Attention hygiene

Rino Breebaart
Apr 16, 2018 · 4 min read

This is a concept that lies between media literacy and basic self-care and preservation.

Forget about being an authentic individual, drop all your self-projection and selfie anxiety: the one thing you have complete control over in the online space is your attention.

What you choose to attend to.

What you choose to be informed or entertained by (cat videos, news, long reads?)

And when & how you choose to focus on something longer and deeper.

The thing is: we’re living in an attention economy. You mightn’t have noticed because the only people benefiting from this economy are the large channels and gateways — hoovering up your data, manipulating your user experience to keep you hooked & interacting, and then selling your profile to all and sundry.

We’ve all bought into this, because the experience was so easy, seductive and convenient. Now we’re becoming aware of how deep the trade-off has been.

But it’s not just Facebook at the heart of this: it’s all technology as manifested in the smartphones we treasure and attend to all the time. Literally, in our hands, swiping, thumbing on the walk, waiting, at dinner, as soon as we wake up. (And those tiny screens!) Your life companion, as Samsung has it.

People are becoming aware of how bad this constant engagement is for their attention spans, their productivity, and general anxiety.

Don’t you feel the itch to check yours right now?

Just a quick look?

Someone might’ve liked or responded or trolled some nastiness. Or made an even funnier comment.

Or sent *an email*.

The question is: why do we want to be this kind of person, constantly distracted and elsewhere. Not in the here and now, not in the space we’re occupying. Swayed by whatever pops up and upvotes and memes into our field of attention.

Why does it feel like life is online — and reality is just meatbags and boring hassles?

Why do we need a digital detox, and mindfulness (so hot right now, still), and pills for anxiety? Why do we forget stuff all the time? Why all these digital crutches?

Because we’ve lost control over our minds.

We don’t practice basic hygiene over what we attend to; we don’t filter out the guff and sheer numbing variety of distraction (we might not feel capable! The tools work against it); and when we do focus on something, it doesn’t satisfy or engage us fully.

The little voice in your head is addled by all the goodies online (and will spend hours trying to decide on Netflix choices). The voice that should say Nah, don’t bother, this won’t make you smarter or funnier. The voice that reminds you people are the real thing, not their online manifestations.

You have to own what you attend to. Yes, entertainment is great — but there’s a gradual entropy in enjoyment (like porn; like endless refractions of irony and in-jokes; like fast food). Yes, take your dose of funnies and sillies but then look for some better fibre. Or just switch it all off and put that little voice to work on a good book. Or a long walk. Or a chat to the neighbours. All the boring, regular unsexy stuff that’s held us together for millennia.

Treat all that endless distraction with kid gloves (or better yet: rubber gloves). Be a gatekeeper for your mind; curate what goes into it; make it part of a program for your self. A Project You.

I do this by constantly asking: is this interesting? Is there a significant take-away? And will this make me a better or more creative person? (Yes, really, I am that twee and self-moralising. But goddamnit, no-one else in the attention economy has my interests and wellbeing at heart). Or if not being better, then doing something better, to paraphrase a New-Ageism.

And practicing long focus. Doing something exclusively and with full attention (and ideally your whole body) for a few hours. Without a phone or monitor nearby. Outdoors. That empties the mind.

And also because this: giving your complete/undivided attention to someone is one of the best and most satisfying things you can do. It’s a precious resource, it’s at the core of our empathy and humanity — don’t waste it all over the place.

Just think of the maths: there’s an infinite supply of fun and average-to-mediocre and savagely mediocre entertainment online. But you only have one mind and one here and now, and you deserve so much better.