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The Attention Economy
The attention economy involves Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and every other app on your phone vying for your attention. Why do they want your attention? More attention translates to more sales. And that’s a fine goal under capitalism.
Are you going to take responsibility for where your attention goes or will you let it be passed around like it is nothing? Companies know your attention is worthwhile, but do you value your attention as much? The thing is, whoever cares more about your attention will influence where your attention goes. People are paid to find new ways to hold your attention longer.
One battleground to hold your attention is on Facebook. Facebook rewards you with a number of notifications partly-based off how long you’ve been away. It may not be completely linear, but you can experiment. Don’t check your notifications for two-three days, 2-3 weeks, and 2-3 months. The counter will go up with a lot of nonsense notifications like “KidYouNeverTalkTo just updated his status.”
This is only an N=1 experiment, (involves only myself) but I finally stopped clicking my Facebook notifications in the past few months and they’re up to 57 notifications just waiting to be clicked.
When your checking interval is 1 day – 1 week, there’s a lot more randomness and excitement to it. Most of us probably do not want to admit that we’re excited for new notifications but the chemical rewards for refreshing the page is programmed into our evolutionary hardware.
I’m not attacking companies. They have every right to try and garner your attention in the pursuit of sales. I’m seeking your attention right now. Being aware of this and valuing your own attention will help you control where it goes.
You don’t have to bar all apps from your life. They each offer unique value. All you need to do is figure out what value that is and how much of it you want in your life.
Another important factor is the cost of attention switching. The mind cannot multitask. Multi-taskers are actually swapping to activities and solving them one at a time.
Unfortunately, the brain isn’t great at being fully immersed in one activity and suddenly swapping to a new task that requires similar immersion.
This is why time swells into a balloon when we’re texting someone while also trying to get work done. Some tasks are more mindless than others. Switching is likely more costly when being distracted during a creative period versus something mindless.
Also, multi-tasking feels good. It keeps you busy and busy feels good. Busyness has traditionally been rewarded too. Complete your 40-hour week, regardless of how much is or can be done. It’s important to fill out the week.
This made total sense when manual labor was the dominant work force during the Industrial Revolution. Productivity and sales scaled linearly with the amount of manual labor hours input.
The Knowledge Economy has been booming in the last few decades though. The biggest rewards go to the most effective workers. Effectiveness is not often as rigorously sought after or optimized for.
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
― Marcus Aurelius,
You cannot control everything in your life. Although you do regularly interact with the external world, most of it you have little to no control over. The weather, what others do, whether stocks go up or down, where you were born and a boundless amount of other things are all outside your control.
Your mind is the one thing you can most control. Even that is not total control but it’s something.
What enters your mind is largely dependent on you. You cannot always vet the quality of information you come in contact with before it is absorbed but there are tools that help.
Reviews on books, upvotes on Reddit, and likes on Facebook are all examples of a filtering system. They give us a perspective of how the community feels about that content and helps us decide whether it is worth our own time.
We’ve all experienced times where, after browsing Reddit or Facebook for several hours, we feel like we just wasted hours of our life. Why did we do that? Who knows? We got sucked in and it’s hard to get out once inside that vortex.
A short term remedy or solution can be to delete the app or remove the lure away from your phone’s home-screen. This can help but it’s not very pragmatic advice to suggest deleting every app that distracts us.
Here are some reasonable solutions for taking more control of your own attention.
Block out time where you check certain applications like email.
Find longer form content like books or podcasts. This can replace free time you would have spent on a potential time waster and increase the chances of absorbing a higher quantity of useful and high quality information.
Keep distractions low in your environment when doing work. Turn your phone to silent or airplane mode for a 30 minute or hour long block. The world will still be there when you turn it back on.
Figure out what platforms or apps are overall beneficial and overall detrimental to you. You can then observe which habits increase or decrease those effects.
Becoming aware of where your attention flows throughout the day and preventing attention switching is vital to being the most effective you can be with your time. The more aware you are, the more control you can have on your perception of the world. The more you control how you see the world, the more you can shape it to your own vision.