6 min read

How to protect yourself from Attention Theft

How to protect yourself from Attention Theft

In the second grade, my assistant art teacher was named Mrs. Adler, and she was a total bitch.

I don’t remember specifically what she did to make us kids despise her so much. Suffice it to say that art class — which should be one of the most fun classes for an 8-year-old kid! — sucked.

It was around 3 p.m., and my friends and I were huddled around chatting, waiting for our parents to pick us up from school.

Somehow the conversation had turned to Mrs. Adler.

Now, being a particularly wise 2nd grader, I knew that getting the approval and respect of my fellow peers was of the utmost importance. Therefore, I was quick to point out in a boastful, derisive tone, that Mrs. Adler was, to put it simply, a “butt-face.”

I remember quite well the few moments that followed my ingenious quip, even today.

“Excuse me?!” came a booming, angry voice from above. My friend Jeffrey scurried into the nearby bathroom, hoping to escape the wrath of the seething beast looking down at us. Coward.

Well, Mrs. Adler had heard me call her a butt-face, and I was totally fucked.

I don’t remember much else about the moments that followed, but Mrs. Adler never got me back for saying something so unforgiveable.

Only, she did get me back for it.

I vividly recall lying awake in bed each night, my stomach churning at the thought of seeing her in art class the next day.

It tormented me.

While I may have been guilty of some mild slander, Mrs. Adler was (unconsciously, I would guess) guilty of Attention Theft.

So many minutes and hours that could have been spent thinking about productive things — Who is the coolest ninja turtle? What game should I play at recess? — all wasted worrying. Again and again, my thoughts swung back to that terrible moment when she had caught me talking about her.

Time management is a lot of work

I read and listen to a lot about productivity.

And every day I hear people talking about how they split up the precious 24 hours allotted to them in a day.

If it’s not on the calendar, it doesn’t get done.
Split up work into 25-minute intervals.
Write down your tasks before you do them, and make sure they all have a concrete end-goal.
Hire an accountability coach to shock you with a cattle prod when you lose focus.

I’m not criticizing these techniques. They produce great results for many people. But I will say that:

  • I don’t have a calendar.
  • I don’t time any work that I do.
  • I only occasionally write down tasks before doing them.

Reading that, it might sound like my life is a chaotic mess. How can I maintain productivity without a rigid structure?

Well, I do have a rigid structure, but it’s not one that I think about.

I won’t get into the details of habit stacking, routine management, study/work sanctuaries, and everything else that keeps me productive. If I did, this post might turn into a novella.

Instead, I’ll focus on one aspect of my workflow, one of the main reasons I can still get a lot more done than the average person even without a calendar, a schedule, or a stopwatch:

I’m insane about managing what gets my attention.

Attention Theft

Hating on social media has become something of a trend recently.

Since the user is the product on a social media site, time spent using the site translates directly into revenue for the company.

The more minutes you spend on Facebook or YouTube, the more money they make from advertisers.

This time-to-revenue relationship is also true of companies like Netflix. The more time you spend on there, the more likely it is that you’ll keep paying for it, talk about it, and so on. It’s even true of my own company, NativShark. We want to maximize time that students spend learning a language, and we’ve designed the platform with this in mind.

Enter: the algorithm.

The more you use YouTube, the better it will get at figuring out which videos you would be likely to watch. More specifically, it figures out which videos it should recommend to you so that you end up spending the maximum number of minutes on their platform.

The algorithm doesn’t care about what content you’re viewing. It just cares that it’s keeping you engaged. So if you’re a mom watching a video called, “3 easy whole-food recipes for your 1-year-old,” the algorithm might have a number of videos it could potentially recommend for viewing next:

  • Gluten-free recipes for newborns
  • 6 toxins in baby vaccines that cause brain damage
  • How to tell if your baby is being brainwashed by the lizard people

The algorithm doesn’t care about gluten, or vaccines, or lizard people. And it doesn’t care about how well researched a video is, or whether or not it’s based in scientific fact. It doesn’t need to.

It just needs to know which of these videos gets the highest viewing time from a user like you.

That recipe video might have the most amazing gluten-free recipe for newborns on the planet — an impeccable medley of flavors that would wow the palette of any 5-star chef. But if the video is boring, and viewers tend to drop off after about 15 seconds, it’s not going to get recommended. It produces less revenue.

The video about lizard people might sound ridiculous, but it if takes viewers on a wild and terrifying ride through what it would be like to have your precious baby brainwashed by lizard people, and it makes this narrative so compelling that the average viewer watches the entire 12-minute video, then that is more likely to get recommended.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that lizard people are not brainwashing our babies. But the content of such videos isn’t the problem. The problem is that we did not decide they were worth our time.

When we expose ourselves to any kind of feed or algorithm, we are allowing other people — or their machines — to decide what gets our attention.

What’s the harm in watching a silly 12-minute video about lizard people brainwashing babies?

Well, assuming first of all that you didn’t also watch the next five videos the algorithm recommended, the problem is that it’s not just 12 minutes wasted.

You think about things you interact with.

If I play Civilization 6 (my favorite video game), then I will dream about it. I will think about various strategies I might use in various situations. I’ll consider that maybe I should use this leader, on this difficulty level, and shoot for this type of victory.

If I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck — which I did last week — then instead I might find myself daydreaming about how I could buy cheap farm land, maybe in a less expensive country somewhere in Asia, and how I might build up an agricultural real estate empire, and how cool that would be.

Maybe thinking about this would lead me to discovering other people who are trying to make money off land, and I might end up reading books about flipping land or reading guides to making money off of Hipcamp, which is like AirBnB for campers.

My thoughts would go down a different path, one that features fewer — or maybe just a couple — lizard people.

“But I don’t use social media”

This is what my mom told me when I tried to explain how the algorithm and Attention Theft affect us.

But any feed will produce Attention Theft.

The nightly news is a great example of this. The company putting together the stories for the evening news is deciding what you should pay attention to. They are not trying to show you what would make you have the most fulfilling and satisfactory life possible. The primary goal is to keep your eyes on the screen. Just like a social media feed.

Violent gangs are attacking people in their homes. Find out how to stay safe, after this.

This is not to say that all feeds are bad.

There is a place for curated collections of content. But these are only useful if you’re choosing the ones that are right for you.

If you’re obsessed with high performance, the latest gadgets, and nutrition, then something like Tim Ferriss’s 5-Bullet Friday newsletter might be a worthwhile “feed” for you.

If you’re curious about what’s going on in your local town, sure, read the newspaper from time to time.

But maybe, just maybe, you should pause before opening an app or viewing a website simply because… Wait, why was I opening that? Well, I had a few moments of downtime, and the next thing I knew, there it was, and I was looking at it.

Then again, you could go to the extreme, which is what I do:

  • My phone is on silent and in Do Not Disturb mode 24 hours per day, and it’s in airplane mode at least half of my waking hours.
  • Notifications are 100% disabled for every single app on my phone.
  • I don’t let email — or any person, in fact — influence my thoughts until I’ve gotten my most valuable work done for the day, which I do right after waking up.
  • I never use any social media sites, other than to DM old friends a few times a year.
  • I only open YouTube to watch specific videos that have been recommended to me by someone I respect and trust.

This might sound terrible to a lot of people. And I’ll admit it does not make mothers, friends, or just about anyone happy when they can’t control when they get to have your attention.

But I’m not rushed.

I’m not flustered.

Instead, I’m doing the things I want to be doing. And getting them done.