Why We Need To Start Minding Our Own Attention

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – but our attention spans are getting… Oh, look – SQUIRREL!

No, don’t look at the squirrel. Look at this article.

It’s 500 words. Four minutes of reading time and I guarantee that at least one laugh or self-satisfied complacent snort of derision will be yours by the end of this article. Promise.

Now, look at your attention. Loose, flabby and spilling out all over the place. Yes it is. Pull yourself together! Get your attention straight and stop blaming your distracted state on all those apps, streaming services and smartphone alerts.

Apologies for getting a bit stern there, but we need to have a word with ourselves, my friends. There is too much blaming and victim talk around our modern attention spans.

Let’s take a look at some headlines from the last four days about “attention” and “smartphones”:

• Smartphones they make us dumberer
• Oh no! Our children are idiots. Because: phones.
• Why you need to stop look at screens like the one you read this on, numbskull.

These are attention optimised translations of actual headlines, but you get my point. Flimsy study after lazy data point, the media is telling us a story about how our attention is being hijacked by the crazy 21st century lives of technology and content we now live.

It’s true and it is bullshit at the same time.

We have more choices, more opportunities to be distracted in the modern world. That is not going to go away and you are not going to turn yourself or your children into some sort of analogue Amish, forswearing all of the blessings of the digital age.

We need to understand two things: how tech works and how our attention works. Then understand how they work together.

A little bit of self-awareness and and some idea of how you would like to live your life could make things better. It’s like cake, basically.

Cake is a good thing. There was a lot less of it about when I was younger, because we had less money, portions were smaller and it was rationed by my thoughtful parents.

Now there is cake everywhere. There is cake in my house, where I buy my coffee, in my office most days, where I have my lunch and then everywhere in between me and getting home. I could live on cake without having to plan carefully or change my daily routine.

None of us eats cake all the time. We might eat a bit too much sometimes (gluttony) and we might deny ourselves some some of the time (dieting). We know that cake works well for some things – special occasions, dessert after a lovely meal. It can even combine indulgence and reward with utility – for instance eating cake after endurance sport. I know some marathoners and serious cyclists who list the ability to consume cake without becoming obese as one of the benefits of the game.

We have developed a kind of cake literacy – a sense of how to use cake to enhance our lives but not have our lives revolve around cake.

So it is with smartphones and our attention. It’s not good for you to wake up and start emailing (you raise your stress levels before you’ve properly regained consciousness) or to be on Facebook until the moment you fall asleep (the light will affect your sleep during the night). If you allow alerts and compulsive checking of your phone to disrupt focused work, conversations with friends or every quiet moment, you might want to try and change your habits.

Yes, smartphones and other digital delights can be addictive. So find out how to regulate your use – turn off the alerts and put all the most distracting apps in a folder so you have to consciously – rather than reflexively – open them. Or turn your electronic addiction tendency to your advantage – 18 months ago I deleted all the games from my phone and instead used the Duolingo language app and flashcards to learn Spanish. Every idle moment I might have spent aimlessly scrolling through social media went into the learning app instead – and now I can read Spanish and speak it at something like GCSE level and am still improving.

So cut it out with the “Oh no, I am victim of tech” thinking and start owning your attention. Don’t like how you’re using your phone? Have a think about how to change it. Ask not what your phone wants from you, ask what you want from your phone. Or something like that. Oh look, a Spanish verb to conjugate…

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