Attention as currency

Today we are living faster lives - more connected and more globally than ever before. Technology has afforded us instant access the collective knowledge of mankind. We can maintain contact with then entire world at the touch of a button from practically anywhere. We can access services and run businesses from anywhere with nothing but a laptop, phone and wifi - case in point I am writing this from a cafe in Lisbon, Portugal.

Disclaimer: This is a bit of a divergence from the ‘travel writing’ I have been posting thus far. I want this to be a forum for my experience not just what I am doing in my leisure time. If this is not your thing I will still be posting my boozy travel exploits interspersed some more serious content.

These resources and this freedom has come at a cost. People talk a lot on maintaining a healthy state - The impact of diet, sleep cycles and social interaction are well documented. What seems to be the elephant in the room is what this does to our attention. We have turned into a collective global school of Goldfish, unable to concentrate for more than a few headlines at a time. Our news needs to be in digestible bites often with click-baity headlines, digital engagement with friends has gone from chatrooms, emails & blogs to Facebook status updates and tweets. Now it seems an emoji on Instagram or a broadcast Snap is enough to count as keeping in touch.

A market for your attention

Attention is a finite resource, yes it can be replenished each day, you can get a little more through focus, exercises and mindfulness but there is only so much to go around - and everyone wants a piece of it. Writing a thoughtful response to someone takes effort, it takes attention to digest someones point of view and provide a meaningful response. I have had countless meetings where the attendees are simply ‘present’ but not there. I have watched full movies and series on Netflix and realised I don’t actually know what happened.

And these are the exercises we willingly invest our attention in - the other darker side of the coin is the world of advertising, marketing and products that will do anything for your attention. Even some of the more respectable websites have become more billboard than content, often with such distracting advertising it’s hard to find let alone parse the content. App developers employ behavioural scientists to figure out ways to get you just spend a few more minutes each day staring at the screen.

The front line

It’s important to know where your attention is going on a given day, there are forces at work to actively part you from your precious attention. The largest offender on the front line of attention warfare is your phone. In it’s default form it’s a minor risk of attention leak, every time your phone beeps or vibrates it actively takes you out of whatever you were doing to focus on someone or something else - even as I wrote that line I felt compelled to check my phone.

If messages and calls were a brewing storm of distractions, notifications by third party apps and games are a hurricane. There is a reason why apps incentivise turning on notifications, the more times they can entice you back to the app, the more you are likely to buy the ‘in app trinkets’ or the more you are worth to their advertisers. It is getting harder and harder to use applications without giving over permission to interrupt you, in fact the Android Facebook Messenger app does not function if you choose to disable notifications.

The finite resource approach

An approach I have adopted is to treat attention as currency, a finite resource that can be allocated at will. As with a financial resource; Attention can be spent, wasted, invested, lost or given away. A wise allocation will see that investment go much further than frivolously allocating capital. Thankfully this bucket is refilled each day, ready to be squandered once again. As I have recently discovered (see below) an unhealthy lifestyle reduces the capacity of the bucket meaning there is less each day to be invested.

4 tips to fight back

Claim back your phone back

You phone should be an opt in device. I have paired my phone back such that it must have a very good reason to make noise (including vibration), I still permit certain applications to present notifications but they can’t light up the phone, make a noise or vibrate. It’s my choice to check my phone (even that takes discipline).

Vote for content with your feet

The advertising world has permeated every part of our world, most information and social sites survive solely due to advertising revenue. Whilst I am not totally on board with blocking all advertising, this is a little too close to stealing for my liking, and the more this happens the more desperate the producers will get. That said, there is most definitely a right and wrong way to go about monetising the users attention. Content with overlays, pay-walls or distracting advertising (looping videos either side of text) are not the right way. Sites that employ these tactics garner an instant ‘tab close’ from me, no matter how enticing or interesting the content was.

Time is scheduled in blocks

This is more for work that I do, but when scheduling my day I allocate how much of the day I want to spend working (for others this is set in advance), split the allocated time into blocks (I use one or two hour intervals), assign the blocks to specific and actionable tasks. And here is the hard bit actually spend that time doing that and only that task. This may sound overly simplistic but it takes tremendous dicipline and practice to stick to this. A method that I have found to be very helpful is the Pomodoro Technique. TL;DR; is that you set a small achievable block of time during which you will do nothing but work on the assigned task, when that ends you get five or ten minutes to waste on social media, your phone, emails or whatever before repeating. There are even apps and browser plugins that prevent access outside of assigned blocks.

Attention is a muscle

A muscle that needs exercise, not a skill that is learned. Case in point I lied earlier when I said I was writing this article in Lisbon, I wrote half of it early on in the month in Lisbon, but then life got in the way, I enjoyed what Lisboa had to offer (post coming soon I swear). As the month edged on, the list of things I had to do both socially and professionally got larger. To compound issues an unhealthy lifestyle during the month took it’s toll on me as my capacity for attention got smaller and smaller. The prospect of finishing this post got slimmer and slimmer.

I am now in Sofia giving my liver a much deserved and appreciated rest, as a result I am seeing my todo list start to get back in order. And consequently I am writing again - my blog post cadence can be seen as a proxy for my attention capacity, and perhaps lifestyle in general - if too much time goes between posts feel free to remind me of this.

For me writing as an exercise in attention, it requires focus, time and attention - things are not in abundance on RemoteYear. It requires me to actively ‘decide’ to write, and sit down and get it done. Whilst it is mostly for my readers I do admit there is a degree of satisfaction when I finally push the post out.