How to Stop Living in ‘Infinite Browsing Mode’

The pleasures of commitment are deeper and more satisfying than keeping your options open, the writer and civic advocate Pete Davis argues in his new book.

An illustration of arrows pointing in different directions inside someone's head
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

A woman where I live runs a Facebook group that coordinates care for stray cats. A couple weeks ago, a skittish shorthair that roams our neighborhood got a nasty lesion on his face; my girlfriend and I notified the woman, who promptly showed up with a humane trap rigged with sardines. The cat took the bait, and she whisked him off to the vet, paying the bill with funds she had raised. It probably wasn’t her only stop that day.

I have a feeling that Pete Davis would like this woman. Davis, the author of the new book Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing, would probably admire her contributions to the community, even if she isn’t regarded as a local hero in the way that a star athlete or prominent businessperson might be. His book is an attempt to illuminate the uncelebrated dividends—both individual and communal—of pouring yourself into a cause, place, craft, or group, whether that means looking out for local cats, or something else.

Dedicated emerged from a commencement speech Davis gave a few years ago, in which he articulated the perils of what he calls “infinite browsing mode,” the state of hopping from job to job or relationship to relationship in the same indecisive way that one peruses Netflix. This is not a bad problem to have—compared with a century ago, people today have far more agency over what they do, what they learn, where they live, and whom they marry—but when weighing all the options, holding out for some better imagined alternative can deny people the pleasures of long-term, committed immersion.

To make his case, Davis interviewed various “long-haul heroes,” including a Jesuit priest, a Chicagoan who pushed to shut down coal-fueled power plants in her neighborhood, and a man who has for 50 years kept score at sports games at a small Florida college. Recently, I spoke with Davis about what he learned from those conversations and how cultural and economic forces steer people away from making all-in commitments. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe Pinsker: The main contrast in your book is between two different ways of living: “keeping your options open” and making commitments. What do those approaches look like in practice?

Pete Davis: One is about committing to things outside of yourself, whether that’s the work of fighting for reform, putting down roots in a particular location, or joining a community built around a certain craft or skill. Keeping your options open, on the other hand, means trying to maximize the options that your future self has, at the expense of commitments to particular things in the here and now.

So with regard to a place, keeping your options open might mean writing off dozens of potential places to live that you might truly love, because of a fear that you might close off certain opportunities by going there. Committing, on the other hand, would mean coming to terms with the fact that putting down roots in one place will shut some doors. But then you might be able to experience the deeper purpose and joy of becoming an elder in a community or seeing something change over, say, 15 years.

This message is not intended as finger-wagging. If you’re thrown from job to job or you have an unstable housing situation, that will affect your ability to commit to a place or a cause, so this is also about building a culture, economy, and education system that promotes the ability to make commitments. I don’t think infinite browsing mode is just a privileged predicament, because even folks who might have less choice about what job they want might still be grappling with whom to love or what ideas they should follow up on or what relationships they should prioritize.

Pinsker: What’s a good way for people to think about this array of choices?

Davis: I think there are three fears that stand in the way of people making commitments. One is a fear of regret—that if you commit to something, you’re going to wake up 20 years later and wish you had committed to something else. Another is a fear of missing out—that you won’t get to experience a lot of other fun things. And there is the fear of association—the worry that commitments will threaten your identity or sense of control because there’s a messiness to working with other people, and no institution is going to perfectly match the characteristics of our full, authentic self.

But there are gifts on the other side of each of these three fears. On the other side of the fear of regret is that when you make a commitment, you feel a sense of purpose that comes from the commitment, not from finding the absolute perfect thing. On the other side of the fear of missing out is the ability to experience novelties that are deeper than the latest hot new thing, like mastering a craft or celebrating your child’s fifth birthday. And on the other side of the fear of association is that once you pass through the valley of uncertainty and discomfort that comes with community building, there is the deep comfort and security of being part of a group. It’s hard to make friends, but you want to wake up 10 years later and have friends.

Pinsker: You interviewed all these people who made commitments of one kind or another, and they didn’t seem to fret much about alternative lives they could have lived. What do you think is behind that?

Davis: So many of the people I interviewed said that when you fully commit to something, yes, you can see that doors close, but also other exciting things happen. I spoke to Irene Li, who started a restaurant in Boston called Mei Mei that uses local produce and is set up to be affordable for the average worker downtown. She misses out on a lot because of the restaurant—it’s hard to, say, take long vacations, because she’s in charge of keeping it running. But this has resulted in her joining an incredible community of restaurateurs and getting involved in social causes in Boston, all because she decided to commit to this thing.

One thing that’s going on underneath the surface is a classic psychology idea popularized by the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, which he calls the “psychological immune system”: When something in our life changes, our minds start rewriting our narrative to say, “This is my life now—let’s feel good about it.” Gilbert also has a study suggesting that if a commitment can be easily reversed, the psychological immune system doesn’t kick in.

And committing to something can make the world open up to you, which is so exciting. When you fully join a cause, you can feel the epic story that you’re a part of, with heroes and villains and comrades in the cause. Together, that feeling of excitement and the work of your psychological immune system add up to let any regret around alternative options fade.

Pinsker: You observe that certain economic structures encourage certain types of interactions between people—for example, marketplaces like Uber and Airbnb are not conducive to fostering long-running, trusting relationships between a buyer and a seller. What does it look like to swim upstream against the design of structures like those?

Davis: One example is a friend of mine who has a handyman whom she knows particularly well. He doesn’t accept payments from her, and my friend makes up for that by baking for him, giving gifts to him and his wife, and having them over to eat. In turn, he helps her out more and, over time, they have this long, deep relationship that you’re never going to get out of a handyman app.

And it’s not just Uber and Airbnb. It’s also fast-casual dining, like Chipotle and Sweetgreen, where the experience is moving more toward never having to interact with the people who work there. When I’m having a bad day and I don’t want to talk to people, I would rather go to Chipotle than Anthony’s, a pizza place in my hometown. At Chipotle, I can go pick up a burrito with my headphones in and my sunglasses on and get back in the car without interacting with anyone. But if I go to Anthony’s, they’d say, “Hi, Pete!” They knew me when my high-school friends and I were eating there after school; I’ve celebrated birthdays there. I’m completely delighted to have a place near me that has a bit of a commitment to me, and I have a bit of a commitment to them.

In the short term, our most efficiency-desiring, anonymity-desiring selves might prefer these nameless, faceless places where we can pick up our bag of food in the most efficient way. But in the long run, that is not what we want.