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The Attention Diet

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The Attention Diet

In the time it took me to outline this article I checked Twitter three times and my email twice. I responded to four emails. I checked Slack once and sent text messages to two people. I went down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos once, costing me about 30 minutes of productivity, and I probably checked my books’ ranks on Amazon roughly 3,172 times.

In what should have been 20 minutes of work, I compulsively interrupted myself at least nine times. What’s more, the cost of these interruptions goes way beyond the added amount of time to finish this damn thing. They likely distracted my train of thought, reducing the quality of my writing, thus causing a need for more edits and revisions. They likely created anxiety as I spent much of my distracted time anxious about the fact that I wasn’t working and much of my time working anxious that I was missing out on text conversations, email threads, or news updates. They likely made the process of writing itself less enjoyable and caused it to appear more taxing in my mind.

These distractions aren’t just unproductive, they’re anti-productive. They create more work than they replace. 

Chances are you go through this do-si-do yourself on the regular. For me, it’s only gotten worse as time has gone on—which is strange, because you’d assume that my attention span and focus would be getting stronger as I get older, but that’s not been the case. 

I started blogging in 2007. I remember plopping down to churn out a 1,000-word draft being easy. I’d just wake up and do it and then go get breakfast. It was somewhere around 2013 where I noticed I was often interrupting myself to check Facebook or email. Then it was around 2015 where I felt it was beginning to become a problem. 

I felt that I had to pay attention to my attention, that I had to focus on my focus. It was new. It wasn’t something I’d had to think about since I was a kid. 
 
By last year, these interruptions had become compulsive. I didn’t know how to not distract myself anymore and had to go to great lengths to prevent it from happening. It felt like I was living in some kind of digital hellscape, where the process of doing anything significant and important seemed not only fruitless but also attentionally impossible.

How We Became Mentally Lazy and Weak

Back in the 1950s and 60s, the world changed. Modern economies moved people out of factories and fields and into office buildings. Whereas you used to have to stand on your feet all day and carry heavy shit around to make a buck, now, the best-paying jobs simply asked that you sit at a desk for as long as possible without ever getting up. 

Our bodies aren’t particularly adapted for a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, it turns out that sitting around all day munching on donuts and soda is downright awful for your physical health. As a result, we began to see epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease around the same time that everyone got cushy office jobs. People’s bodies were falling apart, becoming overly sensitive, and not functioning correctly. 

To counteract this sedentary lifestyle, we all came together and developed a fitness culture to counteract the health crisis. People realized that if modern life had you sitting around all day watching a screen, that you needed to set aside time in your day to go lift something heavy or run around a little bit. That kept your body healthy and stable and strong. Jogging became a thing. Gym memberships were invented. And people wore spandex and jumped around on VHS tapes, looking absolutely ridiculous. The eighties were great. 

Our bodies are designed in such a way that they need to be challenged and stressed to a certain degree, otherwise they become soft and weak, and the smallest endeavors—walking up a flight of stairs, picking up a bag of groceries—will begin to feel difficult or impossible. It turns out that these small, conscious efforts to stress our bodies are what keeps them healthy. 

In my new book, Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope, I talk about how our attention spans are dwindling. Anxiety and depression are on the rise. How we’re becoming less tolerant of people with opposing views, and less patient when the world doesn’t go our way (which, due to the overload of media, feels like all the time.) 

The same way removing stress and strain from our physical bodies causes them to become fragile and weak, removing mental stress and strain from our minds makes them fragile and weak. 

The same way we discovered that the sedentary lifestyles of the 20th century required us to physically exert ourselves and work our bodies into healthy shape, I believe we’re on the cusp of discovering a similar necessity for our minds. We need to consciously limit our own comforts. We need to force our minds to strain themselves, to work hard for their information, to deprive our attention of the constant stimulation that it craves.

The same way the consumer economy of the 20th century called upon us to invent the nutritional diet, I believe that the attention economy of the 21st century calls upon us to invent an attention diet. 

This has been a big talking point throughout my speaking tour this year, and I’d like to take a stab at codifying it in a real step-by-step program for people here. 

