Self-Defense in the Age of Attention
How to Win Back Our Time and Minds
It’s been a while since I started questioning my behavior with technology, but also of all of us in general.
The Internet has given us an endless stream of information, with nearly every question answered in seconds. It has given us more music to hear, more texts to read, more images to look at, and more movies to watch than one could ever consume in thousands of years.
And this is a good thing, as it allows us to extend our minds in directions our parents and grandparents never could imagine. But with every benefit always come downsides.
The most precious thing you own is not money or time. It is attention. We all have the same number of hours on this planet. But what we do with it, what we achieve, is up to us. We decide where we point our attention to. However, do we?
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
Feeding the Monster
Pointing our attention in the right direction has become harder in the last few years, even for people with a lot of willpower. We have to withstand big corporations with thousands of trained designers, engineers, or product people. They operate in a competitive market driven by advertising. And I know this because I’m one of them, and yet I am a victim myself.
Everything is about activating people, making them register, click, scroll, like, use, consume, and stay. We test every part of our interfaces to find out which color, font, and text is the most effective. Compared to the big players like Google, Facebook, or Twitter, we look like amateurs.
Every item you interact with gets analyzed, computed, and stored. Algorithms calculate your next step, your direction. This is how the companies know what you want and when you want it. It enables them to provide you with a never-ending stream of things you crave.
The human brain is prone to numerous cognitive biases and fallacies. It’s easy to manipulate because it’s the same brain as our ancestors living in the wild, seeking food, shelter, or enemies.
We want to connect to others, yearn for distraction from ourselves and boredom, we want the attention of others.
Every pull-to-refresh, every push message, every like, comment, and every new item appearing in our continuous scrolling streams triggers the release of dopamine in our brains. They create a habit loop: Trigger, routine, reward.
We are creatures of habit. A lot of our day-to-day actions are driven by subconscious habits. You don’t need to think about walking to the subway, pushing the shopping cart at the supermarket, or switching on the lights in a dark room. These have become habits. As have these movements of addiction: Grabbing for your phone, checking for updates, hundreds of times each day.
This behavior changes our brain, makes it increasingly harder to follow longer texts, focus on one thing for a long time, and to think deeply. Studies have started connecting rising numbers of depression in young people with these addictive curated streams. Because we get more of the things we like, it encloses us in filter bubbles (echo chambers). There we don’t have to deal with new or contradicting ideas, but instead get validated all the time, which strengthens our ignorance of other ideas and people. But this is a topic of its own.
And this will not get better anytime soon but will get worse, as big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence get better every day. This is why you need to learn a new skill and teach it to your kids: Fighting back on attacks to your attention.
As this is a metaphorical attack on your attention, you should handle it as one. The key aspects of successful self-defense are Avoidance, Awareness, and Prevention.
The first step for successful self-defense is avoidance. Try to avoid as many dangerous situations as possible. In this context, this would mean, staying away from every distraction, which doesn’t add a lot of value to your life. Does Reddit or Twitter improve your life? Does surfing hours on Instagram or Facebook help you with your life goals? If not, stay away if possible. This is a personal decision, what might be a distraction to one person, might improve the life of another.
These are the countermeasures I took in the last few years or things I experimented with:
- I deleted many social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and Instagram from my phone.
- I deleted my bookmarks to social media sites from my browser and visit them once a week deliberately. I stay less than a few minutes, to get the most important things I missed during the week.
- I deleted all messengers, except the ones my family is using.
- I stopped reading or watching the daily news (7 years ago). I’m the last to hear about the newest terrorist attack or the newest threats by Trump to the world. And I avoid the water cooler talks and coffee machine chats as hell. You can’t avoid the news, but not actively searching for news filters out a lot of the noise.
- I use RSS/Atom feeds as my major information source because I can choose where and when to get my content from. I pull the content, when I want it (Pull vs. Push Principle).
- I use many analog things. I use Evernote to save content for later access, but I started writing a lot on paper. I always have a pen and a notebook with me. Likewise, I use sketchnotes to extract the key aspects of an idea. The combination of writing with hand and drawing helps me remember things. And when I save content in Evernote, I make sure to mark the key aspects and write a summary at the top.
- I rarely post links to social media sites these days. I want to avoid attacking the attention of other people. People interested in what I write or like can go to my website.
- I don’t check in or brag about the places I am at on social media.
- I share photos with my family and not the whole world.
- I block the shit out of advertising sites, these creepy ads following you around the internet. Pages using ad-block countermeasures, I leave and never come back (or grab the text for later reading). But I started supporting selected sources with money every month on platforms like Patreon. Pages should start producing more content of quality instead of masses of low-quality content. It might be that people would start to care and pay for quality content.
One of the key aspects of successful self-defense is awareness. You need to be aware, that you are being attacked. This is not always easy, as attacks might come in different forms, like niceness or promises.
