How You Got My Attention

One of today’s top recommended stories in my Medium feed is a piece intriguingly titled “How I Got My Attention Back.”

I clicked through, only to see that Medium estimated it as a 14-minute read. Fourteen minutes! You expect me to spend more than half a pomodoro of my precious attention on a wandering first-person narrative about your monthlong off-grid retreat?

While I’m deeply interested in strategies for focusing one’s attention in an era of hyper-distraction, this is really annoying.

Also annoying: The author’s Medium bio is “probably walking on a mountain.” Seriously, that is the entire bio. Craig Mod is clearly not the kind of guy who spends his time poring over 14-minute longreads on Medium. He’s a writer. The kind of important, literary writer who gets invited to rural writing retreats. He’s got more important things to do.

If he spends his time in 28-day retreats in Virginia and the rest of it walking on a mountain somewhere, I don’t care what wisdom he may have about regaining control of his own attention, it’s not likely to apply to me or to anyone I know. Most of us are too busy trying to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, make sure our kids get to school on time, and have a tiny bit of time and energy left over at the end of the day for ourselves and our partners.

This kind of long-winded, self-important essay is becoming all too common. The reason, I think, is twofold.

One, editing is hard, and good editors are hard to come by. Even good editors are probably too overworked these days to do the difficult work of chopping a good but verbose writer’s work down to a more manageable size. I do think his writing is good, if long. The editors did him a disservice here by not chopping it more.

Two, content platforms like Medium fetishize length. There’s some good evidence that this is because some people use length as a signal of “seriousness,” and they are more likely to share articles that seem serious. As a result, longer articles tend to get shared more, liked more, and clicked on more. That’s why Medium adds the helpful “14-minute read” estimate — it’s an indicator of what you’re in for, but it’s also a proxy for seriousness.

Unfortunately, all this sharing and clicking happens regardless of how much people actually read. It is entirely possible that longer articles get shared, but not fully read: People read the first few paragraphs, notice that it’s extremely long and therefore must be serious, and they click “share” or “like” in order to signal to their social networks that they are the kind of people who read and share serious articles.

Meanwhile, the art of writing concisely gets lost. And the art of reading carefully does, too, since everyone’s too busy skimming through these overly long stories to see what the highlights are.

In this story’s case, I couldn’t make it through two minutes, much less all 14. But I did scroll down to see if there was anything practical and relevant here, or whether it was all just navel-gazing about the state of attention today.

So here, let me extract the takeaway for you, since the editors didn’t:

  1. Turn off your Internet access before bedtime.
  2. Leave it off until lunchtime.

Good advice, actually! You’d probably find yourself even more productive if you kept the Internet off until dinnertime, but even half a day offline is no doubt helpful to your writing.

That is, unless the kind of writing you do requires an Internet connection so you can look up references and read what other people have written. But it’s clear that Craig Mod is not the kind of writer who spends a lot of time reading online. He’s probably on a mountain somewhere.

Top Photo: This book is really long. It must be good. Credit: Michael Pereckas/Flickr


Originally published at dylan tweney.