Goals of the Attention Diet

There are a few fronts on which our attention is being assaulted. First off, there’s just a massive surplus of stuff to pay attention to. And the more crap there is to pay attention to, the more difficult it is to choose what to focus on—not to mention stay focused on it! 

So, the first and most important goal of an attention diet should be to consciously limit the number of distractions we’re exposed to. Just as the first step of a nutritional diet is to consume less food, the first step of an attention diet is to consume less information. 

That then raises the question, “What stuff is worth paying attention to?” What should we give a fuck about? The same way the proliferation of junk food fucked up our bodies in the 20th century, the exponential growth in junk information has fucked up the emotions and minds in the 21st century. Therefore, the second goal of the Attention Diet is to find highly nutritious sources of information and relationships and then build our lives around them.

Basically, the name of the game is quality over quantity. Because in a world with infinite information and opportunity, you don’t grow by knowing or doing more, you grow by the ability to correctly focus on less.

The method of the Attention Diet is similar to a nutritional diet—by cutting out whole categories of consumption for a period of time, your body (or mind) adjusts, becomes healthier, and then, ideally, after enough time you no longer crave your old guilty pleasures.

(It’s probably worth noting that nutritional diets are famous for failing spectacularly. My limited personal experiences have shown that Attention Diets are pretty effective. But, fuck it, this is uncharted territory, so let’s see how it goes.)

There are three steps to the Attention Diet:

  1. Correctly identify nutritious information and relationships.
  2. Cut out the junk information and relationships.
  3. Cultivate habits of deeper focus and a longer attention span.

So, how do we define “junk” information and relationships and “nutritious” information and relationships?

Well, without getting all philosophical, let’s keep it simple.

  • Junk information is information that is unreliable, unhelpful, or unimportant (i.e., it affects few to no people in any significant way). Junk information is short-form, flashy, and emotionally charged, encouraging addictive consumption patterns. 
  • Nutritious information is information that is reliable, helpful, and likely important (i.e., it affects you and others in significant ways). Nutritious information is long-form, analytical, and encourages deep engagement and extended thought. 
  • Junk relationships are people/groups who you have little face-to-face contact with and/or little mutual trust, who bring out your insecurities and consistently make you feel worse about yourself or the world. 
  • Nutritious connections are people/groups who you have frequent face-to-face contact with and/or a lot of mutual trust who make you feel better and help you grow.

A note on sports/entertainment: There is a place for sports and entertainment in all of this. We all need something to help us unwind in our free time. I personally love video games. But I also recognize that if I check Reddit or Twitch 20 times a day, that’s a really unhealthy indulgence of that hobby. Put another way, my hobby starts to hurt me rather than help me. Our goal is to make our hobbies work for us rather than against us. And we’ll get into how to do that below.

Another note before we begin 

The Attention Diet should be emotionally difficult to implement. Ultimately, junk information hooks us because it is pleasing and easy. We develop low-level addictions to it and end up using it to numb a lot of our day-to-day stresses and insecurities. Therefore, getting rid of the junk information will expose a lot of uncomfortable emotions, trigger cravings, and compulsions, and generally suck for the first few days or weeks. 

The goal here is to push yourself to stay more focused on what adds value to your life. If it’s not difficult, then you’re probably not really cutting out all of the junk. 

Attention diet - man with busy mind

And finally, I want to give a shout out to Cal Newport and Nir Eyal. In my opinion, they are like the tech geek versions of Farrah Fawcett and Arnold Schwarzeneggar in the 80s.

Okay, maybe that was a weird comparison, but the point is, they are leading the 21st century charge on treating our mental nutrition seriously. Cal published a book this year called Digital Minimalism that has become pretty popular and Nir has written a wonderful book that’s coming out in September called Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir is a good friend of mine and I can attest that he may be the most disciplined and focused person I’ve ever met. The dude just gets shit done. While this article lays out a system that I’ve slowly developed for myself, his ideas and writing have been very influential. You should definitely pre-order it if this is an area you struggle with. 

Onward!

