Note - I share my Attention Diet tools and strategies at the end of this post.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast and a rhetorical question was asked…
“When was the last time you were happy?”
It was only a passing comment… but it was significant to me.
I didn’t realize it at the time… but for weeks now I’ve been asking myself that question.
“When was the last time I was happy?”
Don’t worry… we're not going on a walk down memory lane. What I would like to point out though, after giving this question considerable thought... I've realized that the era I remember being the happiest, is during a time when my daily interactions were REAL.
Life was out there... in the real world. Not here, on my screen.
Back then my attention was drawn to the sounds, the smells, the feeling of being alive.
Real relationships and real conversations...
Today, my reality exists in pixels. The text, video, images... and even the empty white space that makes up my screen.
Maybe yours does too?
If you're looking at a computer monitor, your tablet, or your phone for the majority of your waking life, your reality is in large part... pixels.
A Changing Relationship With Technology
As a tech junkie, I never thought I'd question my relationship with technology. But now that I think about it, I'm not sure I've spent a single day completely offline in 20 years.
In the late 90's, just outside of Vancouver BC (Canada), I'd come home from work, have a drink, and kick back on my apartment deck.
If our schedules worked out... my roommate (a lifelong friend since we were kids) and I would have meaningful conversation. Our lives had not yet been consumed by digital media.
I remember it as being a moment of profound peace and relaxation. One of my favorite times of day.
Even the sounds of traffic two blocks away calmed me.
And there wasn't anything remarkable about that period in my life. It wasn't much of an apartment, money was a challenge, I certainly wasn't where I had hoped to be in life...
And yet, I remember it being a happier time.
I know memories can fool us, but moments like that today are filled with anxiety, frustration, and depression…
It's not my surroundings that have changed. They still exist. It's my inability to clear my head and enjoy those surroundings.
What's different today?
Well, I’m pissed about what’s going on in the world, even when those things have little relevance to my day to day life.
I'm checking my phone for notifications, even when there are none.
I’m plotting my brilliant "response" to the idiot on Facebook or Twitter… (and yes, I'm aware... as a participant I'm also an idiot).
Going On An Attention Diet
Last night was family movie night… but I barely remember it.
As we sat in our living room, I casually scrolled through my Facebook feed to fill an emptiness left by a slow moment in the movie…
Of course, it wasn't a conscious thought. I can't even tell you at what point I reached for my phone... but for whatever reason, I did.
Well... I didn't start with Facebook. I have a routine.
I check emails first, then Google News, and finally... Facebook.
In fact, I'm just realizing this now... but the reason I check Facebook last is probably because I know (subconsciously) that I'll never get out.
I'll never get to my email or the news if I go to Facebook first.
Getting back to movie night...
Hours had passed, the movie was long over… and I was pounding away on my screen keyboard debating an insignificant topic. Under normal (non-social media) circumstances I might talk about it, but I'd never waste my time debating it.
As the back and forth continued, I forgot my original point and had to scroll up to read it...
How did this exchange of "ideas" go off the rails so fast?
My wife and daughters had gone to bed, and my memory of our family night is now just a blur.
There goes another one I won't get back.
Around midnight, I closed my eyes… plotting (in my mind) the truth I was going to unleash to the Facebook world in the morning... backed up heavily with a mountain of data and facts.
But, as I fell asleep, my brain had a different plan.
I awoke three hours later and (no exaggeration), shot up out of bed.
That was it, I knew what I had to do. Delete everything!
I had finally over-indulged in social media and news. Enough was enough!
Mark Manson, the author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck recently mentioned on a James Altucher podcast something called an Attention Diet.
And… like someone who had just shoveled cheesecake in their face, sweating, chest pains and nausea, facing a truth that things could no longer continue this way... I also needed a diet.
An attention diet.
If cheap access to bad food is causing record obesity, and the relentless pursuit to buy more shit is causing record levels of consumer debt…
... our addiction to 24/7 news and social media is surely responsible for record levels of anxiety and depression.
Humans are consumption machines. The more stuff we have to consume, the more stuff we do consume... and the unhealthier we become.
We over-eat, we over-spend, and we over-consume content.
There's a reason we call it "paying" attention". It's because our attention has value... and how we spend it matters.
And we're always spending it... we can't help it.
As humans, we evolved to use our physical senses. Our survival depended on being aware. On our ability to take in and process the information around us...
And now, after hundreds of thousands of years, we are depriving these same senses. Instead of tuning into the world, we're tuning out.
I'm not a doctor... but I'm pretty sure it's not healthy.
If we only have so much attention to give, and we're giving it all to a hand-held screen just 12 inches from our face ... it's shouldn't be a surprise when it leads to problems.
