You know the feeling. You pull your phone from your pocket or off the table, unlock it, open the app, wait for it to refresh, maybe pull down to refresh again (you know, just in case), then put it back down with a twinge of disappointment. Only to repeat the cycle five or 10 minutes later.

Despite a pretty awesome staycation with my family, last week involved too many phone checks. I (usually) like my family, but was itching for a particular email to come through. The cognitive tug-of-war between wanting to see the email versus being present for my family lead me to think about how often we sacrifice our attention to check our phones.

Shipping updates on the Amazon package. The email after the job interview. The text back from the girl we just met (is this still how it works?). News from the doctor. Who reacted to my Tweet.

I call this my Attention on my Phone Explanation. It’s my APE brain.

Why do we do this, what feeds the APE brain, and most importantly, how can we stop?

I think much of it comes down to some version of the hedonic treadmill. Our APE brain says the next job or promotion or date or Amazon package will change it all. Even if we know this isn't true. As Sam Harris mentioned in a recent Moment in the Waking Up app, the fact that we still have wants proves that no solution in the past was ever the cure-all. While this borders on nihilistic, whatever reason we're refreshing won’t satisfy the APE brain in the long-term. It’s going to have new wants as soon as we adapt to the new thing.

I also think our APE brain is subject to, as Cal Newport calls it, the hyperactive hive mind. We jump from shiny object to shiny object because focusing on what matters is, well, hard. Checking on a shipment status or refreshing email once more is a lot easier than writing a blog post (hypothetical example, of course). Greg McKeown's book Essentialism discusses the importance of prioritizing the essential, and a Twitter thread from Dr. Julie Gurner offers practical steps for figuring out what really matters. You can quiet your APE brain by understanding that checking shipping status won’t help you become a more present parent (again, purely hypothetical).

The next time you catch yourself pulling down to refresh every 10 minutes, remember two things:

  1. Whatever you're checking on, whether the trivial (an Amazon package) or consequential (follow-up on a job interview), your APE brain will have other wants as soon as it adapts.


  1. Focus on what's important. If the thing you're checking on is nonessential and will not move you towards your goals, put it in its place. Quiet your APE brain by understanding what’s essential.

Here's hoping my next staycation (or ideally, vacation) involves a lot less pulling down to refresh.

Pull Down to Refresh