Jason Olson

Taking back my attention

Some people have told me I’m crazy. Recently, I’ve deleted my account on Facebook, uninstalled all games from my phone, turned off all notifications on both my phone and desktop, only have two/three apps on my home screen, have no email on my phone, leave my phone in “Black and White” accessibility mode, have my phone on vibrate all day, don’t take my phone into meetings (and preferable no laptop either), and never take my laptop into my bedroom.

Why? Because I’m determined to take back my attention and live my life with intention and purpose.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it”

Herbert A. Simon

What’s the deal?

I was first exposed to the idea of “attention as a scarce commodity” in a couple of ways. First was my experience as a software developer. I would be happily coding away and then get interrupted (a text, a coworker asking a question, a phone call, etc.). It would take me quite a bit of take to focus back on the task at hand. Am I just imagining it? Turns out not.

According to research by Gloria Mark, it takes up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to a task after an interruption. If you are getting interrupted several times a day, that’s a huge cost to pay when you are trying to get stuff done. Not only did I feel like I was accomplishing less, I felt less satisfied with the work I did get done, and I felt stressed out because I never seemed to be getting enough done. It felt like I never had enough hours in the day.

My next exposure to “attention as a scarce commodity” was the work of Tristan Harris and the Time Well Spent movement. I read Tristan’s Huffington Post article “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds” last year but only took a single baby step myself. Then I watched a TED Talk that Tristan gave called “How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day.” Again though, I didn’t take action. It may have been depression, or it may have been that I didn’t truly understand the negative impact this technology was having on my quality of life.

Time Well Spent is an nonprofit organization which seeks to reverse what they call the “digital attention crisis”, caused by technology companies designing mobile devices and social media features in order to capture as much attention as possible, regardless of their impact on users’ quality of life.

It’s a common belief that better technology enables us to be more productive because we get to focus on the things that are important and to automated the things that are not. Sadly, that has not turned out to be true. All the technology we have integrated intimately into our daily lives have made us less efficient in many ways and prevented us from focusing on the things that truly matters.

How? Because all this “latest and greatest” technology is competing for a single thing: our attention.

The Attention Economy

As Wikipedia defines it: “Attention economics is an approach to the management of information that treats human attention as a scarce commodity, and applies economic theory to solve various information management problems. Put simply by Matthew Crawford, ‘Attention is a resource—a person has only so much of it.’”

We are surrounded by more and more information every single day. Our attention is the limiting factor in the consumption of this information. Companies want to sell us the latest game, the latest self-care product, the “you won’t believe this one trick that this suburban man has used; big pharma hates her” article.

Through aggressive use of notifications, text messages, emails, and other tricks of the trade, our attention gets hijacked. Frankly, I’ve grown tired of it.

What kind of life do I want to live?

I started noticing commonalities amongst the people I looked up to most. They read… a LOT. Their reading habits were more focused on longer form works: books and academic papers. Their interests were diverse. It wasn’t just a focus on technology. They loved everything from Molecular Biology, to Psychology and Social Sciences, to Philosophy, to Astronomy or Physics.

They focus on social connections. Spending more time with friends and family. Playing games with friends and family. Having deep conversations about their interests with others.

They use these life experiences and knowledge to connect dots that exist between all of their interests. They formulate insights that are cultivated from this diverse collection of passions.

So I recently decided there are some things in my life that are important to me that I need to spend more time doing: reading books, listening to music, playing games with the wife and kids, and talking with the wife about our hopes, dreams, and life wishes.

To spend more time with the things that actually mean the most to me, I had to admit one thing to myself: I had developed a technology addiction and was letting technology interrupt my life and keep me distracted. I let days, weeks, and years pass simply wishing there were more hours in the day. Though I felt certain things were important, my actions spoke differently.

In this light, I’ve embraced a new principle in my life: I decide when to check my phone, I decide when to check my email, I decide when to check Twitter. I believe that a phone, a website, or an app does not get to make that decision for me.

Notifications and having my attention hijacked interferes with these things I hold most dear. So, I’ve deleted my account on Facebook, uninstalled all games from my phone, turned off all notifications on both my phone and desktop, only have two/three apps on my home screen, have no email on my phone, leave my phone in “Black and White” accessibility mode, have my phone on vibrate all day, don’t take my phone into meetings (and preferable no laptop either), and I (almost) never take my laptop into my bedroom.

Do you want to try it out?

Are you interested in taking steps along this path? Do you want to prevent notifications from being distractions in your life? The Center for Humane Technology has a great Take Control page that will help you with small steps you can take to get started.

I know this has made a hugely positive impact in my life in just a couple of weeks and I never want to go back. I’d encourage others to at least give it a try. Take back your life, focus on the things that matter most to you.

© Copyright 2018, Jason Olson

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