Let’s be honest. It’s nearly impossible to find peace in our lives when the news media is constantly reminding us that the world is in crisis, when advertisers are in constant competition for our attention, and our mobile devices are flooded with pop-up alerts and notifications. Among other factors, I believe this overload of information and stimulation is a contributor of rising anxiety and depression among both youth and adults. First, I’ll tell you how we got here and second, I’ll tell you what you can do about it.
So how did we get here?
Short answer – Attention is time. Time is money. Money makes the word go ’round.
Long answer – Attention is the greatest commodity of the modern age. It seeps into the unconscious. It’s persuasive and impacts buying and decision-making. It defines the consumer market. To put things in perspective, Google made $209B in ad revenue in 2021. (So why did they have to pain us with two ads before every YouTube video now? Ugh.) Facebook made $114.9B in ad revenue in the same year. That’s 97.5% of Facebook’s entire financial revenue. It’s what keeps them in business. And each of those companies that pays for ads is fighting to gain the consumer market. They want their product to be more appealing than their competitor. They will use light and sounds and color and manipulate your emotions through shock or sympathy, whatever it takes to keep your attention for as long as possible. They scream “Look at me!” “Listen to me!” And it’s not just product advertising. It’s news media competing for ratings. It’s restaurants competing for your seat at their table. It’s streaming services competing for subscribers. It’s social media influencers competing for likes and views. It’s politicians competing for your vote. In this way, consumerism has become engrained into popular culture. We are both the product and the consumer of the attention economy and it creates a reinforcing cycle. It’s overstimulating and exhausting and hard to get away from.
So what you can do about it? How do we get out of the cycle?
Realistically, we cannot entirely disconnect from the internet or mobile devices because they have become the central tools for communication in our society. However, we can set boundaries for when and how we choose to engage with these technologies. I myself will admit it’s easier said than done but it’s worth the effort and it becomes easier with time and intentionality.
Here few suggestions for steps you can take to reclaim your attention:
- Silence phone notifications when you are working or studying. (Believe me. You’re not missing out on anything. If it’s urgent enough, they will call you.) Also, put your phone away when you are with friends. By giving them your full attention, it shows that you are prioritizing your relationship with them over other things like checking your email or messages.
- Download a browser with a built-in ad blocker. I’m using Vivaldi but there are other options such as Opera or Brave. It makes a big difference not to be bombarded with images and videos and links to clickbait articles when searching the web. You will be more productive without the distractions. (If you insist on keeping Chrome, try installing a “reader mode” extension.)
- Schedule time in your daily routine for off-screen activities. Whether it be reading, jogging, journaling, meditating, or something else of your choosing, it will help you to relax and refocus your mind. (If you have to spend long amount of time on a screen, consider blue-light blocking glasses so that you do not strain your eyesight.)
- Create a playlist with calming music for when you feel overwhelmed. Mine is entirely instrumental because I tend to analyze and overthink lyrics but it can be whatever music help you decompress. I like to listen to my calm playlist when I wake up and before I go to bed.
- Consider deleting your social media account(s) or at least setting time limits on your social media consumption. It sucks away your time. It makes you feel bad about yourself. It’s addictive. Still not convinced? Here’s 10 more reasons. I have not deleted my social media but I am making an effort to limit my time on Instagram and have invested more time into professional development and education through LinkedIn.
Finally, I’m sure you’ve heard if before but I’ll say it again. Mental health is just as, if not more important than physical health, self-care shouldn’t be an afterthought, and you can’t be there for others if you don’t make time for yourself. Our time and energy and attention are limited so make good use of them and don’t settle with mindless consumption. It’s dulling your senses and dumbing you down. Don’t stoop to its level. You deserve better. Be a thoughtful and engaged individual.
Thank you for giving me your attention and reading my blog. I know there are an innumerable amount of other ways you could be spending your time right now. If you take anything away from this post, I hope it’s that you recognize the power of your own attention, take steps towards safeguarding your peace, and encourage others to do the same. It is more important and impactful than you think.
WSJ podcast episode on the Facebook algorithm and how it works – simultaneously terrifying and fascinating. In fact, the whole “Facebook Files” series is an incredible piece of journalism and I listened to all 3hrs and 32 minutes.
The Social Dilemma documentary on Netflix – I’ll admit the acting is sub-par but the interviews with social media executives, engineers, and psychologists are insightful.
“Welcome to the Internet” by Bo Burnham – needs no explanation. Just watch it and be amazed. True art. Free acid trip. It may or may not haunt you in your dreams. You have been warned.
One of my most-watched YouTube videos – 1 hr of 8d audio piano and rain. Listen with headphones. Thank me later.