Learning how to Budget for the Attention Economy

A self-experiment in managing focus in the information age

Andrea Hoymann

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

The movement is a reflex. As soon as we pause the Netflix show for a quick bathroom and snack break, my hand wanders to my phone, sitting at the ready on the sofa armrest.

Within seconds I am scrolling through my Instagram feed, looking at pictures and reels — but not seeing anything. I like a few posts, the content of which I almost instantly forget. Then it's time to restart the show, and I put my phone back down. But it takes me a while before I settle back into the plot of Good Girls. I feel annoyed at myself for being so easily distracted and allowing my impulses to take me out of the moment.

Why going analog isn't the answer

The problem is not unique to me. Unless you're still using your Nokia 3310, you're probably experiencing some version of the above scenario daily.

We live in an attention economy, which apparently means we have lost our ability to spend a second of idle time without consuming content.

And if we'd admit it, the majority of it is garbage.

As comedian Aziz Ansari once said, if you were to print and bind all the online content you looked at in a month and gave it to a friend to read, it's unlikely that they would enjoy it. Or that you'd feel proud of what you shared.

By now, we're all also aware of the negative consequence of the deluge of text, images, and videos flooding our brains. Being constantly connected to the virtual world tends to have detrimental effects on our mental health, happiness, and ability to focus. And social media channels are not alone to blame. If we're not scrolling or swiping, we're likely to skim over news headlines to "stay informed," check Slack or email to respond to work "emergencies," or stream video or audio content to tune out.

Many people have tried to buck the trend and opted out of the attention economy. Aziz Ansari claims to have lived entirely without the internet, including email, for the last four years. Johann Hari went offline for three months to write and research his latest book, Stolen Focus, and there's no shortage of similar experiments in internet abstinence.

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Andrea Hoymann

German expat in Australia | writes about sustainability, travel, work & life | head of strategy at brandchemistry.com.au