Own your attention, take back your time


This was literally my teens and early 20s

How does one who works in social media step away from social media? With great difficulty, actually.

This morning I was thinking about the internet of aulde: back in the day when I used to hangout on local BBSs, freenet, usenet. I was young and full of punch and I got into debates with people with alarming frequency (youth+time+lack of knowledge). Can I remember the subject of even one of those arguments over 20 years later? Nope. I can’t even remember any of the arguments I had over livejournal in the 2000s – and I had some fairly prolific debates there as well. I am even sure that if we picked out all the comments I had made over time, more than half of them I wouldn’t even agree with today. Still, I have continued the great debate over social media as an adult and I don’t think I can even remember the arguments I had last week, let alone last year. I am at the point where I am questioning the value of these discussions in relation to my overall life satisfaction.

On one hand, I am the kind of person who is compelled to correct someone who posts incorrect information over social media. No person X didn’t do that. No, grapefruit juice doesn’t cure cancer. No, this is clickbait garbage. I find the internet so infuriating in that aspect: so many garbage websites spreading misinformation, bad political conclusions, and downright lies. It drives me batty. However, in order to counter a lot of these arguments I have to click and read them, which is exactly what they want. The internet has become a place where your attention has been monetized, where every click is another dollar in the pockets of the people who just made you angry and wasted five minutes of your life. So I wonder again: what is the value of this to my life?

XKCD draws a picture of me

I love the Internet. It’s given me friends, relationships, entertainment, a career, a way to connect with people far away. But the Internet giveth and it taketh away. I love that I have a little world in my pocket where any question can be answered with just a few clicks. Conversely, it is convenient way to procrastinate, it eats my time because it’s a default thing to do, and it is constantly there to ring and beep whenever my work needs me.

Most content consumption on the internet isn’t conscious consumption. We talk about “wiki-spirals” where you go to look at information on one topic when suddenly you find yourself sitting in the dark at 3am reading about the reproductive processes of the African lemur. That time, washed away. Most of us have done it because it’s so easy to do.

Technology was supposed to empower us, but for many it has power over us. The world is clamoring for our attention and we have to learn to shut it out.

I talk a lot about how my time is worth money. I create intricate calculations on savings rates and inflation for financial independence but yet I can swipe for an hour without even realizing I am doing it. That time is an infinite resource and while it may be cliché, I will never get that hour back. Some things have value for me (blogs, articles) but many don’t (listicles, memes) and being clear on the difference is a skill I need to hone.

My time and my attention belong to me and I need to stop giving it away so freely. I need to cultivate more judicious use of my time and my attention. The problem is that in a world where an entertaining listicle is waiting for your laughing pleasure, it’s hard to get out of the habit of the two-minute entertainment minefield for the mind. I am as guilty as anyone of reaching for my phone the moment that the anxiety of boredom appears on the horizon. At the bus stop: phone. At the doctor’s office: phone. Eating my lunch: phone. That’s why it’s not surprising that people prefer being shocked over being alone with their own thoughts.

Shocking? Not really.

Mr. Tucker and I discuss this often, mostly because we both have jobs where we can be pulled into work with a ring or beep on our phones. Still, we are working towards culling our internet and phone use in the following ways:

Not my circus, not my monkeys: Recognizing I don’t have to feed into every argument with every fool who posts their silly opinions on the internet. I don’t have to allow comments with no added value seep into my life and control my time. I don’t even need to respond to everyone who shoots their ire in my direction. This is not a video game where if I defeat these monsters eventually I will get to the big boss of the internet and win the game forever. There is no end to it all, so put a stop to your investment in it.

Turn off your notifications: heck, if you are feeling edgy, you can stick your phone on airplane mode for awhile! But at the very least, go through your settings and block notifications for everything that isn’t super important leaving only the things you really need, such as phone calls.

Content begets content: I am slowly learning to be less prolific over social media. I don’t need to share that article. I don’t need to update my status. I don’t need to document every aspect of my life. When you are constantly posting, people are constantly reacting. When you post, even if you turned off all your notifications you know that there is probably a comment or two you need to respond to. If it’s a controversial or political post, you know there will be responses and it will gnaw at you until you check and respond to the comments. Rinse, repeat. You will never get out of the spiral if you are constantly posting, no matter how great the information is to compel you to share it with the world.

Work is work, home is home: While we will still have to be available for work sometimes, we don’t need to have our work phones right next to us. Mr. Tucker has specific ring tones for work emergencies, and I can keep my work phone in another room and only check it periodically. For personal use, I put my phone in airplane mode and stick it where I can’t reach it. My time at home after 5pm is time with the family to eat dinner, play games, and to hang out. Even when the kids are in bed I am training myself to work on reading, writing or other hobbies rather than consume internet content.

Yep. I have two phones, one of which is a Blackberry of all things

Learn to adjust your attention span: I am frankly amazed at how short my attention span has become. Years of toggling between windows and watching various social media feeds has made it that I can only concentrate on one thing for a short period of time. Also, I already had attention problems so it has made it worse. Instead, I am training myself to work through the anxiety of concentrating too long. When I recognize my attention floating, I don’t just give in, I force myself to double down and concentrate for another minute…two minutes…three minutes as I slowly train myself to continue for longer periods.

Learn to relax: I know it’s hippy froo-froo to suggest meditation but honestly, it is a good way to reduce anxiety and to clear the mind. It seems counter-intuitive to suggest using your phone but there are a plethora of great apps and podcasts out there that will guide you through the basics of meditation. I’ve found it’s helped me to stop ruminating about things that make me anxious and in turn that has helped me sleep at night.

Explore boredom: Boredom makes us anxious. It makes us pick up the closest thing to us (our phones) and relieve the anxiety. However, boredom is a gateway to creativity. I remember being young and when boredom would hit (*cough* pre-internet) and I would find something to do. You just have to work on the initial hump, which is the barrier to creativity: getting started. I often will sit and flip through things on my phone while sitting next to a bunch of personal projects (such as my knitting) that are immensely satisfying but that always seems like a hassle to start compared to swiping.

Get socializing – in person: I remember in high school I would call up friends and see if anyone would like to meet for coffee downtown. We’d all meet up for a couple of hours at various coffeehouses around the city and enjoy some company and conversation. As an adult, I have always felt that I need to bring that connection back into my life. While it’s great to have all your friends in your pocket, by only communicating online you miss the subtle nuance of human interaction: people’s moods and meaning are less clear when you don’t have their body language to rely upon. Body language is often touted as the majority of communication between people, so being together in a room with someone gives you a different way of connecting. If I were to start a movement, it would be the one to bring back the $2 coffee date amongst friends. There is a richness to in-person connect that I feel we should build on.

Bring new hobbies into your life – or bring back old ones. Sit down and make a list of all the activities that make you happy, all the things you’ve wanted try, or things you want to do around the house. Make a date night with your partner that is device-free where you pour a glass of wine and try a new recipe. Find some like-minded people and get together once-a-month. It could be a craft circle, a book club, or just a few friends getting together and going for a hike.

I will be the first to admit that you will tear my access to the internet from my cold, dead hands. But that doesn’t mean that the internet is always serving me well in every occasion. Like most relationships, you have to set boundaries and acknowledge when certain things aren’t working for you. Once you see that you need to change things, start right away. Don’t wait until it gets harder and harder to change your attention span or stop your reliance on the internet for entertainment.