Become a ‘Digital Stoic’ to Achieve Exponential Growth

In the second of three exclusive excerpts from his new book, Banking on Change, James Robert Lay explains four principles and practices that will empower leaders to reclaim presence and focus in the age of AI.

Digital Stoicism is a modern practice rooted in an ancient philosophy that developed in Greece around 300 BC by a Phoenician, Zeno of Citium, whose thinking went on to inspire great Stoic philosophers and leaders like Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.

But what exactly was this new philosophy about? Of course, there’s much more to it, but the core principle that these Stoics espoused was: you can’t control the outside world, you can only control how your mind responds to the world around you.

Digital Stoicism is not about turning away from technology. Rather, it calls upon us to become more aware of our relationship with technology and particularly our media consumption, both of which carry an outsized and often hidden influence on our innermost beliefs, thoughts, and emotions.

Here’s how to get started:

1. Be Mindful of Your TEA

Each and every morning that you wake up and meet the day ahead can be seen as a mini-resurrection of sorts, an opportunity to establish new behaviors, actions, and habits as you continue to move forward on your exponential growth journey. But first, you have to be mindful of your TEA. I want you to ask yourself the following three simple questions every morning:

1.) How are you investing your time?

2.) How are you spending your energy?

3.) What are you paying attention to?

Notice a pattern in how I phrased each of these? The verbs investing, spending, and paying are all associated with money and finance.

First, when it comes to time, it was the stoic Seneca who noted, “People are frugal in guarding their personal property, but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” Now we’ve already talked about how technology can be a time multiplier. For example, I used to have to travel in person to a conference and be away from my family for two full days just to give a 30-45 minute keynote that would only create value for 1,000 people or so. But now, a 1-hour podcast has the potential to reach tens of thousands of eyes and ears around the world without ever having to leave home. To put it another way, with this technology I’ve created an exponential RoT (Return on Time).

The same is true when it comes to energy. It’s so important that we be mindful of what increases our energy and what drains it. That’s because change and transformation require energy at a biological level. For a moment think about your brain — physical matter — as hardware while your conscious and unconscious thoughts (intangible data) are software. The transformation that leads to future growth comes through upgrading your software — your thoughts — just like you would run an upgrade on your phone or computer. And when you upgrade the software to change a habit, action, emotion, thought, or belief, you’re using psychological, emotional, and physical energy to establish new neural pathways. On the other hand, constant distractions from email, text messages, and social media certainly sap our energy (not to mention our focus) making change and transformation even that much more challenging.

Finally, for you and your team to achieve exponential growth in the Age of AI, you have to be mindful of what you’re “paying” attention to because as Epictetus taught, “You become what you give your attention to.” In today’s world, attention is gold and every day it’s bought and sold, often without our knowledge or consent. This dynamic has a huge cost on our well-being. Body and mind alike. As for the latter, we must heed the call from Jim Rohn to: “stand guard at the door of your mind.” Digital Stoicism can even be seen as a journey within the mind to find peace and balance in a highly distracted and noisy world — a world that’s likely to become even noisier and more distracted with the rise of Web 3.0 and the future metaverse. But we must also be mindful of the philosophical and ethical implications, especially how these exponential technologies can impact what I call the Five Dimensions of well-being. These include spiritual, physical, mental, relational, and financial well-being.

2. Be Mindful of Your Media Consumption

Exponential technologies like social media can make us feel almost paralyzed by fear, with the constant barrage of headlines, sound bites, and stories of murders, accidents, tragedies, pandemics, and wars constantly invading our subconscious mind.

But in the Age of AI where emotional threats are exponentially amplified by the devices in our hands, inadvertently we surround ourselves with an exponential field of negative stimuli. Ask yourself the following questions and make a list of your answers to each question below:

  • What media are you consuming?
  • What are you reading?
  • What are you watching?
  • What are you hearing?

For each item you list, does the media you’re consuming increase or decrease your energy? By assessing your daily media consumption you establish a baseline and create awareness of how your consumption impacts your energetic and emotional well-being.

3. Be Mindful of Your Emotional Energy

The brain is an extraordinary machine, but it has a problem: It’s not able to distinguish, at least not definitively, what’s real and what’s not. All it can do is process the data that comes through your five senses. For this reason, when we think about the metaverse and how it’s going to impact our perception of reality, it’s very important, again, to look at these issues from both a philosophical and ethical lens, taking into strong consideration how these perceived threats can affect our well-being.

