The Matrix Has You Prisoner! Take The 2-Week Break Free Challenge.

Trapped in the Matrix
Every day, billion-dollar companies conspire against us. They use every possible tool at their disposal, hiring behavioral psychologists, and recruiting freaking scientists to capture the world’s most precious resource.

No, not money. Our time and attention!

You probably don’t even realize it, but we are being played at this very moment.

From Buzzfeed articles BEGGING us to click on them (“You won’t believe #5!”), to that tiny hit of dopamine we get with every new text alert, Facebook message, or email. And this has an impact on us – not just as we get distracted from our task at hand,  but long-term we compulsively seek out this “hit” more and more often.

In fact, I just checked my phone as I was writing this introduction because a text came in.

I feel like I’m trapped in a real-life version of The Matrix. This nerd classic explores a world in which the entire human race is hooked up to a virtual reality system designed to keep us blissfully ignorant and complacent, so we can be used as batteries for the machines. In short: we built machines to make our lives easier, and they ended up owning us.

Sound familiar?

In non-nerd terms, we’re hooked on digital “junk food:” Empty calories that we consume, making us temporarily happy but ultimately unfulfilled: soda, chips, candy. Because these things have minimal nutritional value, we eat them to feel satisfied in that moment (RIGHT NOW THIS MAKES ME HAPPY!), and then feel empty after and need to eat more.

Me, you, and everyone else — we are all addicted to hits of dopamine, checking our notifications, browser tabs, and phones which keep ourselves artificially busy. The system has grown to enslave us, exploiting our nature for their gain.

But like Neo, it’s the society that we’ve inherited, and it’s up to us to take back our free time and attention. Speaking of which, I’m currently resisting the urge to check the likes my most recent post on Facebook got. Ugh.

Nothing Is Truly Free.

“Steve, what’s the big deal? The apps on my phone are free, the games I play are free. I love this stuff!”

I hear you, as I still feel like I’m trapped even though I can’t help myself either. In fact, it was even worse once. I would spend my mornings playing Clash of Clans while lying in bed before starting my day, checking Instagram while in line at Chipotle, and fanatically tabbing-back over to Gmail in my browser whenever a new email came in. None of these things cost money, but there is an even greater cost associated with those things.

As we talked about recently, time is the only truly limited resource we have.

No matter what you choose to do with your time, there’s an opportunity cost associated with it. If you choose to do one thing, by default you are choosing to not do another. Choosing to read Buzzfeed means choosing to NOT spend that same amount of time on something else that could be more productive.

Okay, so what’s the big deal, you might be thinking. It’s just a 60-second article, right? Unfortunately the cost is so much deeper than that.

“Saying yes” not only has a time cost in that moment, but contributes to who you are and your preferences as a person long-term: saying yes to scrolling through Facebook means you’re rewiring your brain to prefer that activity more and more over something else. You begin to crave it, and before you know it, you feel an urge to check your phone or tab over to a Harry Potter quiz every 3 minutes. Every day.

Facebook and social media: How many times a day do you go to Facebook or scroll through your mini feed, but you really wanted to do something else?  Are you using social media to connect, or because you need a hit of dopamine through how many likes or shares or retweets you got?

How about TV or video games? How much time do you spend watching TV shows you don’t enjoy anymore? What about reruns of shows you’ve already seen, simply because “there’s nothing else on”? I’m a sucker for 100% completion on video games – for some reason I waste hours and hours just for that feeling of finishing the game. Ugh, that’s time I can NEVER get back.

Habitually checking your phone! I just got back from a 24-hour trip to Montreal where I had to leave my phone in airplane mode the whole time. I checked my phone 10 times in my first hour, each time realizing “you fool, your phone is in airplane mode! It’s just an expensive brick!” By the end of the day I forgot it was in my pocket, but it very clearly showed me that I had a significant phone addiction.

Even though I can see it, these things seem to have so much subtle power over me. I know my brain is rewiring itself, like a rat in a lab experiment, to love these things…and I am powerless to stop it! Here’s really gets me going:

  • video games designed to keep me coming back (Clash of Clans, ugh).
  • news sites begging me to click (You’ll never believe what [politician] said today!).
  • apps disguising “ease of use” (I see you, Facebook messenger) and making it impossible to turn off notifications to keep you hooked.
  • content that disappears (like Snapchat stories, after 24 hours), meaning you have to check in regularly if you don’t want to miss anything.

I hated that my brain was powerless, and I wanted to prove to myself that I WASN’T a prisoner – that I was still in control. So here’s what I did.

