Confessions of a Cybersecurity Professional Who Got Stuck in a Digital Rabbit Hole

Set reminders throughout the day to be mindful, impactful and present in whatever task you're doing.

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In late November 1992, Herbert A. Simon, a renowned psychologist, economist and Nobel Laureate, coined the term "attention economy" in his research paper titled "The Bottleneck of Attention: Connecting Thought with Motivation." His research determined that attention was the "bottleneck of human thought" that limits both what we can perceive in stimulating environments and what we can do. Little did he know that the impending technology singularity we now know as the modern internet was about to emerge into our social fabric.

Fast forward a couple of years and Tristan Harris, a technology ethicist, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, and one of the stars of Netflix's 2020 docudrama The Social Dilemma, gave a 2014 TEDx Brussels talk that would take the words of Simon and bend them into a new kind of social submission. Harris stated the attention economy is not really the attention economy; it is actually a distraction economy. He put a unique spin on an otherwise obvious approach in what technology, and the innovation behind technology's grip, gives and takes away from tech consumers.

Part of the reason so many technology folks become cybersecurity professionals is not typically for the allure of being able to Nick Burns one's work colleagues. Even the well-intentioned person who writes all of their passwords on a sticky note, and places said sticky note underneath their desk, is just the icing on the cake when it comes to the hard-knock life of a cybersecurity professional. Nonetheless, the digital rabbit hole is real.

Yes, that rabbit hole. One that's all to easy to fall down, even at 6:00 a.m. (yes, really).

The Digital Rub

Even as a cybersecurity professional, this ritualistic morning routine became a habit of mine. I used social media and its various dysfunctional accessories as my daily alarm clock. For me, I connected to the newness of the present day only by trying to chase after and validate what had happened the day before (or even weeks before) from friends' social media posts. My friendships and relationships became superficial, entangled in this web of other superficial posts. And let's not even get into the mindless scrolling and the hours one never gets back, even on a good day. Even with full awareness of the number of data points being collected by this digital machine, I could only taste more of the succulent sweetness as I ingested this algorithmic opium morning after morning.

So, I stopped.

Really stopped.

Getting out of my own way not only allowed my own internal momentum to seek out the best path moving forward, but I was also able to progress into my mornings without the noise of my tantrum-driven toddler ego. I implemented a daily, non-negotiable meditation practice, and — like most addicts — I started to ask myself holistic questions right after waking up:

• Does whatever I'm viewing online right now reflect my values?

• At the end of each day, how has my screen time helped me improve myself?

• What can I modify or commit to in order to bring about sustainable change with my relationship to my screen time?

• If I think of every megabyte as a bite of food, what percentage of quality food have I consumed online today?

• Is my relationship to social media or technology healthy this early in the morning?

Oh, did someone mention digital detox?

The Takeaway

Look, even a therapist needs a therapist, which explains why many of us who feel attached to technology never take the right amount of time to understand the balance between the darker side of technology and our mental health. My journey is ongoing, and surprisingly, I did not distance myself from social media completely. I simply became aware of the awareness of it and disregarded it very much in the same way I would disregard a harmful digital drug. This is where our worlds merge as cybersecurity professional and consumer. So, here is the advice I have to offer, based on my own experience:

• Don't use your phone as your alarm clock. In fact, don't take it into your bedroom at all at night. If you want to use something like the Kindle app, put your phone in airplane mode to avoid disturbances while reading.

• Follow the Tim Ferris model of digital detoxing by never checking email first thing in the morning. Never. Try meditating instead (even for 10 minutes), or follow a breathwork or a cold shower routine first thing.

• Set reminders throughout the day to be mindful, impactful and present in whatever task you're doing. Get rid of all other notifications, and try not to have your phone on you for specific time increments throughout the day.

• Remember that this journey is ongoing, and there will be a million things vying for your attention all before breakfast. Reduce, reduce and reduce again all things digital that truly don't give you your best tech life.

Overall, this process has taught me about true momentum. This routine took time, but over a few weeks, it replaced my previous morning journey of guilt and shame with a renewed sense of awareness and tech curiosity.

Now, let me get back to these damn sticky notes.

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