But there are two problems here.
The first is what we consume.
We can stare at our phones and consume good information. We can also consume information that's neutral. It's not bad, but it's not particularly good either. It's our time waster.
Or, we can consume garbage. Destructive information that saps our energy and makes us angry. It ruins our day and disrupts our sleep, long after the phone has been put down.
The second problem is when, how often, and how much we consume.
My mental absence from family movie night is the perfect example.
Movies used to be one of my favorite things on the planet (even during the slow scenes). I loved movies so much I studied them in school, aspired to be a film director, and even moved across Canada to big city Vancouver to pursue them.
Today though... my favorite thing is family time. At least that's what I tell myself.
I mean... my actions would suggest otherwise, right?
Both my family and the movie faded into the background as that screen in my hands captured my attention.
Gone are the days of living "out there" in the real world.
Back then (before phones, tablets, and even laptops...), unless I had a book or magazine beside me... I payed attention to the movie and the people I was with. I didn't have a choice.
I didn't want a choice.
I was "paying" attention to "buy" the adventure and journey the movie was taking me on. That was the entire point of the movie.
I was experiencing with people I cared about.
But now, with infinite choices of media to consume, the movie is no longer enough. Apparently the people in our lives are no longer enough either.
I'd like to believe otherwise, but our actions speak for themselves.
It's an addiction. A break in the action and I reach for my phone.
Bored when shopping? I reach for my phone (followed by my wife's look of frustration).
... well, just waiting for anything at all. I reach for my phone.
How Do You Begin Your Attention Diet?
I want to be clear that this is an experiment. I don’t know what I’m doing, or what the result will be. And that's my disclaimer:..
If you embark on this journey as well... I can't tell you what the consequences will be. It could be freedom, or it could be regret. It could make some relationships stronger... but it might also damage others.
I’ve been awake since I shot out of bed at 3 am, trying to figuring this out.
How far should I go? Can I delete my entire profile from Facebook and quit? Can I install an app that locks my phone. An app that only allows me to use it as a phone?
I know it's possible. What I mean though... is can "I" do it? I'm sure some people can, but can I?
Do I have the willpower and the courage?
As I write this, a program that wipes out my Facebook activity is running in the background. So far I’ve deleted thousands of posts and conversations that I’ve been a part of; going back to 2007.
I don’t know if they’re really gone or sitting in a Facebook storage farm somewhere. But for my purposes, they're gone.
At this point I'm not feeling regret... but maybe it just hasn't set in yet.
I can't explain why I need to do it, but it's like cleaning out the garage… I just want it gone. I need to feel what it's like to not have it.
So far, I feel as though a weight has been lifted…
Facebook was fun years ago, when it was all about family, friends, and hobbies.
Now, for me at least, it's become something different entirely. Politics and anger. Blatant lies being liked and shared (WTF... who is liking and sharing these things without checking to see if they're even true?)
Hyper targeted ads for things I've never searched for, but may have mentioned in a conversation.
And don't tell me they're not listening. It's not a coincidence when I joke about my hearing getting bad because I'm getting old (I'm not that old), and then ads for hearing aids show up on my phone minutes later.
Without a doubt, I was happier before Facebook. At least, before it became what it is today.
Of course, not having Facebook isn't the only reason I was happier back then. I was younger and in better shape (some might say marginally, lol?). I had a lot more energy and life was simpler.
But I distinctly remember a time when my attention was dominated by REAL experiences. By REAL relationships.
When I wasn't comparing my life to the phony bullshit people present online.
The Attention Economy?
The attention economy, or attention economics, is the idea (which we just talked about) that people have a limited supply of attention, and therefore, it's a commodity.
It's not an accident that Facebook and other forms of media are addictive.
I’ve been thinking of quitting (at least some social media) for awhile now... especially in the last year (I'm looking at you Facebook)… but let’s be serious. We’re talking about a drug here… or at least, according to early investor and Napster founder, Sean Parker… it was designed to act like a drug.
“Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph”, he said, “We… give you a little dopamine hit.”
You may not know it, but there's an economic war for your attention going on right now.
It's important to understand the "intent" and consequences of attention manipulation.
When political organizations and foreign interests publish ads and meme's to incite anger and divide people... it is deliberate manipulation, and quite frankly, is tearing at the fabric of society as former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya states in the video above.
But.. when a political "campaign" does the same thing for the purpose of marketing to simply test which issues resonate with their base... the consequences can be just as damaging, but the intent is different.
If you believe your political party is best for your country, you might support attention manipulation because winning the election (in your opinion) is ultimately a good thing.
