It’s the middle of the evening, about 6:30 PM, and I’m getting ready to make dinner. I have a healthy meal planned with ingredients I purchased at the farmer’s market over the weekend. As I begin to pull out a few ingredients, I hear a notification on my phone. Is it just my mom or dad checking in? Is there a work emergency I need to address? Nope, just a Facebook notification saying someone liked my latest post. That reminds me, how many likes does my Facebook post have? I check it quickly and see there are eight likes. But, then something else catches my eye. A quick ESPN video showing the latest sports news. I’ll watch it since I haven’t had time to catch up on the latest sports news, and it’s only a couple minutes. Three minutes later I’m all caught up. But, the next sports video starts automatically and it’s titled “The Craziest Catch the NFL Has Ever Seen.” Umm… my ESPN video didn’t cover this in their latest sports update and I can’t not see the craziest catch ever. So I watch that 5 minute video too; it was a cool NFL catch but nothing I needed to see. And then another video plays, interesting advertisements pop up that I click, and before you know it, it’s 7:30 PM and I no longer feel like cooking…

This is a story that is all to real for many people. We’re consciously making a decision to do something productive, like cooking, and before you know it, we’re unconsciously scrolling through social media, watching videos, and laughing at memes. And it’s not by coincidence that we fall into this trap so easily. Behind the scenes, there are tens of thousands of researchers, labs, and studies being performed on how to grab a user’s attention. How to keep people staring at their screen. And how to keep a user inside an app for as long as possible. Our attention is being exploited and it’s time we do something to safeguard it.

Attention Mining

Companies like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Netflix directly benefit from the amount of time you spend on their app. The more time you’re scrolling, liking, following or watching, the more advertisements you will see. The more advertisements you are shown, the more profit these companies make. These companies are incentivized to hold your attention longer. To keep you on their app longer.

With this in mind, these companies created research labs to study our behavior. They hired thousands of brilliant scientists to research what links, videos, and advertisements have the highest chance of being clicked by the user (aka me, you, us). And then they developed complex algorithms that show us links, videos and advertisements that are most likely to be clicked in our news feed and recommended sections. They’ve created features in their apps to autoplay videos for us, to auto-direct us to new pages, and to send us notifications at specific times when they know we’ll check them.

This is called “attention mining.” Companies, doing whatever they can, to mine for our attention. Attention that they can use to guide us subconsciously to make decisions we wouldn’t otherwise make.

Time Well Spent

The problem with this, is that our attention is being given to mindless content. Let me show you using my example earlier:

  1. I received a notification on my phone. I checked it in case a family member or work emergency needed me. I consciously made an effort to do something that could’ve been important.
  2. That notification was actually from Facebook which made me curious on who liked my post. When checking who liked my post, I saw and watched an ESPN video. I wasn’t intending to check Facebook or watch ESPN. But, when prompted I made a decision to do something that caught my attention.
  3. After watching an ESPN video, the next video automatically played after catching my attention again with a more extreme title. Without making a conscious decision, I was now watching mindless content.

This hour that I wasted online, was not time well spent. I didn’t need or intend to see any of it, and I would’ve been happier and healthier if I had just made my home cooked dinner. But, these companies are prompting us to consume content that catches our attention. Content that is mindless. Content that is not time well spent.

Time well spent is a concept popularized by Tristan Harris of the Center for Humane Technology. Tristan Harris used to work for these kinds of companies, and was key in designing attention grabbing algorithms and features. Tristan is now an advocate against these practices in what he calls “human downgrading” and the “digital attention crisis.” Although he, his nonprofit (The Center for Humane Technology), and many others are both advocating against these practices and working to address them at the highest governmental levels, change is a long and slow process. These companies aren’t eager to change their practices anytime soon because that’s how they generate their profits, and unfortunately government/policy intervention will take years to implement. So, what can you do to protect yourself from these mind numbing activities?

Safeguarding Your Attention

If you’ve read my post, Your Phone is Depressing, you know many of the side effects of technology use and how to monitor your usage. But, it’s much harder to manage your usage. It’s much harder to manage your attention.

Below are a few ways I’ve found useful for safeguarding my attention:

  • (iPhone) Turn Off Notifications: Turn off all notifications from your iPhone except the important ones. For me, the only notifications that appear on my screen or cause a ding/vibration are text messages and phone calls. This allows me to check social media, email, and anything else whenever I consciously decide is the right time. (iPhone –> Settings –> Notifications)
  • (iPhone) Turn Off Colors: Turn off all the colors from your iPhone. Colors and animations are used in conjunction to provide positive reinforcement to us when we use our phone. I use my phone in grayscale mode for almost everything now. I only turn on the colors when posting content. (iPhone –> Settings –> Accessibility –> Accessibility Shortcut –> Color Filters). This setting enables you to toggle grayscale on/off easily by triple clicking the power button.
  • (iPhone) Scrub Your Home Screen: Remove all apps from your home screen unless they are useful tools. This will help prevent you from mindlessly opening an app and prompt you to search for the app to find it. These are the apps on my home screen now: Calendar, Clock, Weather, Camera, Messages, Phone, Outlook, and Safari.
  • (Computer) Use an Ad Blocker: By installing an ad blocker like Adblock Plus, you’ll remove advertisements from web pages that may grab your unwarranted attention.
  • (Computer) Turn Off Notifications: This is the same concept as described above. I don’t receive email, text or any notifications on my computer. That way, when I’m working on something important, I reduce distractions and keep my attention where I want it.
  • Manage Your iPhone and Computer’s Location: The closer you keep your iPhone and computer to you, the more likely you’re going to use it. A couple suggestions are keep your iPhone out of the bedroom or put your iPhone twenty feet away from you when you’re working on something important. These suggestions will reduce the amount of times you mindlessly grab for technology.

A lot of these ideas are inconvenient. And they’re intended to be. And although they may not work for everyone, they’re certainly effective strategies for safeguarding your attention. You’re less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient.


Am I Guilty of Attention Mining or of Time Well Spent?

Given the irony that I’m consuming your attention while writing a post against attention mining, I thought I’d quickly address that. I do my best to make my posts as much “time well spent” as possible. I strive to write about topics that improve health and happiness. I never allow advertisements on my website. I only post a couple times a week. And, I only send you one weekly newsletter that is opt-in only and never has any spam or advertisements.

Final Thoughts

It’s no wonder that users’ screen time on iPhones and computers have exploded in recent years. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Netflix are doing everything they can to grab and keep our attention. And they do this by showing us content that is increasingly useless, but increasingly attention grabbing. It’s time to fight back using some the strategies I listed above. It’s time to safeguard our attention.

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