Step 1: The Social Media Cleanse

  • Apply the Law of “Fuck Yes” or No to your social media connections – Go through all of your friends/follows lists, ask yourself two questions: “Is being connected with this person adding value to my life?” and “Does this person/group help me grow (i.e., overcoming fears and anxieties) or make me weak (i.e., amplifying fears and anxieties?)” If the answers aren’t emphatic FUCK YES’s then you need to unfriend or unfollow them.

    If you get hung up on someone or something and wonder if they’re worth keeping, the fact that you have to stop and wonder if they’re worth following is a sign that they’re not worth following. Get fucking ruthless. This is your attentional health we’re talking about here.

  • Unfollow ALL news and media outlets (including sports and entertainment) – It’s undeniable that news media is becoming more anemic, short-sighted, and inaccurate. Most articles are written for clickbait, not for veracity and utility.

    Social media plays into these worst incentives of the media. They fight for your clicks by upsetting you, by poking at hot-button issues that FEEL as though they matter a great deal, but actually don’t. They create addictive cycles of outrage which not only fail to inform you about what you need to know but actually make you more resistant to facts.

    As citizens, it’s our duty to opt out of this toxic system. And the first (and simplest) way to do that is to simply unfollow and unsubscribe from ALL news sources on social media. Don’t worry, I will discuss better ways to stay informed and receive news below.

  • Uninstall any apps that feel pointless after doing the above – If you did the two steps above correctly, your social media accounts should be much leaner, and in some cases, almost empty. This is good. The beauty of unfollowing/unfriending masses of connections is that not only do you get rid of all of the toxic and unhealthy information hijacking your attention, but you also have maybe 10% as much content when you log on. You scroll your newsfeed a couple of times and voila! You’re looking at the same shit you saw yesterday. Time to put your phone down and go do something useful.

    But before you do that, take another look at your social media accounts. Chances are at least one of them is so barren that there’s hardly even a reason to open it anymore. The beauty of simplifying your accounts like this is that it really shows you which networks provide pleasure and which networks are just there because you feel like you have to be on them. For me, it showed me that I actually enjoy Twitter and to a lesser extent Instagram. Facebook is just this annoying thing I have to be on. So, I deleted Facebook off my phone. It felt weird at first, but I realized that I was needlessly checking it 5+ times each day. Deleting it freed me from most of those.

Step 2. Choose Good Sources of Information and Connection

Current Events

Try this: only get your news from the current events page of Wikipedia. Every Wikipedia language has a Main Page where they list current events and notable historical events. This will give you the bare minimum facts if you feel you must stay informed daily (which is debatable). And, if for some reason you want to dive deeper into whatever is happening, you can click on the article to, again, get the bare minimum facts.

Wikipedia is curated to remove bias, political leanings, and false statements. That is no longer 100% true of almost any news source these days.

Getting my news from Wikipedia is two things: 1) a breath of fresh air, and 2) completely boring.

It’s a breath of fresh air because it actually gets at what’s going on. Just to give a current example, I’ve seen headlines for days about attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Pretty much every news headline I’ve seen has revolved around Trump blaming Iran and whether he’s right to do so or not, whether he’s over-reaching or not. In fact, if anything is true of US news media since 2016, everything is always viewed through the lens of Trump, which is not only annoying and unhelpful, but unfairly characterizes a lot of these issues. But pop onto Wikipedia and within three sentences, I learned more about the situation than all of the news articles I had read, combined.

Wikipedia is also boring. Which is good, partly because facts have a tendency to be boring, but also because boredom has no bias. If an article gets you angry or excited, you will become biased about its content. On the other hand, if reading it feels like you’re reading a TV repair manual, then you’re probably just getting the facts and nothing else.

But best of all, making the news boring again encourages you to only read about what is truly important or impactful for you. The truth is that most of what passes for “news” is disguised entertainment—information that is only impactful or important for a small group of people or far removed from your ability to influence anything and then exaggerated to make you feel outraged or angry or excited based on your specific identity group. The only way to win at this game is to not play, and by using Wikipedia as your resource for current events, you’re opting out of that game.

