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The Attention Diet

Updated: Nov 13, 2019





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 stuff 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?”


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.


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?

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.


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.


STEP 1: THE SOCIAL MEDIA CLEANSE

Say "Definitely 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 or make me weak ?” If the answers aren’t emphatic YES’s then you need to unfriend or unfollow them.


Uninstall any apps that feel pointless- 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.


STEP 2. CHOOSE GOOD SOURCES OF INFORMATION AND CONNECTION

It’s undeniable that news media is becoming more anemic, short-sighted, and inaccurate. Try getting your news from sources you know are curated to remove bias, political leanings, and false statements. If an article gets you angry or excited, you will become biased about its content. Look for articles where you are just getting the facts and nothing else. This 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 and then exaggerated to make you feel outraged, angry or excited based on your specific identity group. The only way to win at this game is to not play.


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 and entertainment.

Below is one example a friend sent me of how she schedules her diversions:

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

Entertainment only at certain hours

Leave phone out of office during the day and bedroom at night


OK, this is all fine and dandy, but how the hell do we keep to this? How do we actually implement these concepts into our lives? Because that’s the most important part.


STEP 4: IMPLEMENTATION

I define freedom as self-limitation. Freedom in the 21st century isn’t about having more, it’s about choosing your commitments to less. 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.


3 Tools to Help Implement:


1. 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.


Focus (MacOS) – More user friendly than Cold Turkey but without as many features. 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.


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.


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.


2. 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. 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.(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. Google’s Digital Wellbeing app for Android accomplishes the same thing, although without as many options as Apple. 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.


3. OUTLET TIMERS

OK, this tip is only if you want to get hardcore (and also if you have kids).

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.


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.


COMMON OBJECTIONS TO THE ATTENTION DIET


Objection 1: “But, I’ll be soooo boooreeed”

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.


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.

Boredom is good. It means you’re challenging yourself.


Objection 2: What if I’m missing out!

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 messes 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.


Eliminate the 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.


The dirty little secret of changing your habits is that your environment has far more of an effect than your willpower does. 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 article.


*Adapted from The Attention Diet by Mark Manson


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