I Think I Figured Out Why My Brain Always Feels Fried

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life. It’s an obvious and startling observation, isn’t it? The best kind.

It recently occurred to me that one of the primary ways I spend my days is as a passive sponge, absorbing whatever is put in front of me. Some examples: On my commute, I listen to a playlist curated for my musical tastes, chock full of artists I’ve never heard of. At work, my news reading consists of articles shared with me through chat or email, their bylines and publishers only secondary draws. Later, I pick up books by authors I’ve never read, recommended by friends or press releases that swore I’d be hooked from the start. Brutishly injected in the off-beats, of course, is an endless supply of other people’s photos and tweets, slotted in front of my glassy gaze by an algorithm designed to hold it steady.

My everyday, and thus, my life, has become one of passive consumption.

To borrow a point from economic theorist E. F. Schumacher: “[The modern Western economist] is used to measuring the ‘standard of living’ by the amount of annual consumption, assuming all the time that a man who consumes more is ‘better off’ than a man who consumes less.”

He’s talking about economic consumption, but I see this value system mirrored in my day-to-day behavior, during which I dispense little discernment as to what’s worthy of my attention, and worse, put little thought into the broader context in which something was created, and by who, and why! Instead, I eschew true engagement in favor of quantity, speed, and immediate likeability. Our unbridled access to creative work may be a modern wonder, but what happens when nothing’s placed in context? What happens when we become fans — not of specific writers, thinkers and artists — but of consumption in and of itself?

This particular point is well-illustrated by the meme-ification of ideas and images on the internet, which are dispersed and spread at a dizzying pace — democratized for everyone, sure, but at a cost. “Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives,” writes Maria Popova of Brain Pickings (emphasis mine).

The realization that I wasn’t noticing enough in my consumption process first occurred to me, perhaps ironically, while reading Tavi Gevinsons’ January editor’s letter on the topic of utopia for Rookie Magazine. I was taken with the number of disparate references she spun together from thinkers she admired. The intentionality of her reading habits was apparent, the fruits of it laid bare in a long-form piece of writing that had serious depth.

My fear crystallized during a conversation I had with my boyfriend soon after, when we realized the chief difference in our music-listening habits is that I listen to one-off tracks willy-nilly, with sometimes no knowledge whatsoever of the artist, while he listens to albums top-to-bottom, then reads analysis on them while synthesizing his own thoughts on who the artist is and why his or her work is relevant. I see this thoughtfulness reflected in other ways he consumes peoples’ art, too. There are certain writers’ columns he reads weekly, for instance, and certain film directors’ work with whom he’s intimately familiar. That’s not to say he doesn’t have some bad habits of his own, or that consuming willy-nilly is inherently wrong, but, as with Tavi, I see his ideas unfold and his perspective shift as a result of his dedication to getting the whole, deeper picture.

When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.

And it does require dedication; maybe that’s why many prefer to just drift along, me included. But over the past couple of months, I’ve resisted that urge. On my desk, there is now a stack of books by writers I want to know better (Susan Sontag, Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, Evan S. Connell, Rebecca Solnit), on topics I want to understand better (the creative process, systematic oppression, the art of storytelling, existentialism). On my phone are entire albums by musicians I want to engage with (Frank Ocean, SZA, Daniel Caesar), whose work is now enhanced by additional context. In my browser I try to keep one tab open at a time, with a long piece of writing I want to read for a specific reason. This approach is a little less immediate and “entertaining,” at least at first blush, but it’s also brought me a sense of agency, and even peace, in this dizzying age of information. It feels like my mind is getting stronger, breathing deeper.

“The daily routine of most adults is so heavy and artificial that we are closed off to much of the world,” American author Ursula K. Le Guin once wrote. “We have to do this in order to get our work done. I think one purpose of art is to get us out of those routines. When we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.”

But what happens when that art is yanked out of its context, reconfigured by an algorithm and slotted right in with the rest of our routines? What happens when creative work becomes another cog in the distraction machine? Does the world still open up? I’m not so sure. But I’ve found that, when I consume more slowly and intentionally, it can restore something lost by the pace of modern life. It can put me back in touch with the world, or myself.

It’s not a novel concept, but it’s easy to forget that wisdom and meaning aren’t necessarily found in the urgent amassing of ideas. There’s a reason we think of important things in the shower and while drifting off to sleep; an idle mind moves in mysterious ways.

