Modern life is like a show bag: The need for limits and healthy digital habits

Your attention is your most precious and valuable resource.

Where I live in Perth Western Australia, there’s an event that happens once a year that demands your attention like no other: The Royal Show.

At this show, there are extreme rides, giant fluffy toys to be won, baby animals you can pat, and much, much more.

Wherever you are in the world, you probably have an event like this, too. And if you do, chances are there is something at the show that is completely attention grabbing . . .

The show bags.

I’ve come to see show bags as being an important metaphor for modern life. Let me explain . . .

When I was a child, I couldn’t wait for the show bag catalogue to be released. I would spend hours trawling through the catalogue, carefully selecting my show bags.

“Do I get the Barbie show bag?
Or the Smith’s chips bag?
Or the Bertie Beatle bag?”

These were big and important questions for my 6-year old brain.

When we finally got to the show, my parents and I would wait in the queue at the frenzied show bag stall. I remember looking up at the display of all the bright colourful show bags and feeling really excited.

But looking back, what was so exciting about these show bags?

If you break down the contents of a show bag, there’s a bit of a formula to them . . .

There’s usually a range of ultra-processed sugary and salty snack foods and a bunch of novelty toys.

If you take a good hard look at the contents of most show bags, there’s nothing that’s really nourishing in there. It’s just poor-quality junk food. Or cheap plastic rubbish that is destined for landfill.

As I got older, I wised-up to these overpriced show bags containing mostly garbage. I stopped buying them.

Now you’re probably wondering, “What do show bags have to do with being able to study effectively? How is this a metaphor for modern life?”

I’ve come to see show bags and the Royal Show as being similar to smartphones, specifically social media apps.

If consumed frequently (even just in small doses), they are potentially damaging to our minds, bodies, and the planet.

Think of it like this . . .

A show bag is fun to have once in a while.

But if you were to have a show bag every day, would you enjoy it as much?

Probably not.

According to addictions expert Dr Anna Lembke, if you consume too much of a pleasurable thing, it makes that thing less pleasurable.

This is why they say, “Less is more”.

There’s a reason the royal show only happens once a year and you can’t buy show bags at the local supermarket. It’s a special occasion. Show bags are designed to be a special treat.

It wouldn’t be so special if it happened all the time. After a while, the novelty would wear off. You’d get bored.

As you emptied the contents of your 50th Bertie Beetle show bag or entered the Gravitron for the 100th time, you’d be like “Meh. Big deal”.

If you don’t believe me, next time you’re at the show take a look at the carnies (the carnival workers). They’re not having fun in sideshow alley. They’re tired. They want to be packing up the rides and getting out of there.

The point is the Royal show and show bags are great once in a while but not all the time.

It’s the same deal with social media. Spending too much time on there isn’t doing you any good.

Switching rapidly from doing your work to your phone and then back again slows you down. It impairs your ability to think and learn. It makes you feel scattered and anxious, too.

It’s time to start thinking of TikTok, YouTube videos and text notifications as the sugary treats, salty snacks, and novelty toys contained in show bags. Nice to have occasionally, but if consumed in large quantities, you’re going to suffer.

Just because everyone is eating Bertie Beetles all day every day doesn’t make it healthy. It doesn’t make this behaviour okay. It just means we’re going to end up with a very sick society.

We can do better. But this means we need to place limits on how much we consume.

Filling up on the good stuff

When you study with your phone within arm’s reach that’s like having a never-ending show bag of junk food next to you. You can’t fully focus your mind on the task at hand because a part of your brain is thinking about the tasty treats in the bag.

No matter how hard you try not to think about the treats, you can’t help but think about the treats!

It’s not your fault that you can’t resist checking your phone for the treats that await you. Social media apps are designed to be dopamine dispensing machines. Addictive to the core.

So, what can you do to make it easier for yourself?

How can you fill up on the good stuff (i.e. the stuff that is going to add real value to your life)?

I recently developed a powerful tiny habit. It may sound simple but I highly recommend it. The habit is this . . .

When I notice my phone is in my workspace, I will pick it up and put it away from my body in another room.

In fact, I have a specific home for my phone: it lives in pocket number 1 of a vertical wall hanger in my dining room. I have set times when I can check my phone. But outside those times, my phone stays in pocket 1.

When I put my phone in the pocket, it’s like I’m putting the show bag away on the top shelf of a cupboard and closing the cupboard door. Out of sight is out of mind.

I recommend you give it a shot.

To sum up

When you first start implementing this habit, you will probably feel a strong urge to grab your phone and look at it. But over time the urge to check your phone will pass.

The thing about focus is it’s like a muscle. You can strengthen it over time by engaging in simple practices, such as putting your phone away when it’s time to do your work and engaging in meditation.

Doing these things may be more difficult than dipping into a show bag or watching TikTok videos, but it’s probably going to deliver far more benefits in the long run.

But most importantly, when you fully focus your mind on what you need to do, there is something inherently satisfying about that. It brings you more joy and satisfaction than any 15 second video could ever deliver.

Image Credit

Ekka 2004 Showbag Pavillion” by Dr Stephen Dann is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 .