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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