiness and performance jump.

Principle 1: Be purposeful about digital.

The programming: Turn to a screen whenever you need something. Anxious? Upset? Lonely? Bored? The screen has what you need. Paw at the screen like it’s a slot machine. Trigger those hits of dopamine. Relish your superiority.

It’s fine to take a spin on the hamster wheel of impulse gratification every once in a while. Where it kills you is when it becomes a way of life. When your every waking moment is filled with Instagram binges, and little tappy games, and refreshing your news apps, and texting friends, then — that’s where your dreams die.

The counter-programming: Be intentional when using your digital devices. Ask: “Why am I doing this? What am I hoping to accomplish here? What’s my goal?” Your digital devices are tools to be used purposefully, not slot machines to be slapped over and over for your amusement.

Remember the utility/fun spectrum? Intentionality is what lets you dip into “fun” without making it a way of life. When you purposefully decide to pull up Instagram or Facebook for a bit of social media doodling, it’s very different from compulsively pulling it up because you’re uncomfortable, or bored, or scared. You stay in control; you call the shots.

Cut back on your aimless browsing. Way back. Don’t treat digital like a cheap way to fill dead air with mindless clicking. This is like eating out of boredom. Use digital when you need to, and put it down when you don’t.

Reintroduce friction. Denature the “whip-out-the-phone” impulse. When you aren’t using your phone, put it away—in a bag or on a stand on a table across the room. When you aren’t using your laptop, close it and put it in a drawer. Create separation.

Oh, and… SLOW DOWN. Don’t whip out your phone like you’re going to resuscitate someone with it. Try thoughtfully stopping… opening your bag… removing your phone… mindfully using it… putting it back. It sounds silly, but these are precisely the kinds of tweaks that train your mind to be more spacious and calm.

Principle 2: Displace digital from its central role in your life.

The programming: Look at your phone. Look at your TV. Look at your computer. Answer this message. Respond to this prompt. Look here. Look here. Look here.

In the attention economy, your time and headspace are more valuable than ever — which has spawned a massive ecosystem of profit-driven companies who compete for it. Unguarded, you’ll find yourself doing their bidding — clicking, tapping and swiping as life goes by.

The counter-programming: Instead of treating life as an undifferentiated blur — an endless series of screens from which you very occasionally look up and go “Huh?”—strive to make a clean break between your (purposeful) digital time and your everything-else, real-life time.

I try to look at my phone sparingly, when I need to. I don’t use the screen to fill time, or as a safety blanket for when I’m uncomfortable. When I come home, I put it on a little stand on the table by the door.

I’ll look at my inputs (email, texts, Slack etc.) regularly, but only to make sure nothing needs my immediate attention. On my schedule, I’ll go through my inputs and zero them out. But I take pains not to flit from one thing to another like a butterfly.

And I never look at my phone when I’m out and about. I cringe when I catch myself text-walking. If I need to use my phone, I stop, take it out, use it, and then move on with my life.

Relocate digital from the center of your universe to a tertiary planet that you occasionally drop in on. Your quality of life will go up considerably.

Principle 3: Cut out junk-food content.

The programing: The high appeal of digital “junk food”:

  • Endlessly novel
  • Highly stimulating
  • Fast refresh (always something new)
  • Gleefully immature (Think Twitter, 4chan etc.)
  • Accessible everywhere, on demand

But like real junk food, too much of this completely ruins your diet. You’re conditioned to crave it more and more. You equate it with substance. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” Do you really want your thoughts to be like Twitter or Buzzfeed — endlessly sarcastic, relentlessly bitchy? Or do you want to think, act and behave like a human being?

The counter-programming: You are what you eat. This is as true for content as it is for food. Tier your information diet into “Never,” “Sometimes” and “Always.”

Never: The stuff that is never, ever good. Complete junk, and liable to trigger a breakdown. For example, Twitter is on my no-fly list. Twitter is like 99% complaining. Every time I go, I find myself stumbling out of a rabbit hole several hours later. Frustrated, angry, and wondering where the day went. It’s useless to me.