Your Attention Span Sucks: Opt Out

The Matrix Computer

It’s time to opt-out and say “hard pass” to being trapped in The Matrix. It ain’t easy, and the more you pull away, the more they try to keep you trapped. Not only that, but it can feel like a big loss when you opt-out on certain things or don’t respond to everything right away.

The first step is to form the intention to stop letting the Machines win.  I had to recognize that I had a problem and it was keeping me from doing the things I wanted to do – once I made this recognition, I could take specific action to allow myself to break free of the shackles.

(By the way, I just automatically opened a Gmail tab in my browser WITHOUT consciously processing it. AH!)

Now, you may not succeed all at once, but simply making an intention to change can be the start of an incredible transformation in the way you choose to spend your time. It starts with identifying WHAT TYPE of activity you’re dealing with:


  • UPPER LEFT #1: If something is urgent and important (a crucial deadline, a presentation, a medical emergency, house on fire), you do it. Simple enough.
  • LOWER RIGHT #3: If something is neither urgent nor important (e.g. a meeting next week or party you don’t want to go to), you avoid it.

Unfortunately, it’s the other two quadrants that cause all the damn problems:

When you give power to the urgent and unimportant #2 (phone calls, crappy TV, clickbait articles, text messages, snapchat, checking email every 5 minutes), in place of the important and not urgent #4 (getting meaningful work done at the office efficiently, working out, hanging out with friends, reading a great book, spending time with your kids or family, practicing your violin or Spanish) – you always feel busy and yet unfulfilled.

Digital junk food. Matrix. I was angry – and I knew I had to commit to spending more time hanging out in Quadrant #4 (the good stuff) and less time in Quadrant #2. Even if I could go back to some of the creature comforts or things that bring me a small bit of joy, I wanted to detox my brain almost and remind myself what’s important.

The Two Week Break Free Mission.


Now that we’ve laid out the problem with how we’re spending our time and attention, it’s time to do something about it.

While I still consider myself trapped like most others, my two week reset helped me make enormous progress. I still break down and check Facebook (even though my newsfeed is eradicated!), or get too much enjoyment from seeing how many likes a photo I post on Instagram gets. I’m just more aware of the power it has over me and do my best to fix it.

Now, everybody’s two weeks might be different. Everyone is tempted by different, substance-less things. It’s up to you to identify those things (many might be the same), and cut them out for (for just two weeks!). Here’s the plan:

  • Recognize which activities are digital junk food and are aware of your attachment to them.
  • Do less of those things. Put a system or blockers in place to remove the activities that are urgent and unimportant.
  • Spend that extra time doing something worthwhile that makes you feel good (reading a book, learning new words in a foreign language, tackling a new project at work).

After that, you can go back to being a prisoner if you REALLY want to, but I’m hopeful this change will result in permanent changes for you like it did for me.

Here’s what my two weeks of freedom looked like:

1) I uninstalled all social media apps (Facebook/Twitter/ Instagram/Snapchat/etc.) from my phone. I deleted the apps, and turned off email notifications for every account too. I was aware of how often I felt the urge to check in on each of them. After two weeks, you can reinstall them, and find out what you’re really missing (nothing, as your friends will tell you the important stuff).

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 4.07.59 PM2) I eradicated my newsfeed on Facebook (see my screen to the right)/ Chrome, Safari, Firefox). Yup, you’ll see far fewer dumb links and pictures of your friends’ really cute kids. You might even miss a useless announcement. Otherwise, you’ll miss literally nothing. I still hang out in the NF Academy or Camp NF Facebook groups, but don’t get distracted by the news wall.

3) I turned off computer email notifications and did NOT keep a browser tab open to my email all day. I stopped responding to every email the second they came in, and instead checked in on email after a few hours of focused, dedicated work. We’ve been trained as a society to respond instantly at the immense cost of focus. It was a huge relief to start to reclaim mine. What about checking once per hour instead of instantly?

4) I used a program called Freedom to block time wasting websites on my computer. I set 30 minute increments and block everything other than the crucial (so Facebook, Gmail, Youtube, Amazon, Yahoo, Cnet, IGN, etc. are all blocked). It’s money well spent in my opinion.

5) I stopped consuming click-bait news. Have you read Trust Me, I’m LyingNearly every story you read has been sensationalized and is written just to get you to click and feel angry and comment. I found myself spending hours over the course of a week on these sites, thinking I was informing myself, but I was just simply making myself angry (and learning nothing).  It’s amazing how much better I felt when I cut this empty content out of my life.

What sorts of things are on your list? What sorts of things do you need to regain control over? Or, as Tyler Durden might ask, what things do you need to regain control over, so “The things you own [don’t] end up owning you.”