But, there are important long-term issues like climate change and civil rights and economic inequality that require lots of information and critical thinking. What about those? Well, glad you asked…

Long-form Content

Long form content should be your bread and butter for news content and the majority of your entertainment content. Long-form content means any medium—Books, Podcasts, long-form articles, documentaries—the key is that shit takes a long time.

There are two benefits of limiting yourself to long-form content. The first is that (on average) it’s going to portray far more research, nuance, and thought than short-form content. Stupidity in a tweet can sound deep. Stupidity repeated for 12,000 words quickly makes itself apparent.

The second benefit of long-form content is that it hones our attention span and gets us accustomed to sitting with topics for extended periods of time. It helps us to not fall prey to our immediate knee-jerk responses. It gives us the space to wonder, “What if my assumption is wrong? What if I’m the one with dick breath in this argument?”

The long-form content applies to entertainment too. Don’t just watch sports clips all day, watch a documentary about your favorite player. Don’t just listen to a hit song over and over, put on the full album. Don’t just play a dinky iPhone game over and over, find a video game you can immerse yourself into and think critically about its elements and story. The idea is to regularly stretch your attention span and ability to focus and exercise it like a muscle.

Longform.org is a great place to find long-form content. I’m also a fan of Aeon.

Step 3: Schedule Your Diversions

The same way you plan a “cheat day” or make an agreement with yourself that you’ll only have X number of desserts or Y number of drinks each week, the same goes with your attention. Email should be a consciously-chosen activity done at a specific time to maximize its purpose. It’s not something you compulsively refresh every 30 seconds. Same goes for social media. Same goes for entertainment. 

Below are the guidelines that I try to stick to and are working well in my life. Obviously, everyone’s mileage will vary: 

  • Email twice per day – I try to limit myself to two email blocks each day. Once in the morning and once at the end of the day in the afternoon. The morning session I only look at and respond to important/urgent emails. The afternoon, a couple times a week, I’ll clear my whole inbox.
  • Social Media 30 minutes per day – This is a work in progress for me. I’m fine on my work computer, the problem is my phone. I still get caught on those loops of: refresh Twitter, refresh Facebook, refresh Instagram, refresh Twitter, and on and on. I recently removed Facebook from my phone (per above guidelines), but Twitter and Instagram still suck me in.
  • Entertainment only at certain hours – I’m pretty much too busy and traveling too much to get hardcore about this anyway. But once things calm down in my life, I may experiment with this. See below for methods of planning this out.
  • Leave phone out of office during the day and bedroom at night – I’m good about leaving it out of the office when I need to write. The bedroom is still an issue for me. 

OK, this is all fine and dandy, but how the hell do we keep to this? Everyone talks shit about social media… while scrolling compulsively on social media. How do we actually implement these concepts into our lives? Because that’s the most important part. 

Step 4: Implementation

In Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope, I redefine freedom as self-limitation. Freedom in the 21st century isn’t about having more, it’s about choosing your commitments to less

(To see an excerpt related to this idea, read this: #FakeFreedom)

To help us limit ourselves, we need to set boundaries around ourselves. Our minds are too flawed and selfish to be allowed to pursue what they want. Instead, like training a dog, we must train our attention with the help of various tools to make sure we’re focusing on the right things. 

I’ll talk about three types of tools in this section: website blockers, app blockers, and power outlet timers. 

Website blockers

Key to implementing the attention diet is downloading and installing site blockers on your devices. There are dozens of apps, but here I’ll review a few of the best ones that I’ve used. 

Cold Turkey (MacOS/Windows) – My favorite app. Probably the most robust with the most features. You can block websites, specific pages, applications, and even specific Google searches. 

I love it because it has a scheduler. So you can modify what gets blocked on which days. Let’s say you want Friday afternoon to be your “email” afternoon, you can program that in. Or you can open up everything on Sundays. It’s highly customizable. It also keeps stats!

Also, unlike some blocking software, it’s a one-time payment. So while the price may appear high, it’s not that bad (and it’s in Canadian dollars… which is like, not even real money). 

Focus (MacOS) – More user friendly than Cold Turkey but without as many features. Focus saved my ass when I was writing my latest book. When I was on deadline, I got so desperate that I downloaded it and basically blocked everything in my life six days a week for about a month. 