My Never list also includes: Virtually all news sites, blogs that are cruel/snarky/gossipy, political stuff.

Sometimes: Sensible indulgences. Use this as a reward. Did you get up early and write? Great, enjoy some Netflix in the afternoon. Are you in the middle of a productive study session? Cool, take a ten-minute Instagram break. There are no hard-and-fast rules; you know when you’ve earned some fluff.

My Sometimes list also includes: Reddit, Facebook, the New York Times. Intelligently written blogs. Entrepreneurs, motivational and health content.

Always: BOOKS. Read books. Not only do books train your mind to monotask on information, they’re a decent screen for quality. Not every book is great and not every quality idea becomes a book, but writing a book is hard, and the standards are comparatively high, so ideas tend to be better thought out and researched.

Read: philosophy, self-development, history/business/biography, quality fiction. And keep a few entertaining books around, too, like fantasy/thriller shit — perfect for winding down at the end of the day with. Get a Kindle — mine changed my life. When you feel the need to look at a screen, look at your ebook of *The Meditations* instead of Instagram.

You’ll find there are people and blogs that are consistently good. Get on their mailing list and read their stuff when it comes out. Reward quality with attention. Don’t reward pandering.

Remember: Out of sight, out of mind. Unsubscribe from negative subreddits; use Social Fixer to block unpleasant keywords/domains from your Facebook feed. Use URL blocker to block Twitter.

Also remember: Triviality is suffocating. Does it really matter who did what at the Emmys last night? Does it matter that Twitter had THIS to say? Does it matter that some jackass in some other part of the world went online and said something stupid? If you want to think big, apply your mind to big things, over which you have some level of influence. Don’t scatter your thoughts among a million insubstantial flecks.

Principle 4: Stop multitasking.

The programming: Rapidly flick from one screen to the next. Notifications popping up to tell you about everything, all the time. Answer emails while walking to the coffee shop. Check your social media during the lecture.

It all feels super-productive, but multi-tasking crushes productivity, increases frustrating, and saps your energies. A day spent multitasking is a day wasted. A life spent multitasking is fractious and ineffectual.

The counter-programming: Reacquaint yourself with the joys of deep focus on your work, and presence with your current state of mind. Continuous multi-tasking programs your brain to go shallow. To do awesome shit, we want to go deep.

Before you begin each day, have your priorities clearly in mind. Write them out if you need. Decide on what you’re going to do. Better yet, schedule time to do it — like it’s an appointment on your calendar. Make and keep this appointment with yourself.

When it comes time to work, configure your environment for actual working. Disable notifications for all but the most critical, time-sensitive things on your laptop and smartphone. Keep your phone on silent. Close unneeded tabs. Put on some chill, non-distracting music (This Youtube channel is a personal favorite). Use a focus/break technique, such as Pomodoro intervals, to motivate yourself. And go do it.

When you’re out in the world, resist the temptation to “multitask through life.” I’m not going to say it’s beneficial (or realistic) to NEVER look at your phone, but for God’s sake, not when you’re walking around or talking to a friend. Be present with what you’re doing.

Principle 5: Replace social media with real social interactions.

The programming: A live, always-on feed of social information from friends, family, colleagues, former dormmates, someone you met at a party once… Show off your cool life and celebrate the coolness of others.

Never mind the reality — that we’re all sitting around inside looking at everyone else having fun. Never mind that even when we do “make it,” when we get the cool car or gourmet meal, we’re still posting it online, enslaved to the opinions of strangers.

The human mind is hard-wired to be social, and social media offers only a simulacra that will endlessly entice but never satisfy.

The counter-programming: Engage in frequent, extended social bonding with flesh-and-blood human beings. Sit across from them at the table. Navigate awkward silences. Talk. Explore. Share a meal.

Call up old friends or acquaintances and go to coffee to catch up. Ask strangers out. Go out to visit a friend and just BE with them. Don’t worry about documenting it for your feed.