It all comes down to learning to lead yourself. And you get to this point by becoming more and more aware of your emotional energy and how it’s informed by what you read, watch, and hear. The best leaders, according to Harvard Business Review, have a positive and contagious energy. Dr. David Hawkins, MD, Ph.D. has even shown through his research that the energy in emotions is scientifically quantifiable and can either grow or destroy cell life.

So, to build off these remarkable insights, we can hypothesize that, by keeping us trapped in a negative energetic state of depression and anxiety, our digital devices are in fact slowly killing us. It’s a scary thought, but it doesn’t have to be a death sentence. We can take control of our energetic state by wrestling back our mind — so that we can manage our emotional state. In fact, this might just be what saves us.

4. Be Mindful of Your Attention

If mindless use of digital technologies is taking a negative toll on our emotional and energetic well-being, then why do so many of us stay logged in, scrolling, posting, and liking?

The answer is simple. It’s dopamine, sometimes referred to as the “feel good” hormone. But instead of giving us pleasure and feel-good vibes directly, dopamine motivates us to seek out and do things we think will give us pleasure. In the case of social media, it’s actually the anticipation of those likes when we post, or the content we see when we scroll or swipe, that provides us with that momentary feeling of pleasure, not the actual posting or content consumption itself.

According to research by Atlas VPN, people now spend more time on TikTok than any other social app with the average user spending 23.5 hours per month on the app. That adds up to 282 hours per year. Put another way, the average TikTok user spends a little less than 2 weeks out of the year flicking through and watching clips that average around 42 seconds. This is time they will never get back.

Now think for a moment about your own mobile phone behavior, actions, and habits. What are you paying attention to? Are you paying attention? If not, then you are distracted and looking to escape something.

Does that mean the only path forward, the only way to escape digital addiction, is to become a digital Luddite in the Age of AI? Absolutely not. Rather, the solution lies in the daily practice of Digital Stoicism by applying the Stoic virtues of temperance and self-control, i.e., being mindful of what you’re paying attention to. It will take courage to transform, but it’s worth it, as your attention belongs to you.

Reclaiming Presence and Focus in the Age of AI

Through my own practice of Digital Stoicism, I’ve become fully committed to mastering technology. I was tired of it taking my time, robbing my attention, and stealing my energy. And I knew willpower wouldn’t be enough. I had to literally transform my smartphone into a dumbphone — first removing all social media apps, then email, then even my web browser — because I’d rather have a dumbphone than a smartphone keeping me distracted and dumbed down.

It’s important to note, however, that it took me a few years to get to where I am today. I started to schedule at least one digital detox every single month, where I don’t use any digital devices for at least one 24-hour period. This helps me fully reconnect with myself along with nature, but even more so with other people. And when it comes to people, the greatest present you can give someone is to be fully present with them in the present moment. Yes, a digital detox takes a little bit of planning. And like with any addiction, there’s a period of anxiety at first. But the clarity and peace found on the other side is worth the temporary pain.

As we look ahead to maximizing our exponential growth potential, both personally and professionally, we must commit to always staying aware and vigilant when it comes to our daily use of digital devices and technology. We must keep asking ourselves whether these are really even tools at all. True tools don’t buzz, beep, and beckon you to pick them up and use them when you don’t actually need them. True tools don’t take away your time, rob you of your energy, or steal your attention. But that’s exactly what these digital technologies and so-called tools are doing in our Age of AI. We’ve forgotten how to just be alone with ourselves and our thoughts. But through a daily practice of Digital Stoicism, we can recapture this ability, confidently taking back our time, energy, and attention as we move forward and maximize our growth potential.

Excerpted from “Banking on Change.” Check out the other two excerpts from James Robert’s book here.

James Robert Lay is one of the world’s leading digital marketing authors, speakers, and advisors for financial brands. Based in Houston, James Robert is the author of Banking on Digital Growth: The Strategic Marketing Manifesto to Transform Financial Brands. He is the founder and CEO of the Digital Growth Institute and has been named one of The Financial Brand’s “Top Global Financial Services Influencers to Follow,” a CUNA “Credit Union Rock Star,” and a CU Times “Under 40 Trailblazer.”

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