Stop paying so much attention!

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A person staring at an hourglass.
With the world the way it is, maybe letting yourself feel bored at times is not too bad. OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay, manipulated by lee lim

We need to budget our attention just like we budget everything else

Last week, I wrote about how there is a cultural shift taking place all around us where everyone is impatient, operating only at the surface level, and always wanting or needing fresh stimulus. Gone are the days of sitting down with one book and spending an entire afternoon lost in it.  

Now, if a social media post takes more than thirty seconds to read, we scroll past to the next one. In fact, it is interesting how the bulk of social media has moved to videos as opposed to text, possibly out of the need to capture attention in ways plain old text cannot. 

To me, this is all a problem. I am a graduate student in Computer Science, and an editor for the Carillon. I also involve myself in several volunteering efforts. All of these are things that enrich my life, but only at the cost of making demands on my attention and time. For several months, if not years now, I have felt that our culture of short attention spans, the constant need to be entertained, and the growing inability to do something unpleasant in the short term is affecting me. It inhibits me from doing good work, from feeling calm and centered, and even keeps me from enjoying really high-quality entertainment. 

Over this past summer, I picked up a series of books by one author, all eventually related to the same topic – how to regain mastery of our minds and attention spans in a world where that has stopped being a priority. The author is Cal Newport, a Computer Science professor at Georgetown University and a strong advocate of what he calls the deep life and digital minimalism.  

If you read his books in order of publication, it tells the story of an individual who wanted to do truly great work (when a graduate student at MIT), and realized how such work needs long hours of focus, constant cognitive development, and a level of mindfulness that is fast disappearing from our culture. This helped foster the development of his latter books, which provide a deep and hard analysis of how we arrived at this junction in time, and how it is affecting, and will continue to affect unless checked, our ability to do hard things and gain lucrative skills. 

But Newport is not just some doomsday alarmist. While he spends a lot of time talking about the challenges, his focus is always on the solutions. He interviews a wide spectrum of people, from farmers to musicians, from fellow professors to comedians, to find the common thread that binds people who have, to paraphrase one of his book titles, become so good that they cannot be ignored.  

Based on all these conversations, and in a manner amusingly reflecting his training in mathematical sciences, Newport goes on to list some properties of a deep, focused life and how one can lead such a life. I will attempt here to give what comes down to a summary of his entire body of work, but bear in mind this would be poor replacement for the books. In fact, the irony is that an attempt to glean his philosophy from one article would be a great example of the culture of shallow, quick, and easy we are trying to avoid. 

For Cal Newport, the pursuit of a deep and focused life has two major reasons. From a monetary value perspective, developing skills to do the things most others cannot do places one in a position where they can sell their skills for the best prices. Newport argues that such skills are only attainable when we learn sustained focus on difficult things, pushing past the initial discomfort and the desire to simply switch off and seek entertainment. To provide a concrete example, learning to write computer programs is a hard skill with a steep learning curve, and is not easy for someone who needs frequent stimulus in the form of social media or YouTube. 

Money considerations aside, Newport also believes that a deep life, spent learning hard things and thinking deep thoughts, is a far richer one than one spent scrolling social media for hours and not having experienced any growth from that investment of time. Personally, I love this perspective. I can vouch that spending an hour reading a classic, or watching a movie masterpiece, is exponentially more rewarding for my mental health than an hour spent scrolling any social media. 

Newport then adds that while we should be convinced of the superiority of such a life, the pursuit of it keeps getting harder with each year. This is because all around us are traps that lure us into lowering our awareness and mindfulness. Social media professionals are engaged in state-of-the-art research on how to capture our attention, keeping us stuck in their products and spending more and more time. Newport cautions that any effort at improving mindfulness at the individual level is only doomed to failure, because none of us can outwit an entire industry vying for our attention.  

He recommends a shift in culture, where we reduce, if not eliminate, social media, which actively pulls our attention instead of being just a passive tool. He also cautions that the apparent ease of communication enabled by email has resulted in more frequent but lower quality communication, as well as unreasonable demands on our focus. Newport is no Luddite, however. He concedes we cannot go back to a world without email. He merely suggests that we be more mindful and intentional with our use of it, and not let it become a lazy pattern meant to get something off our desk so we can once again check our social media. 

In order to prioritize deep and hard things, and slowly reduce our unhealthy relationship with social media and the internet, Cal Newport makes several suggestions. I will not repeat them all here, both for space considerations and the desire that readers seek out his original work. However, since this past summer, I have made some changes and have felt a lot less frazzled. These involve making it just a little harder to mindlessly consume entertainment and social media.  

For me, this has been as simple as removing these apps from my phone. Now if I want to check something, I have to intentionally use a browser and sign in. In addition, I now have a plan to fill the pockets of time no longer taken up by mindless scrolling. I carry a book with me, or just sit there for some time, relaxed in the knowledge that not having fresh content to consume for a few minutes will not cause me harm. It can have a wonderful calming effect, this choice to slow down, do less, and be bored. I recommend it to everyone! 

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