We now live in an attention economy, meaning businesses literally pay to get eyeballs (views), thumbs (scrolling time), and mentions or placement for their product or services.
Here’s why that matters:
- When you spend time using technology unproductively, someone else profits
- People are making fortunes figuring out how to distract you successfully (good for them, not so good for you)
- Tech companies benefit from addiction to their products
On the other hand, it also proves your attention is extremely valuable, not only to others, but also to you (and your family and community). Here’s how you can start taking back your attention.
Rebuild Your Dopamine Functioning
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter most closely associated with decision making, learning, and reward. One way big tech makes addictive products is by hijacking your dopamine system (with notifications, flashing colors, personalized content, etc.).
If you’re having trouble focusing or processing new information, or you lack motivation, you need to rebuild dopamine function and retrain your brain.
Try putting your phone in airplane mode when it’s not in use and turn off notifications as much as possible so you can check them only when you choose to. Installing a screen time monitor is also a great idea (my goal is 30 minutes or less per day on my smartphone).
Along with regular digital detox breaks and social media fasts, focusing on your overall wellness also helps. A 2019 paper found that inflammation and illness reduce dopamine levels, which lowers motivation.
So be sure you’re also paying looking after your diet, physical activity, and spending enough time outside.
Support Executive Functioning
Executive functioning is a technical term for the type of brain function that includes self-control, time management, problem solving, and organizing daily life. People with ADHD symptoms and similar issues typically have problems with their executive functioning.
According to Dr. Russell Barkley, an expert on executive functioning, one way to work around these types of issues is to optimize your life for immediate or short-term feedback and consequences.
For example, if a college student has trouble with procrastination, they might do really badly writing a term paper for months at a time without accountability (major consequences after a long period of time). But if they have to submit weekly drafts (regular, frequent feedback with immediate but less severe consequences) he or she has less of a chance of flunking the class.
You can use this analogy to try to find ways to build more accountability and shorter feedback loops into your life.
Physically Write Goals
Writing your goals down regularly is another great way to have accountability to yourself and others. Here’s how I do it:
- Daily tasks and goals (every morning or the night before)
- Weekly “must do” and bigger picture goals or steps (review and modify each week)
- Six-month goals on a separate sheet (review and update twice a year)
- Truly long-term goals (I actually write these down and intentionally forget about them)
I think there’s magic in physically writing them down and reviewing your goals regularly. For one thing, when you write specific goals down in vivid detail, it involves more of your brain as opposed to just making a mental list.
Lean Into Structure, Routine, and Ritual
Adding structure to your day not only helps support your goals, but also conditions your mind and body to be focused and productive.
I like to get an hour or more of deep work in before 9 am, so here’s how I structure my morning routine on weekdays:
- Get up at or before sunrise and go outside to earth before checking any notifications
- Eat breakfast outside if possible (unless I’m fasting)
- Write or review goals for the day and week
- Take any supplements
- Pick something important to work on for an hour before I do anything else
- Drink a caffeinated beverage at my desk
You can add structure to your life in simple ways for a high impact. You might go for a walk at the same time every day, or choose a specific time to stop work for the day and unwind.
Finally, rituals can be anything that works for you. Prayer, visualization, smudging your office, putting on a certain item of clothing or jewelry, or saying an affirmation are all effective ideas to personalize your routine.