Control Your Attention

In the land of social media addicts, the person with attentional control will win.

Attention is a precious resource, and the modern technological landscape is designed to drain you of that resource. Everything around you–especially the phone in your pocket–is now designed specifically to tap into your attentional bank and steal what's inside. Learning how to build and defend your attention is therefore a critical set of skills for anyone who wants to become automation-proof.

Spending all your time enveloped in YouTube, Facebook and other information-rich platforms does not help you–on the contrary, it actively hurts you. Attention is a finite resource, and you need as much of it as you can muster if you're actively fighting against the onslaught of automation.

Learning and adapting rely heavily on attention, and if you're constantly running it down because you're drowning in information that's coming at you all the time, you won't get much done. This is because you have a limited amount of energy available to your brain every day, and the supply gets more scarce the more you engage your attention.

For example, multitasking is a dangerous myth because it's actually a constant engaging and reengaging process that rapidly depletes your brain's energy. Learning to avoid the multitasking trap is a skill all by itself and you need to learn it.

I can feel it every time I decide to watch something on YouTube or check some other social media feed before I write. If I make that mistake (which is getting less common), I can feel my energy drain away, sucking away creative flow that I need to put forth my best work.

This is social media doing what it's designed to do: keep you sedated and in place. The big platforms much prefer that you sit and watch, as it gives them data and advertising dollars in droves. Your attention gets packaged and sold like a bag of groceries, but at a much lower price.

Why is this relevant to surviving AI? First, by limiting your exposure to attention-killing activities like social media scrolling, you don't have over data to AI overlords. Secondly, keeping your attention on point means you can focus on experimentation, building, and generally taking action instead of playing a passive role in life.

If you can't swing this, all is lost. The machines have won and you will get sucked under the wave of automation. Attention is all you have, don't just give it away.

Learning Materials

Read These

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin

I've recommended this book more times than I can count, and that's because it's the best book on the market for anyone who wants to learn about how to manage their brain's resources. You have zero excuses not to read this book–it will change your life.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads by Timothy Wu

Although this isn't a guide, per se, it is worth reading because it outlines the business motives behind harvesting attention on a large scale. You should know how your attention is turned into dollars, and this book is an excellent guide to the industries that are actively building their model around that dynamic.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal

Hooked is the playbook tech companies use to build products that capture your attention. Reading this will give you everything you need to identify when and how products are designed specifically for harvesting attention, which will in turn help you avoid those products.

The World Beyond Your Head: On Become an Individual in an Age of Distraction by Matthew B. Crawford

This is a bit philosophical, but it does contain some gems about how to manage your attention in a world filled with people trying to steal it from you.

Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing by Andrew Smart

Autopilot is a book that explores the effects of being constantly bombarded by information and how you can mitigate the resulting damage. A large part of building your attention is taking time off from technology, and Autopilot is a great guide for learning how to do that.

Watch These

Advertising Hazards: Your Attention is a Commodity That Can Be Manipulated by Big Think

Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, gives a synopsis of how attention is harvested and resold.

Attention: Cognitive Psychology by Dr. Boaz Ben David

Can you define what "attention" means? If not (or even if you think you can), you should watch this brief video.

Divided attention, selective attention, inattentional blindness, & change blindness by Khan Academy

A short overview of some key concepts from the world of attention research.

How to Take Action

Start to take control of your attention by finding ways to keep the world from stealing it. Here are some actions you can take right now to start taking back your attention:

  • Remove as many notifications as possible from apps on your phone.

  • Uninstall distracting social media apps from your phone.

  • Remove distracting apps from your home screen if you can't uninstall them.

  • Put your phone on silent when you need to focus.

  • Set a time every day for unplugging completely.

Hobbies can also be used to build your ability to control your attentional resources. Here are some secondary activities you can start engaging in to develop your focus and build your attention:

  • Meditation

  • Playing a musical instrument

  • Martial arts (I recommend jiu-jitsu)

  • Learning a new language

  • Surfing

  • Picking up a new sport

All of these are leisure activities, but they require you to put your attention to use and exercise some amount of discipline (there's that concept of transfer in action!).

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