2020 – my year of Doomscrolling
New words emerge when we feel the need to name something we are all experiencing but are not yet accustomed to. 2020 gave me the word Dooomscrolling.
Compulsively checking your phone for the details of all the things that are happening, that you fear and that you cannot control.
This year, my phone became the chief enabler of my fear. It was the bellows pumping the oxygen that kept the embers of anxiety constantly bright, occasionally fanning them into flames of outrage or the white heat of despair.
It seemed that every fact I checked, every tweet I read, every headline I saw was designed to destroy my peace of mind, to amplify the bad and to exacerbate division. My ears were hurt by the piercing notes of dog-whistle diatribes and baleful baying they triggered until the Twittersphere seemed afflicted with echolalia. Click-bait, meme meanness and troll trash made me long for the days when my feeds were filled with cute kittens and sneezing panda cubs. It began to feel that this is how my world would end, not with a bang but a doomscroll.
My phone became the monkey on my back, holding me in its grip while screaming in my ear.
Doomscrolling gifted me with anxiety without action. angst without outcome and endless enervating anxiety.
Yet I kept coming back. Any idle moment would find me bent over my phone to see what dread beast was slouching towards Jerusalem today.
I needed to make it STOP.
Putting down my phone wasn’t enough. Even switching it off wasn’t enough. I would become anxious about all the things I didn’t know because my phone wasn’t with me.
I needed something to fill the gap where my phone should be.
Mindfulness and me
Everywhere I looked, I was being told Mindfullness was the answer.
Even the NHS pushed Mindfulness, advising me that:
‘Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing.That I should be fully present in them moment.’
Their recommended guru, Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, defined mindfulness as
‘knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.’
This didn’t seem promising. Knowing what was going on was what was making me anxious.
He went on to say:
“It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,”
At that point, I decided mindfulness wasn’t for me. I like living inside my head. It’s my favourite place. It’s all the stuff that’s going on outside my head that worries me.
May the Flow be with you.
Then I remembered Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, one of the few psychologists who studied happiness rather than unhappiness, and I went looking for my Flow.
Csíkszentmihályi believes that happiness is linked to developing your personal potential
He defined Flow experiences, experiences which optimally stretch and develop our skills.
Here’s my take on it.
I am in the Flow when:
My goal is clear and feedback is immediate: I know exactly what success will look like and I will quickly know how well I’ve done.
I am focused and concentrating hard: my task has my complete attention. I’m not multi-tasking. I’m doing one thing as well as I can.
I am challenged but unafraid: there’s just enough of chance of getting things wrong that I’m not bored or over-relaxed but I have enough confidence in my own ability to do the task that I’m not anxious.
I am in control but not controlling: this is one of those slightly Zen things. I feel like I have everything that I need, that all is in my grasp but I’m not having constantly to take decisions that need deep thought. My instinct and my experience tell me what to do.
I act with effortless harmony: another Zen thing. I ‘feel’ rather than ‘know’ that I’m getting it right. I’m in The Zone. My body knows where to be and what to do and my mind flows with it.
Time is mine to expand or contract: when I’m in The Zone, I experience time differently. Sometimes everything slows down in the crucial seconds when I need to act so that I feel I have all the time I need to get it right. Sometimes time speeds by so I feel as if I’ve been at my task for minutes and find that hours have slipped by.
I become the action I perform: It doesn’t get more Zen than that does it? It means that, when I’m doing my task, there’s no gap between me and it. I’m so involved that there is no room for fear or anxiety or distraction. I don’t spend time reflecting on what I’m doing or what it means or what it says about me or whether others would approve. I just act.
The people who teach this stuff characterise flow experiences as autotelic. That is, the action being performed has within itself the purpose of its own existence. I interpret that as meaning that although the activity has a goal, performing the activity if fulfilling in its own right.
Finding my Flow
Everyone’s flow experiences will be different because everyone’s skills and focus are different. One person’s flow experience may strike terror or tedium into another. For an athlete, diving from a cliff face into the sea may be a perfect flow experience. For me it would be a fear-soaked and pointless act.
To find your flow, you need to find something that you can do if you give it your full attention and which you find fulfilling in its own right.
I’ve had decades to find my Flow. Some sources are obvious, some have changed over time and some have surprised me.
First, a couple of old favourites.
Performing for an audience: I’m one of those introverts who finds an audience energising. Public speaking, acting, (especially improv), or running workshops for strangers all absorb me to the point where I am totally there. Before the performance I can worry and plan obsessively but once the performance starts, once it’s fly or fail, I’m in The Zone. When it really works, when I can feel the audience’s attention and excitement like a physical force, it’s like a drug. Afterward, I have nothing left and all I want to do is sit in a room alone.
Writing (especially to a deadline): I love the challenge of turning my thoughts into words that people want to read or of writing fiction where my imagination meets the reader’s imagination. I can lose hours to it and not notice.
It gets better when a deadline means I don’t have the luxury of taking my time. When I can’t afford to get lost in second-guessing myself or major re-writing.
One of my best flow experiences while writing came from taking part in a challenge to write a short story from scratch live on Twitter, back when there was still a 140 character limit. I had a title and an idea but no notes, no drafts, just an audience. The result (with typos corrected) was ‘Body Games’.
One flow experience that isn’t open to me anymore was riding a motorbike through country lanes. I wasn’t looking for speed but for finding the perfect line through each curve. When you get it right, the bike feels like an extension of your body and you feel like the movement through the curve. Neither my eyesight not my reflexes are up to that anymore but my body still remembers it.
The flow experience that caught me most by surprise? Baking.
I like to bake simple things: soda bread, bran muffins, banana bread. The recipes are simple. They don’t take long to do. But, to make them as well as I can, I need to focus on them and on nothing else. If my mind wanders, they will burn. If I’m angry or anxious, something will go wrong and I’ll be able to taste the difference. If I think of what I’m doing and ONLY what I’m doing and I do every step the way it’s supposed to be done and when it’s supposed to be done then I will not just have bread or muffins worth eating but I’ll have a sense of satisfaction at having baked properly.
Are you ready to find your flow?
If you’ve read this far, I invite you to put down your phone and engage in a flow activity of your own and then come back here and tell me what it was and how it made you feel.