Self-Defence in the Age of Attention

Stefan Imhoff
man on a smartphone

Gilles Lambert, man on a smartphone

It’s been a while since I first started questioning my own behaviour with technology, but also of all of us in general.

The Internet has given us an endless stream of information, nearly every question answered in seconds. It has given us more music to hear, more texts to read, more images to look at, more movies to watch than one could ever consume in thousands of years.

And this is a good thing, as it allows us to extend our own minds in directions our parents and grandparents never could imagine. But with every benefit come always downsides.

The most precious thing you own is not money or time. It is attention. We all have (more or less) the same amount of hours on this planet. But what we do with it, what we achieve is up to us. We decide where we point our attention to. But do we really?

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

Annie Dillard The Writing Life

Feeding the Monster

Pointing our attention in the right direction has become harder in the last years, even for people with a lot of willpower. We have to withstand against big corporations with thousands of highly trained designers, engineers, or product people. They operate in a competitive market driven by advertising. And I know this because I’m one of them and yet I am a victim myself.

Everything is about activating people, make them register, click, scroll, like, use, consume, stay. We test every part of our interfaces to find out which color, which font, which text is the most effective. And still, compared to the big players like Google, Facebook, or Twitter, we look like amateurs.

Every item you interact with gets analysed, computed, stored. Algorithms calculate your next step, your direction. This is how the companies know what you want and when you want it. It enables them to provide you with a never-ending stream of things you crave.

The human brain is prone to a lot of cognitive biases and fallacies. It’s easy to manipulate, because it’s still the same brain of our ancestors living in the wild, looking for food, shelter or enemies.

We want to connect to others, yearn after distraction from ourselves and boredom, we want attention of others.

Every pull-to-refresh, every push message, every like, comment, every new item appearing in our continuous scrolling streams triggers the release of dopamine in our brains. They create a habit loop: Trigger, routine, reward.

We are creatures of habit. A lot of our day-to-day actions are driven by subconscious habits. You don’t need to think about walking to the subway, pushing the shopping card at the supermarket or switching on the lights in a dark room. These have become habits. And so has this movement of addiction: Grabbing for your phone, checking for updates, hundreds of times each day.

This behaviour changes our brain, makes it increasingly harder to follow longer texts, focus on just one thing for a long time and to think deeply. Some studies have started connecting rising numbers of depression in young people with these addictive curated streams. And because we get more of the stuff we like, this encloses us in filter bubbles (echo chambers), where we don’t have to deal with new or contradicting ideas, but instead get validated all the time, which strengthens our ignorance to other ideas and people. But this is a topic of its own.

And this will not get better anytime soon, but will probably get worse, as big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence get better everyday. So you need to learn a new skill and also teach it to your kids: Fighting back on attacks to your attention.

As this is metaphorical an attack on your attention, you should deal with it as one. The key aspects of successful self-defence are: Avoidance, Awareness and Prevention.

Avoidance

The first step for successful self-defence is avoidance. Try to avoid as many dangerous situations as possible. In this context this would mean, stay away from every distraction, which doesn’t add a lot of value to your life. Does Reddit or Twitter improve your life? Does surfing hours on Instagram or Facebook help you with your life goals? If not, stay away as often as possible. This is a very personal decision, what might be a distraction to one person, might improve the life of another.

These are some of the countermeasures I took in the last few years or things I experimented with:

  • I deleted most social media apps like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, etc. from my phone.
  • I deleted my bookmarks to social media sites from my browser and visit them once a week deliberately. I stay usually less than a few minutes, just to get the most important things I missed during the week.
  • I deleted all messengers, except the ones my family is using.
  • I stopped reading or watching the daily news (already 7 years ago). I’m usually the last hearing about the newest terrorist attack or the newest threats by Trump to the world. And I avoid the water cooler talks and coffee machine chats as hell. You can’t avoid news completely, but not actively searching for news filters out a lot of the noise.
  • I use RSS/Atom feeds as my major information source, because I can choose where and when to get my content from. I pull the content, when I want it (Pull vs. Push Principle).
  • I use a lot analog. I still use Evernote to save content for later access, but I started writing a lot on paper. I always have a pen and a notebook with me. I use sketchnotes to extract the key aspects of an idea. The combination of writing with hand and drawing helps me remembering things. And when I save content in Evernote, I make sure to mark the key aspects and write a short summary at the top.
  • I rarely post links to social media sites these days. I don’t want to attack the attention of other people. People interested in what I write or like can still go to my website, YouTube playlists etc.
  • I don’t check in or brag about the places I am at on social media.
  • I share my photos most of the time just with family.
  • I block the shit out of advertising sites, these creepy ads following you around the internet. Pages using ad-block countermeasures, I just leave and never come back (or just grab the text for later reading). But I started supporting selected sources with some money every month on platforms like Patreon. Pages should start producing more content of quality instead of masses of low-quality content. Maybe people would start to care and pay for good content.