If you’re anything like me, I looked at the crap I was hooked on and got angry. The tougher it was to give up, the more anger I needed to get myself to say “hell no I’m not hooked, I can prove to myself I can get free.”

You ALWAYS Have a CHoice


Today is the day we fight back against the machines. For the next two weeks, I want you to prove to yourself that you have control.

When you find yourself saying “I need something” or “I have to do something,” I challenge you to go down the rabbit hole and ask yourself “why?” Keep asking why.

Here’s the three-step plan again:

  1. Recognize which activities are digital junk food and are aware of your attachment to them.
  2. Do less of those things. Put a system or blockers in place to remove the activities that are urgent and unimportant.
  3. Spend that extra time doing something worthwhile that makes you feel good (reading a book, learning new words in a foreign language, tackling a new project at work).

I went ahead and made this handy Google Doc to guide you through this process. We’ve even turned it into a game.

Give yourself one point for each of the 7 challenges you say no to for each day, for a max total of 98 points:


Once these two weeks are up, you can go back to “normal life” – but I bet there’s a part of you that will realize “Hey, my life is no different than before when I wasted all my brain power on that other stuff. In fact, it’s better!”

So, are you in on the two week Matrix-Free challenge?

Which activities do you need to give up? Which one do you think will be the hardest?


PS: Here’s that spreadsheet again, good luck!


photo source: We Love Costa RicaHector Garcia: Red Pill Blue Pill, Rufus: Agent Smith, Beat Kung: Trapped in The Matrix Amazon

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    41 thoughts on “The Matrix Has You Prisoner! Take The 2-Week Break Free Challenge.

    1. YES.

      I actually put myself on a digital detox a few months ago… But I went back to my digital addiction because – true story – it scared me. I don’t do well with stillness, and it turned out that the time I spent online helped me make my energy levels more manageable. Turns out, there need to be some limits set on my productivity, or everyone that knows me starts being afraid for me.

    2. I gave up social media for Lent this year, and I didn’t go back to Facebook for another couple of weeks. I immediately unfriended and unfollowed a bunch of people so that my news feed is only stuff that I actually want to see. I may end up taking a long break again soon!

    3. Media detox is exactly what I’ve been needing recently! Love the challenge. I’m game!

    4. This is a great post, thank you. I have turned off all of my notifications on my phone, except text messages. It has really helped. I look at my screen and see nothing tempting me to check Facebook, etc. When I catch myself on it, I close it and move on to more productive things.

      I also deleted the Amazon app to help reduce impulse buying!

      I am currently listening to Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less and it has really become an eye opener for wasted time, effort, and energy.

    5. Oh boy…. This is a TALL order!! Eliminating social media from my life? That’s almost like asking me to stop breathing……… however…………… I do recognize the need to wean myself away from my 24/7 access – at least to some extent. But, being a social media coach, it makes it more difficult for me to make a clean break like that. And, I admit, I love my social media outlets…. especially after work when I get home – it’s my “relaxation” mode to chill after a day at the office. To completely shut myself off from Social Media is akin to being on a deserted island. Although, I must admit, when I go on cruise, I am forced to give it up for days at a time, and I’ve actually “not” missed it ……. well, too much anyway. But once home, every social media channel is wide open!

      This was, indeed, an excellent article, Steve. Even if I am “unable” or unwilling to give it a go, the value and wisdom in this article is, IMHO, invaluable!

    6. So you’re a freelance person who does Social Media for clients/non-profits/charity etc. How do you unplug and still meet your obligations?

    7. I am in TOTAL agreement with this post. In fact, my new year’s action (better to act than be resolved to act on something) was to delete Facebook. At first, it felt weird (how could I find out if people liked what I thought?) but after a while, I realised that the emails I sent to friends instead were SO much more meaningful and I could go back and read slowly through what they said.

      Trust me – this was a big decision. I’m a Londoner living in Mexico so my only contact with some of my friends was via FaceBook but the emails are infinitely better.

      Now I have NO social media at all except for email. I never watch TV except for when I do the ironing. I don’t spend time on the internet. I have no hobbies. And I sure as hell don’t play games of any nature. In fact, I don’t play at all.

      But I still don’t have enough time. I work a lot. I have changed my life so that I am at home working instead of in an office away from my wife and kids but I’m still working. And I’m not wasting time working either. All of the stuff I do NEEDS to be done and that extra money I make is very useful because we are building a house.

      However, despite its usefulness, I still feel that I am not spending enough time in that all important green quadrant 4.

      I want to spend more time actually engaging with my family rather than simply being in the same room as them. I would like to read to them and even to myself. I would like to watch more films.

