The big digital platforms are in a battle for our attention at a great cost to us. We must wake up to and start to change.
Every time you look at your phone or your computer, you enter a battlefield – the one where your attention stands as the lone target of the battleships Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.
The Scenario is all too familiar:
Waiting for your date to get back from the bathroom, you take out your phone to check your email. Fifteen minutes later you find yourself watching a video on a site you never even knew existed after having clicked from one news bit to the next. You had no intention of doing that, it just happened.
What happened? The battleships hit their target with pinpoint accuracy: your attention was very successfully and solidly snagged.
You may feel like a fool falling again down this digital rabbit hole, but don’t. You had no choice in the matter.
As Tobias Rose-Stockwell writes on Medium: “The digital rabbit hole you just tumbled down is funded by advertising, aimed at you. Almost every “free” app or service you use depends on this surreptitious process of unconsciously turning your eyeballs into dollars, and they have built sophisticated methods of reliably doing it. You don’t pay money for using these platforms, but make no mistake, you are paying for them — with your time, your attention, and your perspective.”
The war is on for our attention. And our attention is a precious resource we need for a productive and meaningful life.
And we are losing that battle. What we lose in time and attention every day, social media platforms gain in billions of revenue in advertising and subscriptions.
We have to take back control of our time and attention, but it’s not so easy. It’s a battle you and I have probably lost already.
Last year, Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, shared on 60 Minutes how Silicon Valley engineers our phones, apps and social media to get us hooked and create product functions that exploit our mental impulses.
“They find blind spots in our perception, and they use them to influence our behavior without us realizing. Every notification you receive, every email you get, and every website you browse is carefully created to ensure that you maximize the time you’re engaged with the company’s product,” writes Quartz
Now that we can see more clearly what’s going on, we must take steps to claim back our time and claims on our attention.
Tristan Harris launched a nonprofit called Time Well Spent, which is devoted to stopping “tech companies from hijacking our minds.”
He suggests some simple steps on what you can do to take control of your phone, but also have some other suggestions here for you on how to claim back precious time and attention that will improve the quality of your life.
1. Learn to sustain your attention
MBSR is a popular eight-week mindfulness training course that has been shown to improve cognitive ability including the ability to focus.
In a 2010 study published in Consciousness and Cognition Journal, researchers 24 people received four sessions of mindfulness meditation training. The control group had 25 people that listened to an audio book.
The brief mindfulness training was found to significantly improve visual-spatial processing, working memory and executive functioning but also the ability to sustain attention. This is good news, because previously it was thought that only experience meditators acquire these benefits from mediation.
This means that you can gain the same benefits even if you have never meditated and even if you meditated for a short while. At any rate, mediation practice is said to benefit people on many levels, so it’s worth a try.
2. Refuse to multi-task
Multi-tasking is counterproductive. When we’re checking emails, browsing Facebook, downing coffee, paying for the ride to the office, checking notifications and answering a call, we’re not doing more than one activity simultaneously, but many activities in succession. That’s exhausting.
More than that: it’s harmful to your brain. Switching between tasks uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain, which is the same fuel that your brain needs to focus.
“Even switching between multiple projects and work environments over longer periods leaves behind what business-school professor Sophie Leroy calls “attention residue,” and it affects your ability to focus on the new task. Single-tasking with deep focus for extended periods helps fight these adverse side-effects. It’s both more productive and more attention-friendly,” reports Quartz.
Single-tasking where things get done sequentially benefits your brain and your general mental state. Do yourself a favor and leave the chaotic addiction of multitasking behind.
3. Simply and routinely disengage
Really, it’s possible. Many people are doing it and waking up to their actual lives again.
Most of us check our smartphone every few minutes, out of habit, not necessity. Our habit of constantly checking and checking again and again is bad for productivity and can leaves us vaguely if not overtly stressed. I know, I never check notifications at night, just in case there’s something I’d rather not know about before I close my eyes.
In the mornings, I choose to leave my phone off for at least two hours so I can get some real work done. This habit has served me well and given me peace of mind in the mornings when I do my best work. I’m sure the world won’t come to an end just because I decide to disengage for two hours. I’m sure it’s true for you as well.