Danielle Heberling

Software Engineer

Are You Paying Attention?

March 13, 2022

Every time I go out in public, I’ve noticed a trend. People are on their phones almost everywhere I look. We hike to a beautiful waterfall, only to find a crowd of people standing there recording it on their phones for whatever social media site is popular. I go to a live show and the phones are out recording.

I’ve noticed this change within myself as well. I’m sitting in my living room and constantly feel compelled to look at my phone. Sometimes when I can’t focus at work, I just open up Twitter to the endless scroll. At the end of the day, I find behaviors like this are making me feel less happy in life and more stressed/angry, so I’ve been actively trying to reduce this behavior.

Apps Are Designed to be Addictive

The endless scrolling and constant notifications are designed to make users open up the app and engage more. As a software engineer, I’ve been in conversations that sounded something like “well how can we design this to encourage users to [insert action that makes the company money here].” I get that it’s a business and there’s a need to make money, but this makes me feel gross. People are constantly bombarded with apps and notifications trying to control their attention, and I would rather not be contributing to that. I much prefer the question to be phrased something like “how can we encourage users to love using our app” or “how can we make it easier for people to use our app.”

Free social media sites in particular are probably the worst offenders. The model of how they make money is through advertisers, so they’re incentivized to keep you on their site as long as they can in order to collect as much data about you to share with advertisers. They’re also hoping your eyes read the ads to prompt you to purchase something you normally wouldn’t. In this case you’re truly “paying” with your attention.

Outrage and arguing drives the most engagement, so many of these sites will prioritize posts in your feed that will outrage you into engaging. On top of that, everything just feels dehumanized because we’re communicating in text and can’t actually see the person we are communicating with. Excluding the bots, there are humans on the other side of these posts. It’s easy to forget that.

As far as I’m concerned, I’d love to see surveilance capitalism end because it is ruining many people’s ability to pay attention to what’s really important in life. The first step is realizing what is going on, so we can work together to create meaningful change in society.

Coping Mechanisms I’ve been Using

In the meantime, I still need to live in this world the way it is. Here’s some techniques I’ve used to help get some of my ability to focus on things that matter back. Perhaps they’ll also help you?

Take a break from computer screens

It’s super easy to start scrolling and just lose track of time. I really like the pomodoro timer app flow to remind me it’s time to take a break.

Go on walks

Getting outside is great, but it’s also good to do this without a phone. Just let your mind wander as you walk around and it’ll help you to unwind as well as come up with some shower thought ideas.

Meditation

Taking some time out of the day to just focus on breathing has been helpful for me. It calms me down and helps to center my mind. There’s lots of ways you can do this. I personally enjoy using headspace.

Read books and physically write down notes

The medium in which you consume content influences how you consume it. For example social media posts are generally short blips of thoughts. So your mind spends time hopping around from thought to thought. I’ve found reading entire books to be helpful. A book is one cohesive thought and they’re generally free of distractions such as advertising.

Whenever I need to take notes, I find physically writing things down helps me to retain the information. If I type it out on my computer, I find myself opening a second tab and navigating to various websites.

For reading and note taking I use a Boox Nova 3 with very few apps installed on it, because I don’t like having many pieces of paper and notebooks laying around.

Chase flow states

Have you ever started working on a task and just had so much fun with it that time stood still? That’s a flow state. For me a good flow state is sitting down in front of the piano and practicing some songs. Whenever I get caught up in the scroll of social media, I sit and think to myself “what could I be doing now that would be more rewarding” and then I go do it. Chase those flow states for maximum happiness in life.

Closing

If you’re like me and are having troubles focusing on things that matter in your life, know that you’re not alone and it’s not completely your fault. There are small things that you can do; however, we need a big societal change as well.

This post was inspired from my life experience as well as from reading Stolen Focus. If you’re interested in learning more, this book is a great place to start. All of the products I mentioned in this post are things that have helped me in my life, and I am not getting compensated to endorse.