Investing Our Attention Elsewhere

Jan 29, 2021 | attention economy, tech ethics, Unplugging

The attention economy has got us all in its grip. Newsfeeds from Twitter and Facebook, optimised by targeted and highly sophisticated algorithms, grab our attention and keep it fixed on their platforms for hour after hour. During the pandemic, attention devoted to screen-based activities resulted in an estimated 40% increase in time spent online with problems reported ranging from doom scrolling to deteriorating eyesight from digital eyestrain.

Our attention is the commodity most competed for in the 21st Century and the digital business model has commoditised that attention into the length of time our eyeballs are spent glued to a screen.

Your attention is your most valuable resource

Our most valuable resource isn’t money or time, it’s our attention. Having hours more time in the day (perhaps from giving up commuting into an office, or shifting to working a reduced-hour week), is worthless unless we choose wisely how to invest that extra time. What will the value to us all be in spending more time working from home, touted as an inevitable outcome from the pandemic, if we spend those extra hours frittering away our attention?

attention economy
Heraclitus, pre-Socratic philosopher (circa 535-475 BC)

So much of our concern about the extra time we’re spending on screens comes from a feeling that we should be putting them down and moving away from them. But maybe we should be focusing on what we’re moving towards? Maybe putting our screens down, despite the clever tricks employed to make that harder every day, will simply become easier when we’re clearer about what we want to do instead?

Focusing on turning off notifications, buying an alarm clock, monitoring how many hours we spend on screens every day, misses the point that we are potentially giving up something very precious to us personally when we waste hours on devices.

Defining what’s important

Deciding how to invest our attention starts with defining what our values are and then working out how our on and off screen activities should reflect where our attention is focused. If our values are around having a healthy mind and body for example, then our attention is best spent every day focusing on those physical and mental activities that we know will make us healthier. If our values are around lifelong learning, then the focus of our attention should be on those activities which expand our education.

The Japanese concept of Ikigai can be useful in defining how we should spend our time. Ikigai roughly translates to “reason for being”, it’s about defining what your purpose in life is.

defeating the attention economy

Ikigai can be used in a narrow sense to define what your job should be but it’s most valuable when you use it to define an overarching direction and purpose for your life. “Who am I?’ “What do I want to do with my life?” are useful questions for all of us, whatever our age. It’s never too early, or too late, to ask these questions of ourselves.

Make an active decision on where to invest your attention

Once you have defined your values and purpose, deciding how your attention should be focused to reflect those values and achieve that purpose becomes obvious. Thinking of each day as a glass to be filled, start with the activities that reflect your values. For a healthy mind and body, this might be a non-negotiable 30 minute run, or making a healthy breakfast. For life long learning, this might be 30 minutes of uninterrupted reading. Work through your daily ‘glass’ building blocks of time for how your attention will be directed until it is filled.

Defeating the attention economy

In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport talks about radically reducing the time we spend online, “focusing on a small number of activities chosen because they support things you deeply value, and then happily miss out on everything else.” Once you have made decisions about where your attention should be focused, how you use the digital world should be part of your daily ‘glass filling’.

Scrolling aimlessly on social media for hours is not likely to be a good use of your attention if your goal is a healthy mind and body. Using a step counter or tracking your diet macros though an app might be though. Similarly, doom scrolling through bad news stories probably wont add much to your value of lifelong learning, taking an online course on the other hand, could really add value.

The attention economy isn’t going away. Until the business model changes (let’s not hold our breath) attempts to keep our attention focused where advertisers can target us – on a screen – will only intensify. Being very clear about we’re choosing to invest our attention is our most powerful weapon against it.