Taper your social media use. Try to go on it less. If you’re a hardcore user, limit session time. You can use self-discipline or any number of apps that time and reduce phone usage. If you’re a light social media user, consider going on a break or discontinuing usage. I personally maintain a Facebook and Reddit account but have shut down everything else, and it feels great. Yeah, I miss out on some stuff — but I conserve headspace for other things that I place more value on. It’s all about priorities.

Principle 6: No porn.

The programming: Indulge your hedonistic desires to your heart’s content. It’s normal, healthy and free.

Except… It’s not normal. The monkey brain wasn’t made for the world of on-demand, high-def, infinite-variety porn that can be delivered straight into the eye sockets of anybody with a working internet connection.

Porn, like compulsive gambling and spree shopping, is an extreme example of the brain’s reward system being highjacked by an exaggerated version of a naturally healthy stimulus. Just as the gambler needs to keep pulling that lever to get their dopamine fix, so do porn addicts learn to blunt themselves into docile submissiveness with their habit.

Porn usage has been clinically linked to changes in brain plasticity that mirror drug addiction. It’s tied to desensitization (a numbed response to pleasure), sensitization (powerful cravings for more), hypofrontality (weakened impulse resistance) and dysfunctional stress circuits (increased use of porn to manage stress).

It’s also worth adding that the industry exploits young women, arguments about “empowerment” notwithstanding.

The counter-programming: This one’s easy. Stop watching porn.

If the idea of giving up porn fills you with dread, then congratulations — now you know for certain that it’s a problem.

There is no reason that a healthy and well-adjusted person should need to watch porn. None. Imagination was good enough for billions of our ancestors, and it will be fine for you. Better yet — focus on intimacy with your special someone, or work on meeting that special someone.

Principle 7: Screen-free mornings and evenings.

The programming: Keep your phone by your bedside. Wake up, check your inbox and Twitter and Instagram before you get up. (Associate your smartphone with safety and warmth). Look at a screen until the moment you pass out. Wake up and do it again.

The counter-programming: It is critical to have a morning and evening routine that omit screen time. The first and last hours of your day should be low activity and screen-free. Honor your body’s natural wake/sleep cycles. I can’t overemphasize how critical this is.

(There are only a few exceptions. You can look at a Kindle if you prefer to read eBooks. And if you have a really good reason to be looking at a screen — like, you’re writing a novel and your writing time is 5-7am — go for it. But cut it out with the aimless browsing.)

Mornings are a foundation, a time to wake your mind up and ease it into the day. Choose reading, journaling, quiet reflection, stretching. Gradually ramp up the activity level. I get up around 6, but don’t look at a screen before 8.

The nighttime is a time to wind down and prepare for sleep. Stop using stimulating digital (video games, social media etc.) with a couple of hours to go before bed. The last hour before bed should consist of reading and relaxation.

It goes without saying, but your phone and computer don’t belong in your bedroom. If your smartphone is your alarm clock, cool — get one on Amazon for $7. (Better yet, get this Philips wakeup clock — worth every penny IMO).

Principle 8: Align values with behavior online

The programming: Act one way in person, but let your inner child run loose online. Bully people, complain endlessly, pick fights with strangers, leave nasty comments. What’s the harm? It’s not you. “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

Oh wait, it IS you. You ARE the person you act like online.

When you complain online, your real-life experience sours. When you obsess over doom-and-gloom news stories, your worldview darkens considerably. And when you’re mean and juvenile and nasty to perfect strangers, you’ll find your thoughts becoming sharper about the real-life people that you love.

The counter-programming: You aspire (hopefully) to be a kind, generous, emotionally stable, pragmatic, thoughtful, intelligent, purposeful and motivated person. So act like it. Don’t fill the web with cruelty, snide judgements, self-deprecation and immaturity. Letting your inner child run free is dangerous business, especially in this era where online and real-life identities are thoroughly merged. Regard your public face on the web like your public face in real life.

There are no points for winning fights against anonymous strangers. Yes, they disagree with you. Yes, they’re horribly ignorant and stupid and wrong. So what? You’re not going to convince them over the internet. You’ll just give them what they really want: a reaction. So don’t do it.

