Budgeting Attention

I haven’t been writing as much as I need to in order to stay sane. I haven’t been reading much either. I’ve been scattered. All over the place.

One thing that I believe is that our attention matters.

You’ll have to read the post I’ve linked above for the passionate defense of this concept. Right now, I’m digging into where I’ve been squandering my attention.

Attention is currency – that’s why we pay it, we spend time with one another. It should be budgeted just like income. We do only have so much of it (especially introverts like me).

Where are my $5 coffee habits squandering attention?

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Email (both at home and at the office)
  • Pinterest
  • To do lists where I’m not actually doing anything but generating bigger lists (both at home and at the office)
  • Instant-messenger (this one is just at the office)

A good bit of this is social media. The problem with social media is that it’s an insidious little bastard on a number of psychological fronts.

First, it’s a case of random interval positive reinforcement – the single most effective way to train a rat to hit a lever over and over again. In our little Skinner boxes, instead of sugar cubes we get Facebook “likes” and comments. We get Retweeted. We get friend requests. Each one is a tiny high.  Happy news from friends, cute pictures of baby nieces, funny remarks by people we know. Ding! Ding! Ding!

Sometimes when we check it, there’s nothing there. But that’s okay, that’s where the random-interval part comes back. We’ll keep checking it and checking it, knowing we’ll get a high sometime.

Second, it’s a deeply ingrained habit. I’m on a loop of right-click, open a tab, check-check-check. I do it like mental punctuation. I do it as a coffee break, as a comma between items on my to do list.   It seems quick and innocent. But check-check-check-oh, look a neat link – – – –  can take a very large amount of time and attention away from things where I should be spending my attention.

In order to counteract the above 2 factors of social media, I’ve devised a silly way to try to keep myself from squandering my time and attention at work.

Cutting the Social Media Cords:

I have a box. In the box there are slips of paper. On each slip of paper is a mental comma. A breather. A little hit of positive reinforcement that has nothing to do with social media. Some of them are prompts to stretch. Some of them are puzzles. Writing prompts, meditation exercises, a nudge to go for a quick walk, to get 5 minutes of sunshine.  Reminders to breathe and reconnect with the world. Reminders to stand up and move around.

So far, it has about a 45% success rate. I truly like the prompts, but it’s hard to remember to reach for the box when my hand’s already on the mouse. Also, it’s apparently really hard for me to stay off the internet during conference calls.

I need to address productivity gains (to do lists, do-not-disturb signs and email budgets), but I’ll do that separately.

In the interest of budget-mindedness, what am I saving for?  What are the big-attention-expenditures that I want to use my saved-up attention?

  • My family – being present and sane and engaged with them
  • My job – actually thinking beyond day to day tasks at work and create something new and useful
  • My dreams – writing and reading and paying attention to the worlds inside my head

What about you? Do you have attention-wasters?




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