My challenge now is to resist my animal-like impulse to constantly consume, to pick what I engage with more thoughtfully, and then dare to embody the kind of idleness that work demands. Maybe art needs space like we need space. Maybe, in a simple resistance to the mindless scroll, ideas bloom.

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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  • Adrianna

    I deactivated my Facebook after the 2016 election, and it was the first time I sat down and read 100-200 pages of a book in one sitting again. Not because I suddenly had more time – but because I freed up the mental space. We forget that we are actively reading and consuming while we scroll our newsfeeds.

    • I didn’t deactivate FB entirely but I removed it from my phone and now I find that I have so much more brain space to read books or the newspaper in my free time.

      • Sheila T.

        removing it from my phone has given me so much time back! I also haven’t “missed out” on anything since deleting the app, contrary to what I expected

        • Adrianna

          I really haven’t missed anything since deactivating. I also reached a breaking point after active usage for a decade – I compare it to walking into a large, loud room.

          • I’m not going to deactivate again (I thought that’s what everyone DID once they finished college in 2009) because I do still like to see pictures of peoples kids and cats, but since removing it from my phone I never feel the need to check it so its almost like not having it, without missing the FB invites to things (which is how I eventually learned people were still using it after college).

          • If it wasn’t my only common source of communication with friends from abroad, I’d have gotten rid of Facebook a long time ago. The only page I follow now is Clickhole because their articles are ridiculous on purpose and it gives me a good laugh rather than indigestion.


    • Ah guys I wish my boyfriend could follow in your good footsteps! I have Facebook but only pop on there to check if I have a message. My boyfriend however is constantly scrolling through and then telling me about crap he sees on there. He is addicted. I am trying to promote other types of social media which I think would be more constructive 😂

      • Adrianna

        My boyfriend wouldn’t get rid of his FB for a while, especially after he wasn’t invited to a paintball trip via Facebook invite. (To which I said, get better friends? Who know how to call or text?)

        He was addicted to Twitter for a few months post election. I repeatedly pointed out that he goes on it every time he has a free minute and gets agitated. (Why does he need to check when I’m comparing soaps in CVS?) He snapped at me after I said “you’re not well-informed just because you’re scrolling down Twitter.” He seemed to calm down with it afterwards, because we are not a couple that snaps at each other. Though I’m still telling him that he’s constantly on his phone the minute we’re not doing something together in our shared apartment.

  • eva

    oh man, i really feel this!!!! the most stressful my days get the more lazy my brain gets about consumption.. i for sure feel more “nourished” if i consume thoughtfully, so i need to force myself to do it! it does help that i have an actual record collection, the physical process of getting an album out and putting it on/turning it over is very rewarding

  • Roshni

    So glad I’m not alone!! I really feel the encouragement to consume has now evolved into pressure – everything implores that it MUST be consumed, that it’s life-changing and this can often feel so suffocating.

    With more information available at a faster rate than ever before, it’s physically impossible consume everything…not sure about anyone else, but I can then get really bad FOMO for not consuming everything that I think I need to be.

    Really like this idea of a more meaningful approach to consumption – will definitely try to do this more, before opening up 15 tabs of random articles from my Facebook scrolls.

    • Adrianna

      off topic – one of my childhood friends’ names was Roshni! In northern New Jersey

      • Roshni

        Haha aww love it! I live in the UK but it’s good to know Roshnis are across the pond too! x

  • Kate

    Ah, I naturally consume like your boyfriend because I’m too easily overwhelmed and anxious (and am also a snob.) I couldn’t figure out why MY partner’s music in the house made me so agitated, until this weekend I finally realized – it’s not that it’s BAD music, it’s just a lot of songs all together, that he likes or really likes, and there was no…intention about the sound in the house. Everything these days frays my nerves it seems, largely because of the trends you write about in this piece.

  • I also like to think of my creative input/output ratio. Too often, if I neglect just processing long-held thoughts in either a journal, a song or even something as simple as cooking a meal, my brain feels like it’s being dragged by some kind of magnetic force. Being intentional with consumption is important, yes, but also carving out pockets to see what your brain says in response to these stimuli is what allows my ‘thinking self’ to solidify. Then I feel more grounded and knowing of myself; like there has been purpose to my consumption by sparking that retaliating creative response.

