Thinking About Attention

CGP Grey posted an excellent video on Friday articulating something we’ve likely all noticed in ourselves and in those around us: a spiraling inability to focus our attention on things that matter.

The “attention economy” of today’s world rewards platforms that are engineered to hijack your attention. As Grey says in the video, “Who among us has not opened an app, looked around, seen everything new, closed it, then immediately reopened to check again?”

That’s troubling, and all too relatable.

If you find yourself struggling to focus, or even just to be alone with your own thoughts, it may be time for a break from Internet consumption.

Books Of Mentors

I’ve recently discovered a book genre that I love: collections of advice from a large number of mentors, experts, or people otherwise considered to be the best at what they do.

My first exposure to this format was Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal, which features essays from Warren Buffett, Anderson Cooper, Jillian Michaels, Michael Bloomberg, and dozens of other luminaries, each sharing their challenges, obstacles, and lessons learned along the way.

After that, I had to check out Tim Ferriss’s famed bestseller Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, which, so far, does not disappoint. Ferriss takes a question-based approach to the concept, and it’s interesting to see so many varying perspectives on the same set of thoughtfully chosen questions.

Not all advice is good advice for all people—but the right advice at the right time for the right person can be life-altering.

Simplifying My Digital Life

One of the downsides of instant, frictionless communication is that everyone and everything is constantly in your face, which leads to reduced productivity and a sense of general sluggishness.

For example, if I’ve got a set of tasks I need to accomplish today, I’d like to focus on those. But it’s really easy for emails, messages, tweets, and other random notifications to get in the way.

Every time you pull out your phone to respond to a message or read a reply or DM on Twitter, you’re allowing other people to manipulate your schedule at will. You’re also robbing yourself of the coveted mental state of flow.

I’ve recently made some changes to deal with this, and as a result I’ve seen a significant increase in my productivity and a greater command of my time.

Social Media Notifications: Off

Social media is the biggest uninvited time-suck in the world. They lure you in with a push notification, hook you with the algorithmically sorted timeline, and before you know it you’ve spent an hour in this damn app you didn’t even plan to open.

The solution? Turn ’em off.

I’ve completely disabled push notifications for the three major social networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—and the result is pure serenity.

I used to get bombarded with notifications all day every day, mostly from these three apps. So-and-so liked your post! So-and-so mentioned you! And Twitter’s amazing new feature that everyone totally wanted: So-and-so and So-and-so are tweeting about #SomeStupidFuckingThing.

These notifications are not useful to me. They’re disruptive.

Now, when I want to know what’s happening on Facebook, I’ll open Facebook. When I want to know who’s been liking my tweets or sliding into my DMs, I’ll open Twitter.

Spark Email

Spark (for iOS and Mac) may be the best email app I’ve used this decade. It’s reminiscent of the now-defunct Mailbox in that it allows you to “snooze” messages and deal with them later. Great feature, but not the main attraction.

You see, Spark is smart. It automatically sorts your emails into different visual chunks in its Smart Inbox view. You’ve got newsletters, notifications, personal emails, etc.—and they show up in groups of three, which you can easily dismiss in bulk to plow through your inbox like a pro.

Even better, Spark knows what matters, and it only sends you notifications about important email. Never again will a stupid newsletter buzz my Apple Watch while I’m eating dinner.

Speaking of which…

Unsubscribe!!!

I used to be on hundreds of email lists, some of which I’d opted into, others I was added to by inconsiderate PR people. But I digress…

I decided that after years of struggling with my nightmare of an inbox, it was time to take control. So instead of deleting unwanted newsletters, I made it a habit to open each of them, as they came in, and click the unsubscribe link. Every. Single. One.

I spent about two weeks doing this, and while I still see occasional list emails, I’ve trimmed things down to the point where I can kind of breathe again.

Take Back Your Life

There are three things I know for sure:

  • Technology should be a tool to make my life happier and more productive.
  • Notifications should serve up useful, timely information that matters to me.
  • The time I spend with digital media should always be conscious and intentional.

When these expectations aren’t met, it’s time to simplify.

Pain Tolerance

Often the people who win in life are not necessarily those with superior talent or intelligence, but those with an exceptionally high tolerance for pain.

Pain comes in many forms: physical pain, the emotional pain of rejection and failure, the pain of tedium—all of these have the power to hinder success.

I started thinking about this in the gym one day as I was approaching failure on a set, and I realized that what most of us call “failure” in fitness is not failure of the body, but failure of the mind. Because I’ve trained my mind just as hard as my body, I was able to overcome the burn and push a little bit harder.

Great athletes can tolerate high levels of pain. They live for it.

The same goes for great entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of pain involved in building a company. Financial woes, uncertainty about the future, social opposition—these things can really tear you down if you don’t have the mental fortitude to keep pressing forward.

Those who are most successful in dating and relationships are those who have endured rejection and unrequited love and nonetheless chose to keep trying. As Oliver Goldsmith so famously wrote, “Success consists of getting up just one more time than you fall.”

If you can train your mind to tolerate intense pain—or better yet, embrace it—you’ll experience untold advantages in fitness, in business, and in life.

Looking Ahead To 2018

2017 has been quite a year. Vox compiled a great summary of some of the defining stories of the last twelve months:

Yes, 2017 has had more than its share of bad news. But despite the tragedy, injustice, and political dumpster fires, of which we’ve had plenty, life is actually getting better for humanity overall. It often doesn’t feel like it, but it is—and this gives me hope for the future.

As 2017 comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting and planning for the year ahead. I’m not a fan of vague “resolutions,” which are almost guaranteed to fail. Instead, I prefer to conduct a corporate-style “annual review,” where I set specific, measurable goals and then follow up and review my progress quarterly. (Chris Guillebeau’s annual review spreadsheet is a great starting point if you want to do something similar.)

My review for this year is complete, and I feel a real sense of clarity for where I’m headed in 2018. I’ve set a range of goals in business, productivity, fitness, finance, education, and even mental health—and I can’t wait to get back to the grind next week.

I hope you’re happy and safe on this New Year’s Eve. Let’s make 2018 a great year.