On Reclaiming Attention

Mar 08, 2024

A recount of my path towards reducing distraction to enable faster progress towards that which matters most.

A Story of Struggle

The incessant barrage of pings had first led me to reduce notification alerts. This was shortly after I got my first phone, and it had been on 'vibrate' ever since. But still, the effect was much unchanged. I was still alerted of every notification, just more subtly. For the past year or so my phone has been on 'silent'. People complain about response time but ultimately the consequences are little, often only meaning that they must handle trivial matters on their own. Another concern is of emergencies, but I am yet to be in a scenario that required my immediate response, granted I have no dependents.

And thus, I am better able to focus.

The endless streams of content found on social media platforms, previously a time travel device for rapidly passing otherwise barren hours, are now, for me, a thing of the past; I have deleted my social media accounts. I am instead free of the comparison anxiety and trivial outrage caused by these platforms as a side effect of maximizing user engagement.

And thus, I am more at peace.

After trying out greyscale mode for reduced visual stimulation and restricting access through ScreenTime usage limits and removing apps, I've found these options lacking. The effects are beneficial, helping towards reduction in mobile phone usage, but they are all too easy to revert. For a more permanent solution, I opted for a dumb phone; a phone with inherently limited features. I don't want to spend a lot of time with it because there is nothing to do besides call and text, and even they are clunky operations.

And thus, I have more time; more life.

I previously had background noise in all parts of my day, with music playing when showering, walking, exercising, cooking, and a TV playing when eating. No longer. Though, this was initially so ingrained that when I sat down for dinner, I would somehow find the TV remote already in hand before I reminded myself this was not what I wanted. I instead engage with those around me or appreciate the current moment in silence.

And thus, I am more aware.

Mediums of hyper-stimulation offering consistently and frequently great rewards for little effort leave you in a state such that you are unable to focus and will more readily seek further distraction. This furthers the effect, leaving you increasingly unwilling and unable to engage in anything meaningful. One such medium is video games, and I have since, after 15 years and thousands of hours, deleted my accounts on video game platforms.

And thus, I am more willing; more able.

Becoming Blissfully Unaware

The issue with notifications is that there is very little that you need to be notified of, yet everyone is trying to notify you and demand your attention, largely for their own purposes.

You can not overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

John Maxwell

The consequences of this barrage on your attention are that you spend less time engaged in deep thought, progressing to that which matters most, and so don't get as far as you otherwise could. The back-and-forth context switching between the task at hand and whatever you are being notified of creates attention residue; your working memory can only store and process so much, and by adding to it anything unnecessary, you are limiting its ability.

The apps on your phone don't notify you for your benefit, but for theirs; they are increasing the likelihood you will engage with their app, often because they earn ad revenue from your engagement. It is best to restructure this relationship by disallowing notifications from those who abuse their privilege.

Messages can be seen as a demand for attention imparted to you by some other party. If people believe they are entitled to your attention, you must assess if this is reasonable, and if not then restructure this relationship by redefining expectations; wait until it is convenient for you to reply, not when it is convenient for the other party.

Consider muting all notifications and most contacts, only allowing a select few to gain your attention as they please. This accounts for emergencies while removing everything that serves little to no benefit.

Maximizing Engagement; Losing Time

You must first understand the business model of these companies and their incentive structure. Firstly, they are for-profit companies; they want to make money, and lots of it. When watching a YouTube video or scrolling through Instagram, you are occasionally shown ads, for which the company behind the platform is paid, by the advertising company, to show you. While some have additional revenue streams such as a premium tier, this is largely how they make money. It follows then that to make as much money as possible, they want to show their user base as many ads as possible. They can't do this if you're not on the platform, so they want to keep you engaged for as long as possible.

This is directly in opposition to what you want; you want to extract the most benefit in the least amount of time so that you are free to then engage in more fulfilling endeavors.

Still, each year some of the smartest people from around the world are hired by these companies and collectively tasked with increasing user engagement, being paid 6 or 7 figure salaries for doing so. That's why it is so easy to spend countless hours scrolling through meaningless information; the companies behind these platforms are incentivized for you to do so and have the capital to enable them to uncover and implement tactics of how to best manipulate the primitive impulses in your brain for their benefit.

To understand the scale of this, know that Google tested colouring ad links 41 different shades of blue to find the one that was most likely to be clicked. This resulted in an approximate increase of $200M/year in ad revenue[1]. Further, between January 2023 and June 2023, Netflix reported almost 100 billion hours (approx. 142,600 lifetimes) of user watch time[2].

Needless to say this detracts from other areas of your life. Lost time can be better spent progressing towards what matters most. And it is time lost. For it has been time spent, never to be recovered, on a largely meaningless activity.