      So how do I fight the matrix of feeling that I have to work all the time? That particular Agent Smith has me beat.

    8. Wow, Freedom is awesome!!

      My main problem with the machines is, that I work with a computer and that I have to google some shit every five minues. Or write a Telegram message to my collegues in another office building. So, wading through the interblag makes it very easy to deviate.

      But I’m oh so very happy that I do not even have a facebook account.

    9. Interestingly enough I just recently did a light-version of this: Removing my bookmarks to all social media on my browser. Being forced to type by hand (despite being very fast at it) still made me much less likely to “spam-click” youtube, email accounts etc.

      I also created a new tab in my main Excel-file (where all my diet, exercise and other stuff is in) and called it “projects”, adding the aspect I wanted to change (for example “free time usage”), the goal I have pertaining that aspect (“read more, play more games/watch more movies/shows with direction and purpose, mindfully”) and how I intend to reach said goal(s) (“read 30 minutes, every day, before bed. Plan & schedule viewing/gaming and stick with it. Always have an ebook on my phone”).

      I’ll admit, I haven’t been too good at doing this, but I things still have improved a bit. This article might just be one of the most important you have written this year or ever and provides me with renewed focus to get things under control.

    10. Is it weird that I can only come up with two things I spend way too much time one (Facebook and Tumblr) so I’m staring at the google doc like “wut” as I try to think what else I might add.

    11. I started using the Forest app ( It grows virtual trees throughout the day if I can stay off my devices and/or blocked sites. It keeps me mindful, because I don;t want to “lose” the game.

    12. Go off social media for a day you feel like you are missing everything – go off for a month and you realize you are missing nothing!

    13. This post came at the perfect time! I have just started “leveling up my life” and part of this process is eliminating digital detox. I literally cut the number of people I follow on Twitter to half. In a world where our every move on the internet is monitored or could come back to us years later, it is important to be aware of who and what we choose to invest our time in. Time is precious. Thank you for this post! I will definitely be participating on the 2 week challenge!

    14. THIS^
      All of this. If you have written an article that I needed to read, it is this one. Up untill about a year ago I was probably the worlds youngest anti convienience tech guy on the planet. Then I joined a gym that posted its class times on Facebook. It went downhill from there. Last month I started my own tech detox. I only check Facebook maybe once a day. Email the same. I “upgraded” my android to a flip phone. These changes have made a whole world of difference in my life. All of it good. You dont have to go as far or as hard as I have but I recomend trying it.

    15. Amazing stuff right there! Honest, this post got me so hooked I just had to re-read it. Media detox is really an awesome concept…how about taking it a little further and going camping for two weeks? haha loved the post, can’t wait to read more!

    16. I really need to not totally give up Facebook, but definitely lessen my time on time on it. I work from home and I’m an extrovert. So I definitely find myself during the day chatting with friends on it and using it to feel connected to others. I need to do more of this IRL instead of just online.

    17. But I have some genuine friends on social media, I’m sure a lot of NF people will attest to how real online-based friendships are (e.g. ones they’ve made through the site) even though you don’t physically hang out. Whether you DM them on Twitter or call them on Skype, it’s still technically social media.

      Facebook is an interesting one as people do share things exclusively there. The useful thing about it is you can decide for yourself if that person and what they post are important to you – what is unimportant to some people (“here are some photos I took on a walk last weekend!”) are important to others (I’d love to see your photos!)

      Facebook, smartphones and other social media tools are not inherently bad (opinions on big data collection notwithstanding) but you are right in that you should be aware, especially if you find yourself addicted and don’t want to be. It’s like any tool – I don’t think the problem is using them at all – the problem is using them wrong, or the “all or nothing” approach people seem to take, and allowing them to interrupt you. You have to set boundaries, even if it feels a little ‘rude’. Friends I make online and off know not to expect instant responses from me – I don’t use IM apps unless absolutely necessary for a specific event, very rarely log into Skype, have notifications turned off on Facebook, appear offline on Messenger (and set the privacy settings to not reveal when I’ve seen a message) and frequently use the ‘do not disturb’ function on my smartphone to turn off SMS and hangout alerts etc. I tell people all this and they do seem to understand and respect it.

      You don’t have to know RIGHT NOW that your friend posted 17 awesome photos from his walk, but at the same time, you might not want to miss it altogether. For that reason I simply check social media in one ‘batch’ once or twice a day. Only takes a few minutes and I don’t miss out on the things I actually want to see, but every little slice of someone’s life doesn’t act like a phone call.