BE POSITIVE. Don’t ever complain online. It’s pointless and narcissistic. Nobody cares about your complaints nearly as much as you do. Yes, I know that when you’re swelling up with righteous outrage, it feels really good to scream it to the world, but please — save it. Mom was right: say nice things or don’t say ‘em at all.

Principle 9: Cultivate real excellence.

The programming: Get the highest score, the most Likes, the celebrity re-tweet, the followers, the upvotes… Treasure them. These are signs of your value and worth.

The counter-programming: Life is short. We all die, but death isn’t the scary part. It’s the long, slow decline beforehand. Your health, hopes and dreams will probably fade before your mind and body do.

In order to meet the decline without regret, we owe it to ourselves to work on ourselves. We should aspire towards excellence. Not impossible excellence — superhuman beauty or effortless riches — but real excellence. An enjoyable, productive life filled with good experiences and good people, free of unnecessary suffering, beholden to no one. When asked if we’re happy, we should be able to say “Yes” without a moment’s hesitation.

Digital can support our path to excellence, but it can no more provide excellence than a paycheck or nice car or big house in the suburbs can. (Think of how many enraged mediocrities there are with well-paying jobs and great cars). Digital can’t make us kinder, or more mindful, or appreciate a sunset any more. It subtracts more than it adds.

Aspiring to real excellence gives you a path, the path of self-improvements. There’s a purpose, and a joy, to working on yourself — to watching your mindfulness and health and fitness and career flourish over time. It’s not fast, and it’s not easy, but it’s the real deal.

The specifics of how to get there are beyond the scope of this article, but it’s all the usual suspects. Eat well — mostly unprocessed, whole foods. Minimize drinking, sugar and processed food. Guard your sleep like a jealous lover. Work out at an appropriate intensity. Move around — lots of long walks.

The point is to do. The doing is the thing. The decline is coming. Fill it with happy memories. The rest will take care of itself.

Wrapping Up

The most important piece of this puzzle is your commitment to change. If you’ve made it this far, I think we can safely assume you’re at least part-way interested. So, congrats! Now, make it real.

If you create a healthy relationship with digital it will change your life. I know this for a fact because it changed mine. I have reached a level of relative peace and happiness in my life that I genuinely never thought possible. Certainly, it didn’t seem reachable when I was an stimulus-addicted information-overloaded smartphone monkey.

And yet, here I am. Far from perfect, far from enlightened, but in a much better state than I was in a few years ago.

I hope this guide helps you like it did me. If you have questions, feedback, etc. — shoot me a note: jack@homescreenzero.com

Be well.

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5 thoughts on “Counter-Programming: the 9 principles that retrained my internet-addicted brain

  1. Simply put, Thank you!
    I work with disabled veterans at a nearby health club. These poor guys/gals come in lost and devalued! Do they get hooked on the digital hook? They sure do, they gobble it up hook, line, sinker and also the bobber! They are refused employment because of “store bought parts” hanging off of them. What do they do? They collect their disability pensions and spend all day pushing the keys with a metal expenditure. They have been put down from the get-go! We all shared the above material as a group….Thank You! Deep within all of us we got the message. (I am the program director for the disabled vets, myself a 100% disabled vet.) The above “Commandments” if you will, were GREAT!! Cant thank you enough……

  2. Heya, I loved reading this and it’s very inspiring. I had just one question… with respect to the part where dopamine rewards punishing people perceived to “have it coming,” we are actually interested in using that as part of a much larger discussion. Could you help us out by sourcing that reference? I did poke around a little bit, but didn’t find it using the same words, so if you can lead us to that source, it would help a lot, thank you!

    p.s. I laughed hard at the part about pulling our our smart phones as if we’re going to resuscitate someone. Guilty, heh.

  3. This is honestly amazing. I’ve just posted my own article providing a summary of this guide, and a brief review, I loved it that much.

    Thank you for the inspiration and motivation I desperately needed!

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