Unhacking my attention
On agency and attention in the feeds era.
Lately, I've been wondering: what percentage of my day is entirely defined by my conscious choices, priorities, and long-term goals? What percentage is instead dictated by my current urges and desires? And finally, what percentage is conditioned by feeds, algorithms, and notifications — in other words, by that all-encompassing and pervasive shiny rectangle that fits in my pocket?
It's a difficult question because, for the most part, we believe we have much more agency over our daily lives than we actually do.
Without giving it too much thought, I'd say those percentages are 50/30/20, respectively:
- 50% of my time, energy, and attention is spent on things that matter to me deeply and reflect my real priorities;
- 30% is spent on whatever feels right at the moment;
- 20% is dictated by my smartphone, its apps, its notifications, and its feeds.
But if I wanted to be brutally honest with myself, I'd have to think long and hard about my choices and actions, and I'd probably realize that those percentages don't even remotely reflect reality.
As the years go by, a handful of smartphones apps are digging deeper footholds into my day, dictating more of my actions, channeling more and more of my attention toward them.
I don't want to sound overly dramatic. I believe that most of the time, I'm still able to unplug, focus on meaningful things, being mindful about what I do and why.
But I fear the trend isn't positive.
Last year, the average American spent 58 minutes per day on Facebook. No judgment from me, I assure you. I'm of the school of thought that people should do what they please with their time. But, if I take a long, hard look at my own screen time data, I wonder: are we really making the best use of our time? Or put differently: are we actively choosing to spend 58 minutes per day on Facebook? Or is it just the easiest, most addictive, most obvious thing to do since it's been engineered to be just that?
Am I really in control?
I'm starting to believe that our sense of agency is being held hostage by feeds and algorithms, which are beautifully designed to grab our attention and hold it for as long as possible.
The very best software engineers in the world make minute but powerful optimizations every day to those apps, feeds, and algorithms to make them more efficient in getting ahold of my mind.
This advancement in technology is unstoppable. We are kept too busy and distracted that there isn't a moment where we can pause, take a breath, debate whether these things are actually good for our mental health, or find out what alternatives we have.
Humankind, whose greatest strength is an unparalleled ability to cooperate on a large scale, have yet to create the tools needed to properly address this problem: what we're actually doing to ourselves when we bombard our brains with unessential news, flashy but unmemorable content, countless notifications, an addictive and endless streams of (mostly) noise.
Finding the signal
The other side of the coin: mixed into the noise and the hacks, there's thought-provoking content that helps me grow as a person; there are courses, videos, and resources that help me enhance my skillset; there are powerful connections with people all over the globe that make me part of the biggest tribe humanity has ever known.
But I'm often overwhelmed and my attention wanders because it's under the scrutiny and control of sophisticated software that knows me better than myself and makes me become a sort of slave of those same apps and platforms that I cherish.
It's a virtually inescapable conundrum that we're only just starting to come to terms with.
The Internet, and Twitter in particular, are basically the reason why I'm an entrepreneur. They've filled my life with serendipity, they helped me make friends, grow, learn, build, explore my creative side.
But at the same time, I worry about my mental health.
I worry about the background of anxiety that social media often increases or even creates. I worry about my attention being constantly disrupted. I worry about filling my brain with noise and nonsense to find the signal and meaningful content.
No easy fix
Scrolling Twitter all day, or consuming whatever Facebook or TikTok are recommending you, is like being on a diet where 90% of the calories are empty calories, doing nothing for you, just making you slowly become unhealthy and overweight.
Shouldn't it be the other way around? Can't we design our information diet to be rich and healthy instead? If we are what we eat, I can't imagine what we become if we keep our brain on a diet mostly made of digital junk food.
I don't think the solution is just completely unplugging, giving up, or trying to use as little technology as possible.
I want to believe there's an alternative, that we can evolve to make better use of technology to serve us, instead of being subjugated by it.
We invented feeds anyway; we invented notifications; we designed the algorithms. We can surely invent better ways to find and consume meaningful content in a non-addictive way — something I'm trying to achieve while building Mailbrew.
I'm on a personal quest to reclaim my time and attention whenever I can, using technology mindfully, not as a never-ending buffet of things that leave me thirstier and hungrier for more, but as a bicycle for my mind.