Chiang Mai, Thailand.
What’s your most valuable asset? Think on it for a minute.
Most people would probably say that their most valuable asset is the most expensive thing they own: maybe a house or a car. Other people would say it’s their family.
I think that our most valuable asset is our attention. This isn’t obvious, but it should be: we get paid to apply our attention to problems at work, the religions of the world demand our attention to pray, and our family and loved ones ask for attention from us to feel valued. If we completely lost the ability to hold our attention we would be unproductive and unemployable.
What else demands our attention? A push notification about a friend request interrupts us in the middle of dinner, the apps on our home screen fill with red badge icons to remind us of things we haven’t done, friends message us when we’re deeply involved in a face to face conversation with someone else, and emails arrive over our lunch break perfectly timed using artificial intelligence to place them at the top of our inbox.
We have at most 24 hours per day of attention, 16 if we sleep regularly, and the computers of the world would like to eat all of that time by distracting us.
I’m not saying that this is evil or even that it’s wrong. Our attention being eaten is just a side effect of a metrics and advertising driven world. As internet citizens we have shown each other that we’re too cheap to pay money for things. So instead we use them for free and pay with our eyes.
Any large Internet service will have a metrics team and that team will invariably optimize metrics with A/B tests. In a world designed by statistical tests the metrics that are the most reliable and easy to measure are the ones that will be taken more seriously. Services will be optimized for clicks, revenue, and time spent because those metrics are far easier to measure than fuzzy concepts like satisfaction, utility, and happiness. So our time and attention tend to get eaten and our happiness — well — no one really knows what that looks like over time.
In general this is fine — most people like using computers or they would stop. But on the margins this makes us increasingly distracted. It’s become hard to even read a book.
What can we do about it? I love using Facebook and Instagram but I know that I’ll just log in reguarly anyway. So I’ve turned off all push notifications, badges, and from push emails on my phone. I also unsubscribe from every marketing email as soon as it comes in — I’m going to go shopping anyway. This isn’t a major investment, it’s just a little one, but it lets my thoughts follow their own path instead of being interrupted mid-stream by information I’m not ready for.
Each time I preemptively block something from distracting me: a home screen badge, a push notification, or a spammy mailing list, I buy back some of that ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. It feels a lot better: I feel happier by letting my thoughts exist without interruption. It could be worth making the same investment in yourself.
P.S. I’m guilty of advertising too. My last headline was jokingly clickbait. I don’t charge for this site, and only a handful of people have bought my prints, so instead I link to products on Amazon hoping that you’ll buy them and offset some of my production cost. Invariably this biases me to write about things that can earn money with affiliate links. I don’t like it, I try to avoid it, but I know that it’s true.
Just as an experiment, there’s a new subscription option. I doubt anyone will directly pay for this content, but if you do I’ll take all the money and apply it to future budget travel, camera gear, website hosting costs, and coffee to keep me writing and making things you find interesting.