    • Emma Daeleman

      You put my thoughts into words. Thank you

  • MaryRose

    You are a mind reader! Actually I am pretty sure everyone at MR is because the content is always timely 😀

    I’ve been feeling this over the past few years, but this year I’ve started to pay attention to what I really like and what is just buzz, like those cake decorating videos. Its kinda like keeping up the Jones’ in the digital world – knowing just enough about everything to talk with anyone. The people I am most interested in talking to are the ones that have spent time learning about their interests. There are so many options and things to passively engage with the best choice we have is pick are favorites and let someone else tell us about that really cute bunny video IG, unless of course that’s your favorite. thing. ever.

    Great read! Thanks Haley!!

  • Jessica

    “which are disbursed and spread at a dizzying pace”

    Small nitpick – I think you mean dispersed, rather than disbursed here?

  • Autumn

    The last line in Tavi’s editor’s letter is the best: The internet is not one giant, democratic forum where opinions rise to the top by their own merit; it is a very deliberate structure, carefully calibrated to convince its users that visibility is the same as power.

  • Kirby

    This is so relatable! Recently I’ve started to realize that I feel like I can’t visualize what appeals to me anymore, but I know what I like when I see it. It is confusing and disorienting since in previous years I could feel my personal style (whether in clothes or music or what have you) growing and individualizing. I couldn’t figure out what it was, but after reading this I’ve realized it’s that with instagram I’m constantly handed pictures of things that I feel like I’m supposed to like, and sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t, but it’s never active. I never actively think what appeals to me anymore cause I can just go onto instagram or pinterest and find unlimited pictures of clothes/houses/books/etc etc that I can just copy.
    I will definitely be trying your strategies!

  • PJB

    speaking of being a fan of specific writers, i ACTIVELY seek out your articles for consumption, haley!

  • Tahlia Burton

    Really, really needed this today. Thanks, Haley <3

  • stephanie

    Haley! Might I suggest you listen to Kelela’s album, take me apart, in its entirety. It’s a gem that is somewhat aligned with the artists you mentioned above!

  • Lucy Kimitta

    Damn! You are a good writer!

  • Dee

    I thoroughly enjoyed this! I’ve been thinking a lot about passive consumption and how to stop consuming everything that we come across, and I feel because we are so addicted and want to always know what’s going on, we would have to purposely remove the distractions from our daily life.

  • laura

    I know this isn’t the point of your piece and maybe I’m doing it a disservice by distracting from it but I just wanted to say – I loooooove Daniel Caesar and SZA. I’ve had both their recent albums on repeat since they came out and am in love with their voice and lyrics. Here’s a video whose aesthetic I want to follow for the entirety of 2018 (think of it as a way to learn more about Daniel Caesar instead of thinking of it as another open tab):


    P.S. there’s a small typo when spelling his name 🙂

  • sarah

    “Brutishly injected in the off-beats, of course, is an endless supply of other people’s photos and tweets, slotted in front of my glassy gaze by an algorithm designed to hold it steady.” Haley this is such brilliant writing!
    Also: Annie Dillard is forever my alltime favorite and most quoteable author. Thank you for including her!

  • Sarah Naima

    Ha @haley, I just read your article out of pure longing for “consumption” of ideas/stories/thoughts. Thus, am now forcing myself to write this comment and complete a line of thought which is that in fact, your writing is a wonderfully inspiring gift to us who can consume it, intentionally of course. Other than that, yay, let’s educate ourselves again. I feel it is almost unavoidable with the Zeitgeist of vast complexity and ongoing self-representation that we don’t read up on art deco architecture or the regulations of finance (will never get to understand it well enough for it to be “our Thing” anyways, will we?), which really is our duty ( not particularly the art deco thing but rather engaging in an understanding, whatever of). Btw. you should add Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to your piles of books, if you haven’t already or listen to this conversation between her and Zadie Smith: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkeCun9aljY 🙂

  • silla

    YES. “In a simple resistance to the mindless scroll, ideas bloom”
    I took social media off my phone for all of February and its effects were obvious. I would be standing in a cafe waiting for a coffee and actually observing what was happening, or scanning a real actually physical newspaper instead of scrolling. It was during one of these moments that I thought to myself “I am actually having original as opposed to purely reactionary thoughts right now” It was really fucking nice.

