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Why Your Brain Needs Understimulation


The world is more hyper-connected than ever, and your brain continues to crave the juicy stimulation and escapism that the internet can provide. However, according to the theory of ego depletion, overstimulation can drain your limited mental energy, leaving you feeling more unfocused and unmotivated even if you’ve spent an hour doing nothing but watching entertaining TikToks. 

When it comes time to actually tackle a necessary task, do you ever find yourself overcome with negative feelings, like dread or shame? You have entered what is known as the Ugh Field. This often leads us to procrastinate with more overstimulating activities, but overstimulation can make the Ugh field feel more insurmountable. Today we’re tackling strategies that fight overstimulation so you can reclaim your attention span and pass through the Ugh Field with greater ease to complete your projects. 

The Impact of Overstimulation on Willpower and Mental Energy

Stimulation can be an excellent thing to awaken your five senses and enjoy your present moment. But when it becomes too much for your brain to handle, you become overstimulated. In your daily life, cognitive, sensory, or emotional overstimulation can be caused by high-paced environments, work pressures, and societal expectations. 

To “take a break,” many of us turn to tech, where the explosion in media consumption actually contributes to our overstimulation and continues draining our mental capacity. Yet it doesn’t take long for social media usage to become a pervasive habit. 

Ego depletion theorizes that your willpower is a limited resource that depletes over time through usage. If you use your self-control to regulate your behavior, then you’ve used a portion of your willpower and it may be difficult to motivate yourself to complete more demanding tasks. 

According to the theory, the more focused and controlled you’ve been with yourself early in the day, such as performing well at your high-stress job, may lead to decision fatigue, compromised focus, and reduced self-control in the evening.

Instead of working out, you’re on Instagram for hours on the couch. Or you may find yourself struggling to concentrate for more than a few minutes on a work task on your laptop before opening up Facebook in the next tab. 

How Finite Is Willpower?

However, your brain may be more resilient than we think. In a study with psychologist Veronika Job, the New York Times found that willpower can indeed be quite limited — but only if you believe it is. 

“When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted,” Greg Walton and Carol Dweck wrote. “But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower. It turns out that willpower is in your head.”

Your brain’s motivation may not be depleting, it may just be getting momentarily distracted. So how do you raise your motivation for better focus? 

Understanding the Ugh Field

When the idea of doing a certain task causes you anxiety, discomfort, or stress, you may create a mental barrier to avoid thinking about it, represented by the “Ugh Field.” If you find yourself spending more time and energy dreading writing your report instead of actually doing it, then you make the Ugh Field stronger through your own cognitive biases. 

Your brain begs for pleasure instead of discomfort, and overstimulating distractions are the easy answer to fill your mind with dopamine hits. But as time ticks and your procrastination prolongs, your stress grows and it becomes ever more tempting to stay away from unpleasant thoughts and enjoy the comforts of your phone instead

Another study tested levels of 7720 middle school students’ inattention with different mobile phone exposure. It found that “inattention in adolescents was significantly associated with mobile phone (MP) ownership, the time spent on entertainment on MP per day, the position of the MP during the day and the mode of the MP at night. The strongest association between inattention and the time spent on the MP was among students who spent more than 60 minutes per day playing on their MP.”

If you turn to your mobile phone often for leisure, you may be distracting your own willpower and strengthening the Ugh Field. However, you have the power to strengthen or weaken the Ugh Field through the way you act on your conscious or subconscious emotional urges. Here’s how:

“Top-Down” Decision-Making

The mental block of the Ugh Field is hard to pass through, especially if you adhere to “top-down” decision making. In this mode, the prefrontal cortex of your brain’s subconscious desires are calling all the shots, and without thinking, you have succumbed to the demand for instant gratification that leads to a distracted, overstimulated, and dopamine-addled mind. 

The longer you stay in an overstimulated state, the harder it is to pull away. Thus, your brain’s mental capacity for willpower is continually distracted as videos, images, and audio overstimulate your mind to the point of exhaustion. The Ugh Field has grown, and now each task feels even more insurmountable since you’ve just spent all the time online instead of on your project. Your brain and procrastination will always win in “Top-down” decision-making.