The first step is to recognize, that the own behavior is problematic and harms the well-being. We tend to think we have everything under control and are well-trained in media usage. Or we search for excuses like not having an option or needing to be informed.
My journey started 2 years ago when I began doing mindfulness meditation every morning for 20 minutes. Meditation is the opposite of distraction, it’s focused attention. It doesn’t matter if you point attention to your breath, body parts, an idea, or anything else. Meditation forces you to be. Distractions will try to lead your attention away while you meditate. The Buddhists call this Mind Monkey, as uncontrolled, restless, confused thoughts will flood the brain during a meditation session. But with time you will get better and be able to focus for longer periods and silence the monkeys.
I think my meditation practice was the main trigger in questioning my behavior with technology, and It is a key factor for a well-balanced person in the future. As we (should) train our body, to strengthen it, we should do the same with our minds.
These are a few of the things I did in the last few years to strengthen my awareness:
- I started with Meditation and did more than 730 sessions, more than 210 hours since then. Besides my daily 20 minutes session, I try to do half a dozen of breathing sessions for a minute throughout the day. I used the additional short sessions of my meditation app to learn about mindful walking, eating, cooking, sleeping, running, and commuting. The app has an extra section for kids and courses for students.
- I practice selective ignorance. It’s not easy, but sometimes caring less is the best option, to get the attention back.
- I try not to use my headphones in the subway. When I’m reading, I can practice focusing on the book and not on my surrounding. Sporadically, I intentionally do nothing but focus on the people in the subway.
- I read a lot about the brain and its weaknesses. If you know all the biases and fallacies, you are less likely to be a victim of them.
- I read a lot about habit-forming, addiction, and multitasking (which is not possible in humans). I try to do intentional single-tasking: reading, eating, or watching a TV show, without the distraction of multiple other things at the same time.
- I started living a Minimalist life. Fewer things mean less distraction and more attention to the things, which matter to you.
- I watch and consume intentionally positive, inspiring, creative and uprising videos or texts (e.g., TED Talks), to change the ratio of positive to negative messages I hear about.
While avoidance is about trying not to be exposed to dangerous things, prevention is more about attenuating situations. It’s about making it harder for dangerous things to be successful.
These are a few of the ideas I implemented or tried in the last few years to prevent my attention is taken away:
- I deactivated many push messages, keeping a few exceptions. I disabled push messages on an app from the moment it first pushed irrelevant, triggering, needy information to me. I allow relevant apps like weather warnings, and family messages to send real-time updates. When an app has useful messages but doesn’t allow selecting which ones, I switch them off. I love Google Inbox because it allows me to select which type of message is allowed to use push messages.
- I switched off all notification icons (the red, annoying counters on app icons).
- I use ‘Do not disturb’ on every device, including phone, tablet, computer, and landline phone during off-hours (21:00-8:00). My inner family can bypass this wall.
- My phone is silenced during work hours (vibrations turned on), and even beyond.
- I switched off autoplay of videos wherever possible (YouTube, Netflix, Twitter). And if not possible, I intentionally quit the process of loading the next video, after each video. I go grab something to drink, or do push-ups before I continue watching.
- When in doubt, if I will be able to be aware of the time (like when browsing on Pinterest), I set a timer to 15 or 20 minutes, to be reminded of the passing time.
- I put all my devices on my worktable when relaxing on the sofa. It prevents the quick let’s answer this question habit and adds a barrier. Plus, it will give you more movement.
- I put my devices upside down on the table to not get distracted by incoming messages.
- I use mute filters to filter out content, which drives my attention to places I don’t want it to go.
- I tried to leave my phone in another room while eating with my family.
- I switched off Nostalgia features, like ‘your day one year ago,’ wherever possible. These are annoying because they attempt to activate you again.
It’s not easy and sometimes even not possible at all to overcome the obstacles of attention-grabbing media with pure willpower. But by building habits of mindful media consumption, you might be able to get your attention back. Not every day, but it is a process worth working on. It’s not the device, it’s you. The device can be used to be creative, connect to other people, and be inspired. Or it can be used to distract yourself mindless for hours. It’s your choice.
By following my advice, I was able to finish redesigning two websites and wrote a book this year.
If you have read to this point, without being distracted, kudos! Now put down your phone and look out the window for a few minutes.
More links on this topic
Videos & Podcast
- Look Up (Garry Turk)
- Social Media’s Dark Side: How Facebook and Snapchat Try to Steal Our Self-Worth (Tristan Harris)
- How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day (Tristan Harris)
- Put social back in social media – TEDxLinz (Christian Heilmann)
- Hurry Slowly
- It’s No Accident We’re Addicted to Our Devices (Big Think)
- Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? (The Atlantic)
- ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia (The Guardian)
- Technology is destroying the most important asset in your life (Quartz)
- Alarming Statistics That Show Just How Addicted We Are To Mobile Devices(Break the Twitch)
This article was first published on On Advertising and featured by Medium.