Spending Attention

I stared at the walls in my office today. For an hour. At least I think it was an hour. It might have been more. When I resurfaced from my thoughts, I had no idea what I’d been thinking about exactly. The thoughts swam past me like fish in a murky ocean, appearing and then vanishing. I know that only a few of them were about cleaning my office, a flock of tasks that really need to be done. More of them were about the books on my shelves because those were in my line of sight. Most of my books are familiar friends that I want to revisit. I’ve been doing poorly at making time for reading, so I feel sad that I probably won’t get around to reading them again for a long time. If ever. Yet I’m also content that they continue to sit on my shelves as tangible reminders of journeys I’ve taken and things I have learned. So much of my life work is centered around books, it is strange that reading somehow slipped out of my life. It is a piece I’d like to re-collect.

I watched a short video this week about the attention economy. I wish I could find it again, but it would require me to search twitter and I’d just end up down half a dozen rabbit holes. The person in the video was doing either an interview or a panel where he discussed how corporations will happily colonize every moment of my attention in order to acquire money. Sometimes I am the source of that money. Other times my attention is the commodity for sale. Either way, much of the internet is optimized to grab and hold attention. My attention. My time. My focus. That thought sits with me as my phone pings me with a weekly report on how many hours I spent on various apps. I did not ask my phone to give me this information, it drew my attention by making a noise. So many apps want to do the same. To reach into my life and pull my focus back to things that are online. I read the report and I don’t like what the numbers have to say. It was only a few posts ago when I was lamenting how I lack space in my life for emotional processing. This report gives me some clues as to where that processing time has vanished to.

I am tired so often lately. Worn out by all of my administrative work with its endless round of small decisions and crafted emails. In between tasks I seek a small break, so I noodle on my phone trying to rest my brain and re-set so that I can face the next set of tasks. There is a flaw in this. My noodling gives my mind more things to process and track. My little game requires me to remember which in-game goals I was reaching for. Social media is full of new thoughts to think and world news that often creates stress. I am discovering (again) that five quick breaks to noodle do not equal an hour of brain wandering while staring at the walls of my office. I can feel the difference between these things when I resurface.

The challenge is that sometimes I need to spend my attention on internet things. I have learned so much from reading twitter threads. My thoughts are broader and my understanding deeper from reading the thoughts of others who take time to open up their experiences so that I can glimpse inside a life different from mine. I’ve had my focus drawn to causes that matter, things that I deliberately choose to support. Many of these asks for attention are good, even if they sometimes disrupt my peace and comfort. In seeking to reconcile the benefit and the strain of the attention economy, I think about a conversation I had with a friend this week. She described the difference between diving into media to engage with it and diving into media to hide from something else. This is such a smart distinction. The media may even be the exact same, it is just my internal approach that changes. My approach is what determines whether I resurface depleted or rejuvenated.

So I have to be self aware enough to decide how best to spend my little breaks. Do I need to engage with something new in order to give myself thoughts to think. Or is my head full of unprocessed thoughts already and I just need to sit quietly with them while they sort themselves? Lately I think I need to be better about befriending boredom. Letting my mind be quiet. Seeing all those asks for my attention and saying “no, you can’t have my attention today.” One way I’m trying to do this is to pick up a book instead of the internet when I’m having a little brain break. It is a very fragmented way to read a book, but if I wait for uninterrupted hours to read I’ll never get through the stack of books I purchased but haven’t yet read, let alone revisiting those books on my shelf that I’d like to re-experience.