Attention diet - Mac OS website blocker screenshot
A screenshot of part of my blacklist. I have about 50 websites and apps blocked on my work computer. It’s arguably the only thing that let me finish my book on time.

It blocks websites and apps, and you can customize what you block by day or even hours. It’s not quite as intuitive or simple as Cold Turkey, but it’s still great. My only complaint is that when you update the app, it shuts down, thus allowing you to fuck around again. I know that sounds minor, but each time I updated the app, I’d go on a 3-4 day binge of unproductivity before I finally forced myself to turn it back on. 

Freedom (MacOS/Windows) – Beautifully designed and easy to use. Also works on your mobile devices. 

This is probably the most popular apps in this category. I haven’t used it in a year or so and the reason I stopped is that it’s too easy to get around. Hate to say it, but I can’t be trusted with weak ass apps that let you close them or turn them off in a bunch of sneaky ways, I need an app that leaves me handcuffed with my work. 

Attention diet: Freedom App screenshot

Self Control (MacOS) – Free and probably the most hardcore app on the list. You load up a list of sites, turn it on, and then you’re stuck. Nothing you do can turn it off until the time runs out. You can restart your computer, uninstall the app, do anything, and it won’t unblock you. It’s evil…in the best way possible. 

Phone Blockers

First, before we get into blocking specific apps or the entire phone, you should go into your settings and disable most/all of your notifications. I don’t care who you are or what you do or what fucking horse you rode in on, notifications are like the second-hand smoke of attention—they give everyone a coughing fit. 

Disable both the sound/vibration and the little red circles. You know those circles are red for a reason, right? We unconsciously see them as being urgent and they encourage compulsive clicking to get rid of them. 

Red dot phone notifications
Those little red dots are Satan, in case you were wondering.

(Optional: I also turn off my ringer and all sound from my phone. My philosophy is: unless we scheduled a call, or I’m expecting to hear from you, I don’t want to hear from you. Nothing personal.)

Once you’ve done that, let’s talk about limiting our app use. 

iPhone users have it the easiest, as Apple has started implementing features to let you temporarily block apps from yourself. You can find a guide for how to do it here

Google’s Digital Wellbeing app for Android accomplishes the same thing, although without as many options as Apple. One thing I do like about Digital Wellbeing is you can set a bedtime for yourself. So, at that time every night, your phone becomes unusable. 

Attention diet - Android digital wellbeing screenshots
Google’s Digital Wellbeing app is a good start, but still leaves some features to be desired.

But, if you want to customize how and when you can use certain apps, you have to download a third party app. There are a lot of options, but the best one from what I can tell is aptly called “Help Me Focus.” It has the flexibility to block some apps and not others, and lets you customize when you block throughout the week. 

Outlet Timers

OK, this tip is only if you want to get hardcore (and also if you have kids). This idea comes courtesy of my buddy Nir Eyal. When I heard him describe it, I was like “damn dude… that’s some next level shit.” 

For about $12 each, you can buy timers for your power outlets. You can then program them to cut off power to whatever is plugged into them at certain times of the day or week. Buy a few of them and put them around the house and you can customize what hours of the day or week your wifi router works, when your television is usable, when your video game systems will function, and so on.

Outlet blocker

Ideally, you’ll be so occupied with work and productive stuff during the day that in the evenings, you won’t have to resort to controlling yourself this way. But hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. 

I have a tendency to get sucked into video games. I’ve been pretty good about it the past year. But the next time I find myself playing until four in the morning every night, I know this is exactly what I’m going to be using. 

Common Objections to the Attention Diet

Objection 1: “But Mark! I’ll be soooo boooreeed” – I have two responses to this: a) Shut the fuck up. And b) no, you won’t. 

Remember when you were a kid and you’d lay around on the floor, flailing around, complaining to your mom, “But mooooommm, I’m booooooreeed” and your mom would just kinda shrug and be like, “Well, that’s your problem.” 

