Focus

How to Thrive in the Great War for Attention

When life gets overwhelming, return to your values

Maarten van Doorn
Nov 15, 2019 · 4 min read

“Hey you! Look over here — you should really care about this thing I’m being indignant about! My thing is really important and you’re a bad person if you don’t give a fuck about this.”

Today, everywhere we turn, someone attempts to force-enter our consciousness. There are a lot of people screaming, “Pay attention to this thing I’m indignant about over here!”

Due to the transition into a digital attention-economy, the natural boundaries for input have disappeared. Anything and anyone can get to us, anytime. And to make it worse, most attempts to hijack our attention have this annoying moralistic undertone.

“The fact that I’m being indignant about this thing and you’re not, signals my moral superiority to you! But also my thing is really worth becoming indignant about anyway! Care!”

Every time I open my inbox, new demonstration invites await me. I never go. Then I think about all the food I am no longer supposed to eat and online services people say I stop using. All the big chain stores that have gotten bad press come to mind as well.

I thought being good was easy. Turns out I should throw out half my wardrobe.

I feel overwhelmed. It numbs.

Unfortunately, I simply can’t satisfy all these demands people make on me. There’s no way I can worry about all these things people claim I ought to be worried about. No matter how far I bend over backwards, I’m a mortal human being with not enough fucks to give.

This is an essay about the essential skill of dividing your attention.

When you’re not feeling the moral indignation

Our attention is a limited resource, and, clearly, lots of people claim it.

There are too many people screaming “Pay attention to this thing I’m indignant about over here!”

Sometimes feeling that it’s all just arbitrary, we’re left in a state of vertigo, beaten down, unable to decide.

I feel like that on a daily basis and it makes me stressed.

Which is why we need to re-erect a boundary between what is worth our attention and what isn’t.

How to thrive in the Great War For Attention

In the Great War For Attention, there are more inputs than we can possibly process. This means we’ll need to reject demands on our time.

It’s not going to be fun when you inform people you’ve decided not to spend one of your finite fucks on whatever their cause is.

No, your blog is not going to get my attention. Yes, I realize I’ll be missing the chance of a lifetime (oh, really, again). No, your newsletter cannot invade my space. No details of your conference please. No, I am not attending your demonstration. Yes, I know you think I’m an ignorant idiot. No, I’m not spending my finite mental energy on worrying about Google and privacy. Yes, I know you think I should.

Now will you please let me go?

What boundaries are made of

People will disagree with what you deem to be (not) worth caring about. They will scream at you and hunt you down and murder you because you have the wrong priorities and are therefore worse than Satan.

We find our way out of the war-zone by looking in.

You need to figure out which things matter to you. Getting clear on this is the only method for managing your attention that’s successful in the long term.

Why is this? Because the only robust justification for rejecting people’s claims on our attention is an appeal to our personal values. Your values are where the buck stops, where the spade is turned, where the argument ends. People should respect your values.

“It’s just not something that’s important to me.”

A value-based decision allows you to be at peace with the inevitable opportunity costs that come with deciding to spend one of your fucks on A and not on B. Citing your values as the reason for rejecting someone’s demand on your attention also means you’re being fair rather than giving some lame excuse.

All you need to know

Knowing your Why gives the inner freedom to spend your attention on causes that matter to you and cultivate the “subtle art of not giving a fuck” about the rest. You act for your own reasons and not for someone else’s. To thrive in today’s attention economy, you must get to the bottom of what this means for you.

In other words, you need to decide where and how you draw your line. What’s important enough, worth your time, and what doesn’t make the cut?

That’ll lead you to your values. They determine what you care about and what not.

After you’ve figured out what’s truly important for you now, you can tell people:

“This is me. This is what I do. This is what I don’t engage with.”

You have to be honest and direct. Then, and only then, will the shouting stop.

So here’s the one thing that you should do: be more like a kid.

When kids ask Why? and then Why? and then Why?, they’re trying to … get down to the first principles underneath so they can weigh how much they should actually care about what [people claiming our attention] seem so insistent upon. — The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce (Wait But Why)

We’ve forgotten how to ask that profound question.

Want to get a head start in the game of life and get back into the why-mindset? Then, right now, spend 10 minutes writing down your deepest values.

The rest is not important.


There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more unimportant things, you should subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

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Thanks to Danny Forest

Maarten van Doorn

Written by

PhD candidate in philosophy. What do you think you know, and how do you think you know it? Get ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

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