However, by following “Bottoms-Up” decision-making, you can reduce the Ugh Field and push through discomfort to actually accomplish what you need to do. 

Embracing “Bottoms-Up” Decision-Making with the Freedom App

Bottoms-up” decision-making helps you address negative feelings through activities that actually respond to what your brain desires. Your actions correspond to your true emotions and not just your brain’s base desires. Instead of overstimulation, reach for “under-stimulating activities.” These are actually gently stimulating, but can recharge your brain’s mental capacity.

  •  If you want to escape, read a fiction book or go for a nature walk. 
  • Try knitting, meditating, yoga, or stretching to relax your mind and body. 
  • If you want to release your thoughts, journal or call a friend. 
  • To gently stimulate your senses, garden, cook, sip tea, take a bath, or listen to music.

While the idea of doing these activities may sound appealing, it can be hard to actually follow through with easy overstimulating distractions so close at hand. However, productivity apps like Freedom block a customized list of distracting websites and applications from your laptop and mobile devices simultaneously for a time of your choosing. 

With “bottoms-up” decision-making, you’ll be able to calm your brain down and actually refill your willpower and mental capacity to take on whatever project you need with a bit more ease. So when you arrive home and sit to scroll, you’ll find yourself unable to access your apps and be left to try other methods of understimulating your brain.

Strategies for Implementing Understimulation Using the Freedom App

It can be difficult to make a lasting change when you try to abruptly shift your habits for the better. We recommend implementing step-by-step strategies with the help of the Freedom app to tackle specific triggers of overstimulation.

The Freedom app is easy to integrate into your daily routines. For example, if you want to begin your day with a workout instead of scrolling in bed, you can set a recurring Morning session that blocks your choice of distracting apps from 6-8 AM. Without the temptations, it’s one less obstacle to getting up and moving! 

When you arrive home from work, you can set a quick 30-minute block with the tap of a button as you walk into the front door. Instead of sitting down to watch YouTube, you may find yourself gravitating towards a book to unwind. Reading replenishes your cognitive resources, giving you the willpower and energy to start making dinner for the family. 

Every few days or weeks, try to add one more healthy habit. As you make small lifestyle changes with the help of pre-scheduled and in-the-moment Block sessions, you’ll find yourself enjoying more focus, productivity, quality time, and mental resilience with the help of Freedom. 

Battling it out with your brain can feel quite difficult, especially if you’re breaking free from habitual patterns. Here are some other strategies that may help you maintain your focus.

  • Prioritize all of your tasks. What needs to be done this morning vs this afternoon? What can be done tomorrow? This can help you understand where to begin. 
  • Break down your larger projects into small chunks. Instead of designing three full pages today, begin this morning with a thumbnail sketch of your 3-page design. This afternoon, begin laying out your first page. Tomorrow, lay out your last two pages. 
  • When a distracting thought occurs, like “Oh, I need to go take out the trash,” write it down immediately and then continue with your task. 
  • Give yourself a scheduled time or reward for media consumption, such as allowing 20 minutes of scrolling after dinner, or rewarding yourself with a movie after you complete a large project. 

Seek Understimulation for Improved Focus

Overstimulation through mobile phone usage and internet time leads to detrimental effects on your willpower and focus. The more overstimulated you are, the more distracted your brain is, making it feel nearly impossible to overcome procrastination and the Ugh Field to accomplish those tasks you’re dreading. 

But when you approach “bottoms-up” decision-making and embrace understimulating, calming activities that actually recharge your brain’s ability to focus, you’ll find it easier to increase your motivation. With the help of the Freedom app, you can ensure that your distractions stay far away from you while you engage in these activities. 

If you’re ready to sharpen your willpower and take back control from your brain, download Freedom and try an understimulating activity to enjoy a more focused, productive lifestyle in this increasingly overstimulated world.

Written by Lorena Bally