Usually, the greatest part about being a kid came out of those moments. You’d imagine the sofa as a spaceship and plot how you were going to escape to the backdoor without the evil aliens (in this case, mom) seeing you. Or you’d imagine fantastic creatures and get excited to go draw them. Or you’d wander around outside until you found other bored kids to play with. 

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, boredom is the father. Every great burst of creativity or action is inseminated with the wiles of boredom. Boredom will fuck your brain until it comes up with something awesome to do. And that’s a fact. 

So, there’s a value to boredom. And without realizing it, the constant stimulation of our phones and social media and video games and Netflix series have robbed us of the creative energies of our own boredom. They have stymied our relationships and desires for community—I mean, why go hang out with the neighbors when you can just binge-watch Sex in the City for the eighth time? 

Boredom is good. It means you’re challenging yourself. It’s like bicep curls for your mind. Embrace the boredom. Bathe in the boredom. 

Objection 2: What if I’m missing out! – I have written in-depth about the experience of FOMO (or, “Fear of Missing Out”) before, but I’ll say it here again, briefly: 

You are always missing out. You always were and always will be. The question is: what is it that you are choosing to miss out on? 

Most of your life, you didn’t care that you were missing out because you either weren’t aware that you were missing out or you were missing out on things you knew didn’t matter to you. Social media fucks up both of those—it makes you aware of everything, and it also gives you the false perception that things are way more important than they are. 

The result: constant FOMO. 

Eliminate the bullshit social media use (i.e., implement the Attention Diet), eliminate the perception that those things are important and boom, no sensation of “missing out” on anything. 

Ninety percent of the most important experiences in life are right in front of you. And instead of distracting yourself from them, as you have been, the Attention Diet will finally free you to face them. 

Remember: it’s about quality over quantity. 

Objection 3: I should be able to discipline myself to stop using these things – I’m surprised at how many people say this. It’s a noble intention but unfortunately, completely misguided. 

Imagine someone who wants to lose 20 pounds stocking their fridge with cake, ice cream, and frozen pizzas and then saying, “It’s okay, I should be able to use my willpower to not eat these things.” 

That’s insanity. Everyone knows the first thing you do when you try to change your nutritional diet is you throw all the garbage out. We are weak creatures. We cave easily. We are totally unconscious of our own reasoning and often slaves to our whims. You’d be dumb to trust yourself in such a situation. 

If you’re trying to develop a habit of waking up at 6AM, you set an alarm every morning (or maybe two). If you’re trying to develop a habit of calling your parents more often, you put post-its in your office or add events on your calendar. 

The dirty little secret of changing your habits is that your environment has far more of an effect than your willpower does.1 When you want to lose weight, you stock the fridge with healthy food and throw out the crap. When you want to exercise more, you hire a trainer or find a friend to keep you accountable.

So why would it be any different with your attention? 

The point of this whole Attention Diet thing is to generate an environment conducive to healthy attention habits. Because, I’m sorry, if your willpower was enough, you wouldn’t even be reading this thing. If you’re still here, then guess what—you got a problem. I got a problem. We all got problems. Hell, I bet you’re checking shit in between paragraphs, you fucking degenerate. 

Now, come on. Let’s get our shit together… err, together. 

Accountability Buddies

I’ve long said that I don’t write this shit because I’m perfect and I think you should be too. I write it because I’ve got the same problems and use my writing as a platform to seek solutions. 

So here’s my pledge. Starting July 1st, 2019, I’m going to implement all of the above. I will limit email to twice a day, social media to 30 minutes per day, and only read the front page of Wikipedia or consume long-form content. I’m going to do this and then report back my results in August. I invite you to do it along with me. 

If you do, after adhering to the diet for a month, let me know your results. If enough people see significant results, I will compile a post based on what everyone has learned and post it on the site later in the year. 

And best of all, find a friend to do it with you. It’ll make it easier, more fun, and more interesting. When one of you is craving a YouTube binge, you can agree to meet up for coffee instead. 

So, get everything in order, and let’s make this the best month yet. 

Footnotes

  1. My friend James Clear wrote a book called Atomic Habits and he explains this really well. Grab a copy of it if you want to dive deeper into this sort of thing.
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