  • eganmay

    i loved this piece! but it’s daniel caesar not daniel ceasar. i feel like hermione granger.

  • Dude yes. This makes so much sense to me. I recently have felt so aimless in my music and art consumption. But I couldn’t figure out how I used to be so good at curating my taste. This is perfect. I didn’t have a choice before. Now I can lazily let algorithms and cool people’s feeds spoon feed my brain. Arts used to feed my soul in a way. I need to get back to that.

  • Stacey

    Thanks for sharing. A good reminder to focus.

  • Anne Dyer

    Beautiful writing Haley, maybe your best. On an impulse, I deleted FB one afternoon as I sat in the parking lot of my son’s preschool. I had read enough studies to know that social media and anxiety have a strong correlation. And anxiety was beginning to creep it’s way into my life. So I tested it, I hit delete and took a deep breath. When FB asked their standard – “Why are you deleting?” I responded – “Because I believe social media causes anxiety and I’d like to be kinder to my brain”

    And wouldn’t you know – I have less anxiety. In fact, I have almost none. I feel lighter, a bit happier, less worried and less judge-mental.

  • Lizlemon

    Wow I was moved by Tavi’s letter for that same reason. It spurned me on to deeply engage in what I truly care about. I’ve started taking 9 week classes in ballet and Photoshop. I’ve started reading books that require me to research references like im studying for an exam.

    I think a myth of modern life is that freedom is in abundance and levity. It’s drudge work to be deeply engaged in a “lofty persuit”.

    But then when we look at people we admire or point to as exceptional (Zadie Smith and Tavi Gevinson), they tend to be the people who’ve mastered their “monkey minds” and dug deeply into their passions.

  • leo

    but also: your are a writer, Haley, and thus a creator. so much more than a passive sponge!

  • Aya

    Haley! Thank you so much for this. You have no idea how much I needed this. What an eye opener. Thank you.

  • Ellen Begley

    I’ve challenged myself to take on different “purges” or “challenges” as a resolution for every month this year, and this month, I purged social media for these 31 days. Yesterday, I finished a project in one day that normally takes me around a week and I have spent a lot more of my free time reading and consume things that I choose to consume rather than consuming 100 things in a thumb-scroll, 2 of which I would have chosen to consume. I’m not sure if disconnecting long-term is a solution for me but I am likely not to put the Facebook app back on my phone! I have so much more time in the morning to listen to a podcast, meditate and actually finish the Brene Brown book I started months ago. I am loving the more focused intentionality of my content consumption so far and am looking forward to seeing how things change more and more. Hell, I may start journaling again.

  • Annie Carr

    Just deleted my Facebook app after reading this thread – I had already moved my Instagram app into a random folder on my homescreen but I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to it altogether just yet. Maybe next month!

  • Harriet Johns

    I’m currently in my final year of university so I spend most of my days in the library reading journal article after journal article, researching my dissertation topic. My eyes hurt and my brain is frazzled, so I take a break. I suddenly realised the other day I constitute a break as scrolling through social media. In the evenings I may watch TV but again I’m on my phone scrolling through something else. It doesn’t help that my job is also in social media. It has really only just in the last few months come to my attention that scrolling through instagram etc is not giving your brain a break really. You are so right, we are all consuming so much information, we do not even realise it. (Would like to point out I do obviously fill my day with other activities than written above but it still is scary how much information we are constantly consuming.)

  • Hallie Wright

    Really thoughtful piece Haley, thanks for writing. “Maybe, in a simple resistance to the mindless scroll, ideals bloom.” It really does require resistance. I “gave up” all social media for lent and it’s opened up time for some reflection on why I engage with those channels in the first place. I can’t say that I miss it.

  • Shannon Brady

    I so deeply appreciate this. It is my job to teach art and yet in my down moments I find myself getting sucked into the “vortex.” Everything is pushed to you online and it is such a valuable aspect of humanity to just discover art on your own. I’ve been trying to consciously choose what I read and hear and as a result I’m noticing how it is slowly making my work as both an artist and teacher that much more informed. You’ve got to curate your own consumption! This is awesome.

  • Ann P

    Haley I just love reading your work. I consider it a real privilege to watch (read?) as you explore the way your mind works, the way you live, and as you basically keep becoming the amazing person you already are. Thanks for putting so much of yourself on the page.