    18. I have a flip phone. Everyone teases me, but I don’t want to be connected all the time. People are constantly pointing out to me all the things I’m missing, but the only things I’d like to have access to are traffic maps. Other than that, I’m good. I don’t need to play Scrabble all day with my friends, or check Facebook, or whatever. I’ve never Tweeted or scanned anything. I may live in another century, but I’m good with that.

    19. I like this idea, but the 2 week challenge doesn’t quite seem in line with the fundamental theory of Nerd Fitness. You normally support small, sustainable changes that add up to meaning differences. This seems to be akin to quick fix diets.

    20. If you haven’t seen it already, please watch the ‘Black Mirror’ episode titled “Fifteen Million Merits”. It tackles the concept of living a virtual life over an authentic one…and it’s freaking crazy awesome. Trust me.

      I’m an avid live music enthusiast, and my moment of “hey you should probably look up from your screen” was coming home from a concert and realizing I had seen almost the entire show squinting from behind my phone. There needs to be a balance between capturing a moment to relinquishing every moment for “likes”, “retweets”, and other digital currency. And this is coming from someone who’s working at a data center for a VERY high profile social media company lol. There’s nothing wrong with indulging in social media but living your ENTIRE life from behind a teeny tiny screen is robbing you of authentic memories.

      Since that show I have given myself a rule of thumb; 2-3 pictures, maybe 1 video. That’s it. It forces me to choose wisely and keeps me very in the moment.

      **PS everyone should just watch all of ‘Black Mirror’. It’s a British anthology series about the not so distant future and how humanity and technology have intertwined. IT’S AMAZEBALLS.

    21. Reminds me of power outages making you realize just how much time there is in a day .

    22. I think that this will be a good thing to do. I’ll likely start it on the 1st so that I can count the full 14 days. For now though I should cut back some. See if I can do a only check twice a day system.

    23. Some things you just can’t get away from, especially in that position. Instead of giving it up altogether, consider a strict separation: only check that stuff during work hours. When 5 o’clock hits, you don’t check again until the next day (or Monday).

      I know, I know, it’s easier said than done. But it’s possible.

      Schedule posts that have to go up after-hours, instead of logging in to write them. Find things that can help you automate so you’re not messing around after hours, so you can detox.

      Explain your situation to clients. Not necessarily that you’re “detoxing,” but that you need to make time for yourself/family/friends/anything. Done properly, your clients will respect you more, and even work with you to help accomplish your goals.

      Good luck!

    24. That’s a tough one. Working from home can seem like a blessing, but it can definitely be a curse. “Just do it when you get back to the office” suddenly turns into “I work from home, so I can do it now.” There’s no clear separation. There’s no office that says, “I’m working now,” that you can leave to clearly say, “I’m done working now.”

      So here’s my suggestion(s). Take them as you will.

      Create a clear separation between “home” and “work” since the two things aren’t location-bound anymore. Create an office area (even if it’s just a corner in a room somewhere), and only do work there. Do whatever you can to make sure you only work there, nowhere else.

      Automate things. Use programs to post articles “after hours.” Explain to people that you’re not going to be available 24/7 anymore. “Sorry, I need to be there for my family.” People will understand–and even respect you more–for wanting to have a clear separation from work. When you’re at work, WORK. When you’re not at work, DON’T WORK.

      Make no mistake, this is a difficult thing. Get the separation clear in your mind first. Figure out where your boundaries are and stick to them. It’s a long, difficult road, but you can do it. Be strong. 🙂

    25. “Every day, billion-dollar companies conspire against us” is such a compelling opening sentence. I noticed, though, that the screenshot of a beautifully newsfeed-free Facebook page has an ad on it letting those same companies choose how to direct your attention.

      For those nerds who don’t know about them yet, free ad-blocking extensions are one of my favorite open secrets on the internet; I installed one on my laptop years ago and never see an ad before a YouTube video or on a webpage unless I opt to — one more way to free our minds from the Matrix. (I use Adblock Plus; I’m sure many others are great too.)

    26. This was great! I just installed the Chrome eradication extension for Facebook as you recommended. Great suggestion!

    27. I’m totally in! I think the things I really need to cut down are mainly YouTube, Instagram and Whatsapp… It’ll be hard, but I’ll try. Two weeks isn’t that much ^^

    28. I deleted Facebook some timeago and don’t miss a thing 🙂 It’s actually better since you then don’t compare yourself to others that much

    29. I recommend workouts, science (biology and physics are really interesting) and music. Also, everybody has these projects they wanted to do but somehow just… didn’t, if you know what I mean

    30. I love this! I’ve actually been Facebook free for 8 days… plan to keep it that way for all of June.

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