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.

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…


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.

RIP News Feed

Today I installed a Chrome extension that makes my Facebook News Feed invisible.

Facebook’s algorithm is very good at making the feed addictive, like a slot machine. This extension short-circuits it so I don’t get sucked down the rabbit hole in the middle of my work day.

I still have access to messages, notifications, and business stuff like pages, but the News Feed is out of sight and out of mind.

Modern Love

This article in the New Yorker is a satirical but alarmingly relatable commentary on the state of modern life:

This may be a bit forward, and I do want to take things slow—we don’t want to spoil a good thing—but do you want to come over to my place? We can cook or we can just do Seamless, whatever you prefer. I just want to get to know you better. We can listen to records in my room. I have some great old jazz LPs my dad gave me for occasions like these. We can dim the lights, sit back, and get comfortable.
What I’m really trying to ask is: Would you like to sit on my bed with me and check Twitter?

Twitter Isn’t Dying. You’re Just Using It Wrong.

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the decline of Twitter lately, and I’d like to take a moment to set the record straight.

A number of people I know and respect have been complaining about their lack of engagement on Twitter. They’re putting out great content, but no one is paying attention, and no one is engaging. Why?

First, let’s be clear: Twitter does have a firehose problem. Because they failed to develop something like Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, everyone’s feed is a cluttered mess. (They’re working on this.) But that’s not the only reason you’re not getting the results you’re looking for.

Every time I hear someone complain about a lack of engagement on Twitter, I take a look at their account and quickly spot the problem: they’re not engaging with anyone else.

Everyone mistakenly thinks of Twitter as a distribution channel for witty snark and links to off-site content. Your tweets may be pure gold, but you haven’t given people a reason to care. Why would I waste my time engaging with your tweets when you clearly wouldn’t do the same with mine?

For me, Twitter is still the #1 social network because it is (or can be) truly social. On Facebook, I’m limited to my already-established circle of friends and family. But everything is fair game on Twitter: I can jump in and out of all sorts of conversations with people I’ve never met—without being creepy! I’ve come to know some of my (now) closest friends and business contacts this way.

Everyone reading this should take some time to explore Twitter Search. Search for subject matter that interests you and start talking to people. Don’t be annoying or spammy; just have real conversations and make genuine human connections.

This isn’t scalable, but it’s effective. And for me, it’s the most important part of using Twitter.

Followers Aren’t The Goal

Someone on Quora asked, How do I get more followers on Twitter? This is my answer:

You’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, “How do I get more followers on Twitter?” try asking, “How can I bring the most value to the most people, using Twitter as a medium?”

Seriously, amassing a large following on any platform really boils down to providing a lot of value to a lot of people.

Don’t get too caught up in increasing your follower count, though. Some people have millions of followers who don’t care what they have to say, while others have less than a thousand followers who hang on their every word. I’m a big believer in focusing on depth over width. It only takes one follower—one human connection—to change the course of your life.