Awareness

One of the key aspects of successful self-defence is awareness. You need to be aware, that you are being attacked. This is not always easy as attacks might come in different forms, like niceness or promises.

The first step is to recognise, that the own behaviour is problematic and harms the well-being. We tend to think we still have everything under control, are well-trained in media usage. Or we search for excuses like not having an option or needing to be informed.

My journey started 2 years ago, when I began doing mindfulness meditation every morning for 20 minutes. Meditation is the opposite to distraction, it’s focused attention. It doesn’t matter if you point the attention to your breath, body parts, some idea, or anything else. Meditation forces you to just be. Distractions will try to lead your attention away while you meditate. The Buddhists call this Mind Monkey, as uncontrolled, restless, confused thoughts will flood the brain during a meditation session. But with time you will get better and are able to focus longer periods and silence the monkeys.

I think my meditation practice was the main trigger in questioning my own behaviour with technology and I believe it is a key factor for a well-balanced person for the future. As we (should) train our body, to strengthen it, we should do the same with our mind.

These are some of the things I did in the last few years to strengthen my awareness:

  • I started with Meditation and did more than 730 sessions, more than 210 hours since then. Besides my daily 20 minutes session, I try to do half a dozen of breathing sessions for a minute throughout the day. I used the additional short sessions of my meditation app to learn about mindful walking, eating, cooking, sleeping, running or commuting. The app has also an extra section for kids and courses for students.
  • I practise selective ignorance. It’s not easy but sometimes caring less is the best option, to get the attention back.
  • I try to not use my headphones in the subway. When I’m reading I can practise to focus on the book and not on my surrounding. Sometimes I intentionally do nothing but just focus on the people in the subway.
  • I read a lot about the brain and it’s weaknesses. If you know all the biases and fallacies you are less likely to be a victim of them.
  • I read a lot about habit forming, addiction and multitasking (which is not possible in humans). I try to do as often as possible intentional single-tasking: Just reading, just eating, just watching a TV show, without the distraction of multiple other things at the same time.
  • I started living a Minimalist life. Less stuff means less distraction and more attention to the things, which matter to you.
  • I watch and consume intentionally positive, inspiring, creative and uprising videos or texts (e. g. TED Talks), to change the ratio of positive to negative messages I hear about.

Prevention

While avoidance is about trying not to be exposed to the dangerous things, prevention is more about attenuate situations. It’s about making it harder for the dangerous things to be successful.

These are some of the ideas I implemented or tried in the last few years to prevent my attention is taken away:

  • I deactivated most push messages, keeping only a few exceptions. Usually I disabled push messages completely on an app the moment it first pushed some irrelevant, triggering, needy information to me. I allow some relevant apps like weather warnings, family messages, etc. real-time updates. When an app has useful messages but also annoying messages and doesn’t allow selecting which ones, I switch them off completely. I love Google Inbox, because it allows me to select which type of message is allowed to use push messages.
  • I switched off all notification icons (the red annoying counters on app icons).
  • I use ‘Do not disturb’ on every device, including phone, tablet, computer and landline phone during off hours (21:00-8:00). Only my inner family is able to bypass this wall.
  • My phone is silenced during work hours (just vibrations), and often even beyond.
  • I switched off auto-play of videos where ever possible (YouTube, Netflix, Twitter). And if not possible, I intentionally quit the process of loading the next video, after each video. I go grab something to drink, or do some push-ups, before I continue watching.
  • When in doubt, if I will be able to be aware of the time (like when browsing on Pinterest), I set a timer to 15 or 20 minutes, to be reminded of the passing time.
  • I put all my devices on my work table, when relaxing on the sofa. It prevents the quick Let’s answer this question habit and adds an additional barrier. Plus, it will give you more movement.
  • I put my devices upside down on the table to not get distracted by incoming messages.
  • I use the Feedly mute filter function to filter out content, which drives my attention to places I don’t want it to go. Not sorry, Trump. 🙈 🙉 🙊 Here are some really cool examples, on how to use the mute filters.
  • I tried to leave my phone in another room, while eating with my family.
  • I switched off Nostalgia features, like ‘your day one year ago’, where ever possible. These are annoying, because they just try to activate you again.

It’s often not easy and sometimes even not possible at all to overcome the obstacles of attention grabbing media, just with pure willpower. But by building habits of mindful media consumption you might be able to get your attention back. Maybe not every day, but it is a process worth working on. It’s not the device, it’s you. The device can be used to be creative, connect to other people, be inspired. Or it can be used to distract yourself mindless for hours. It’s your choice.

By following my own advices I was able to finish redesigning two websites and wrote a book this year.

If you have read to this point, without being distracted, kudos! Now put down your phone and look out the window for some minutes.

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