Do you know where your phone is right now? If it beeps or vibrates, will you keep reading this or stop to check the notification?
Of course you’ll stop and check. We all do it. In fact, we’re chemically wired to stop and check. Texting and tweeting drives an addictive dopamine loop in our brains related to seeking and experiencing pleasure. Ironically, what addicts us is often the promise of connection, and yet many of us can’t make it through dinner with another human without one hand anxiously clutching our phones.
In a 1997 article called “Attention Shoppers!” Michael H. Goldhaber argued that with the glut of information available at our fingertips, what’s become truly valuable is our attention. In this new “Attention Economy,” Dr. Alan Jacobs asserts, “to ‘pay’ attention is not a metaphor.” So where are we spending our attention?
We sure are busy. It seems like there’s never enough time. We are too tired to do all the things we want to do. Our nervous systems are fried. And yes, many of us are working more and longer hours. But how much of our time is disappearing along with our attention while idly scrolling through Facebook?
A friend of mine recently decided to turn off his phone for several weeks. He signed out of all social media, communicating only by email. Though the whole reason he decided to do this was to focus on a period of intense work, he told me he felt much calmer and more relaxed. “It’s not that I don’t still waste time,” he said. “Of course I do. It’s just that it’s my time I’m wasting.”
Perhaps it indicates something about our cultural addiction that many of his friends balked at his decision. Rather than disconnecting from his friends, though, it meant he had to show up, committed to the time and place agreed upon, rich with attention to spend just on us.
Attention is one of the most intimate things you can offer to another person. So what would it mean to spend some attention on ourselves? What if the secret to health, wellness, and serenity was just beyond this little screen? What if it turns out you’re not actually that busy?
No one has a right to your attention but you. So in an effort to reclaim time and manage the crippling cultural attention debt, here are some things we can try:
- If possible, turn off the notifications on your phone. Mindfully choose when you want to check things, but don’t let a beep pull your focus.
- Leave your phone at home sometimes.
- When you step away from social media, sign out. The extra step to sign back in will give you a chance to ask yourself if that’s really what you want to do right now.
- When you are not at work, don’t check your work email. Remind yourself that truly resting now will make you more productive on Monday.
- Invite your friends to slow down with you. We’ve all created the expectation that texts and emails should be replied to within minutes. A friend of mine often leaves her phone at home all day, making some of her friends crazy. “What if it’s an emergency?” they ask. “If it’s really an emergency,” she responds, “call 911. Not me.”