But does it matter? Good intent... bad intent... Where does this path ultimately end up?
I've been pointing the finger at Facebook here, but I should be clear... the same issues apply to all social media platforms.
I'd also like to say that I'm not placing the blame on them. This is my problem, not there's.
Most (if not all) of the people who work for these media companies are NOT manipulating our attention for evil purposes.
At Facebook, there are 25,000+ people just like us, trying to earn an income. They want their company to succeed because it's their job, and their livelihood depends on it.
Even Mark Zuckerberg has a responsibility to his 25,000+ employees, as well as Facebook's shareholders. They all depend on its success.
And, since their entire business model is trading information for your attention... they have a responsibility to use every legal strategy available to maximize the number of your visits, and the duration.
Asking them to do it differently, would be asking them to give up on their entire business.
And, it would be pointless. Another company would rise up to fill the void.
Mark Zuckerberg could walk away from Facebook tomorrow, and someone else would just step in.
It's like asking KFC to stop selling fried chicken because it causes heart attacks. They're not trying to kill you. But, they're also not going to voluntarily go out of business.
The responsibility to is ours.
News and World Events
If I was going with my gut, I’d say the world (in my lifetime) has never been in more danger of destroying itself.
Clearly… from the daily display of angry Facebook posts that fill my newsfeed… my "friends" and social media associates also think the entire planet is going to hell.
But, statistically speaking… we’re all wrong.
Dr Pinker, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World Today has compiled data from pre-history to the beginning of the 21st century, and claims that it’s not true. Things are not worse.
But, it sure feels like they are… in fact, I can feel tightness around my forehead right now... caused by the stress of global issues that don't concern me (nor could I do anything about them even if they did).
Am I a better person for being “aware” of these issues? Am I a happier person? A more productive person?
Am I more attentive to the people I care about… because I’m “in the know”?
That's another No!
In fact, I’m writing about this today because I have serious concern for my mental health, the future of my relationships, and my ability to support my family.
How can I effectively maintain an income if I'm consumed by negativity and waste massive amounts of time and energy on things that are not in my control?
I haven’t turned the news on yet today… but like a junkie, I’m desperate to. I want to know what’s going on, even though I'm certain it’ll just drag me down further.
Is It An Epidemic?
I probably shouldn't say... but I must admit, I find comfort knowing I’m not alone.
Nine out of ten people report that they feel phantom vibrations from their cell phones... even when they don't have their cell phones. An actual physical sensation that their phone is notifying them.
I experience it all of the time… and quite frankly, it’s insane. How can our brains be tricked like that?
Let me reword that?
How can MY brain be tricked like that? If I hadn't experienced it myself, I wouldn't believe it. I would think people were making it up.
"It's all in your head", I'd say... which is true. But the fact that it’s in MY head? Now I'm insane.
Here are some more statistics related to smartphone addition.
This is such a serious issue that there's a movement to go back to flip phones.
I have to admit, the idea sounds amazing… like breaking free and being released into the wild.
But, I'm a gadget junkie. The thought of going back to a flip phone messes with my identity...
I don’t buy a new phone every year… but every 2 years I do... and it's always the latest and greatest.
I've been doing that since 2010 (ish).
And now that I think about it, 2010(ish) might be the answer I've been looking for...
“When was the last time I was happy?”
Was it before the smartphone? Before I had the accumulated knowledge of human history in my pocket?
Before the endless stream of apps and newsfeeds?
It's painful to admit, because there is no way it's been almost a decade since I've had a moment of true happiness…
But it might be...
At least, a true moment of happiness that wasn't interrupted by the journey back into the digital realm.
It's as if we once lived in the real world... and now we just visit.
Now it's your turn? Do you have an unhealthy relationship with your smartphone? With social media? Please share in the comments section below.
Attention Diet Tools and Strategies
At this point I am only taking baby steps. My first step has been to remove Facebook from my phone. I don't plan on deleting my entire profile and quitting, but I rarely use Facebook when I'm at the computer.
Scrolling my Facebook feed on my phone, and getting into debates... that's the problem.
As I mentioned above... cleaning out my posts, likes, and other activity is necessary for me. By removing my "habit history" I'm letting it go. Starting fresh, uncluttered, and in a weird way, it's as if my addiction never existed.
It's not easy to do though... so I'm using a Chrome extension called Social Book Post Manager, which automates much of the process (it'll still take several hours, or even days to complete it though).
Removing digital addictions though are only the beginning. I also need to make an effort to appreciate the real world again... replace my bad habits with good.
I'll update this as I go but I'm even thinking of replacing (some of) my screen time with meditation.
If anyone has more attention diet suggestions, please share in the comments section below.