On Attention (Originally posted September 24th, 2018)
Since I started at NC State in August of 2015, I have thought a lot about what conditions allow me to perform the best mentally. That includes everything from my personal schedule, to what I commit myself to doing, to what’s on my phone and what I do in my “free time.” In these years, a dominating aspect of these considerations has been the apps and websites that I frequent: reddit, instagram, snapchat, facebook, twitter, etc. The primary focus of these thoughts has been this: does using these websites change the way I interact with the world? If so, is it for the worse? The answer seems obvious to me (spoiler: no), but it’s hard to come to terms with.
Here are some links to a few things that have made me think even more about this aspect of life.
- Recent podcast that reinvigorated my thinking about this: Hello Internet 108
- Straw that broke the camel’s back getting me to implement the solutions I talk about below: CGP Grey - Thinking About Attention
- Blog post related to number 2 CGP Grey - Project Cyclops
- Post written with a co-intern while I was at WillowTree this past summer (May - July 2018): Are developers responsible for promoting healthy user engagement?
- These websites make my attention span worse. My default action when I have the slightest amount of boredom has been to open up an app on my phone like reddit. This problem doubles when I have work to do that I can quickly “take a break” from. The frequency and time of these breaks detracts so much from work that I sometimes get nothing done.
- Free time spent on these social media sites isn’t remembered. One way I think of the ways I spend my free time is how much of a long-term impact it makes on me. Not that everything has to be valuable, but to give an example: If I spend an hour playing video games, reading a good book, or watching a show, it’s likely to be something I remember - I think of this as meaningful free time. If I spend an hour reading reddit or scrolling through instagram, sometimes I won’t remember even close to a majority of what I saw 5 minutes later. All things can’t be remembered, obviously, but when I forget something instantly it feels valueless.
Thinking about the problems #
Attention span #
My rationalization for using these sites boils down to this:
“I get a decent amount out of using these sites. I keep up with people, I learn new things, and I stay current on topics of interest.”
It’s all true, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s all crap. I don’t need all of these services consistently available to me in my pocket. Having the choice to not pay attention to the activity at hand is a very easy choice to make and eliminating that definitely takes away a large mental burden. I still think about being able to pull these sites up, but over time I know it will become less of a default action in my mind.
Free time #
Thinking about free time brings up a point with how I disagree with the video/blog post linked above (2 and 3): I don’t think all of the mentioned forms of media need to be eliminated. The big differentiating factor for me is memory and necessity. Here’s how I categorize some of them:
- Podcasts - I love some of the people I listen to and remember a lot of what is discussed. Fills a lot of the driving time I have.
- Twitter - Sometimes I don’t have any other ways of communicating with people. The Twitter client I use (Tweetbot) is also chronological, so I don’t have as much of a problem with it as I did with instagram and reddit (both random and sorted by algorithms).
- TV and video games - These weren’t primarily mentioned in the post, but I thoroughly enjoy the time spent watching shows and playing games. I remember them.
- I have removed reddit, instagram, and snapchat from my phone. They were all bottomless pits to fall into.
- I have removed all bookmarks to them on my computer. Some communities I genuinely use, so I haven’t blocked them. I don’t have as much of a problem falling into these sites on my computer compared to my phone, so maybe that’s just me (this may change in the future, but it’s fine for now).
So far this is working well. I have spent more time reading (something I have been working on doing in the long-term), I have spent less time being anxious about wasting time, and I have had more (as in quantity) meaningful free time.
Going forward? #
I don’t know if I’ll keep this restriction at the same level, remove more of these sites from my life (maybe less on the computer too?), or allow them back in slowly. I’ll at least keep them out for the remainder of the semester which is until December of 2018, but I love the changes so far, so I don’t see a reason to go back to the way things were.