  • Jana Nysten


    I so loved this.

    I recently decliners my insta, cause it was just too much. And I didnt even know how it got there.


    Yes, it is difficult, cause you always see new things and then forget about the projects you were planning on for longer… called distraction. Turns into unproductivity. Turns into beating up myself about it…

    So decided a few things:

    – limit social media time to 10 minutes a day, 5 in the morning, 5 in the evening

    – because I have less time, only follow or like things/people with feeds I really like and that give me something (now… ähem, tough to decide which those are… but figured certainly not @kaylaitsines… you girls with me?!)

    – keep number of things/people I follow low. Under 100 currently. And think should not go back to more than 150 (know it is freaking hard…)


    – rather read a blog and do that consistently for inspiration – like manrepeller – cause reading more content and sticking to a limited number of people that reasonate to you…

    … seems to sharpen my mind more.

    And gives me more time to spend with the people in my life. Who are in the end the most important „influencers“.

    And yes, Harling, I quite always like all their pics they post, no matter how stupid. And we have a family WhatsApp group. Which is soooooooo fun. (And I give that another five minutes a day, cause… come on… its family. 🙂 )



    And haha… follow me on insta… @janan_1001


  • Erin Martinez

    I can’t handle this article. Sorry, but you set up the parameters of your own passive consumption. I trust my movie/music algorithms because I took the time to input a huge amount of data about what I like. I can confidently scroll through my Instagram because it’s my friends and a few select designers, artists, etc that I really like. If anyone ever slips in that doesn’t fit that, I take two seconds to delete them.

    If a friend recommends a book, it’s an endorsement that I consider as I read about the novel. But I’m hardly going to sit down to read a book just because someone said so- friend or literary critic. I just don’t see how someone can become overwhelmed by their own media consumption. Seriously Haley, you don’t have a favorite author, director, artist, whose work you’re intimately familiar with? You didn’t own Millennium at least?
    As for articles being shared, you can always take the two seconds to vet if it’s something you want to read. You can always go “Right now I’m working” and not read it.

    Finally, without the normal swapping of day to day media that happens from friends or trusted sources (all hail the iTunes algorithm), how do you discover new art and not become a myopic loop of stale ideas? You can stand up to passive consumption without eschewing it. You can have it work in your favor. You can, shockingly enough, read that trendy Atlantic article while also having a list of long form for later. All it takes is bare minimum discernment.

  • streats

    “It feels like my mind is getting stronger, breathing deeper.” – I love this line. I’ve been using Facebook less and less, except for specific interest groups for communities I want to engage with (a local environmental group, a fashion theory/psychology group, etc). I use the Facebook Saved feature to compile a reading list for later, then every now and again I’ll catch up on all the interesting stuff I’ve saved up. I kind of want to move away from that though and start identifying the sources whose content I appreciate most consistently (like MR) and then go there directly or subscribe by email or whatever means I can filter.

    I’ve never been a big reader but last year I started but making time for books and averaged about a book a month which is unprecedented for me (before it’d not even be a book a year). I’m trying to carve out more time for reading this year now that I’m settled in my new job/home/city, and I want to have certain rules to taper myself off mindless scrolling. I’m generally sceptical of the “technology/social media is making us stupider” thing, but recently I have been a lot more aware of how compulsively I consume stuff, even if it is ostensibly intellectual articles etc.

  • Michelle

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. It prompted me to quit Instagram and Facebook 2 weeks ago. I lasted 1.5 weeks without Facebook (overseas friends!) but haven’t been tempted to reinstate Instagram.
    It scares me that when I look around my city the majority of people are looking at their phones constantly, consuming information. I think about how most things that pop onto my screen are target marketed to me. How many of my ideas are unique vs subconsciously guided by online marketing? Why is it that when I went to see First Aid Kit there were at least 100 other young women there, like me, with a fringe, cute flat roman sandals and vintage style dresses? I’m not acting uniquely or deliberately and I think a lot of this has to do with what I’m consuming online. Hoping to break the cycle. Your article was thoughtful and well written. Off to read my Agatha Christie novel I found on the side of the road the other day. I didn’t research books to read, just randomly found it and am somewhat enjoying it. That feels like a real experience.