Attention Management Systems: Using and Creating

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This post is similar to past ideas I’ve dabbled with in- You Are What You Read, and Life As A Resource Allocation Problem. Aside from reading, we all absorb information from a variety of sources. As per resource allocation, attention is a precious resource.

At some point, I noticed wanting to be more mindful of my diet. I was speaking with my friend Keith about it, and he asked, “What’s your food plan?” Embarrassed, I sheepishly told him that I didn’t have one. He said, “Every time you step out the front door, you are fighting against billions of dollars in marketing spend designed to make you make bad choices.” It blew my mind, and I never thought of dieting in this way. Before creating any attention management system, you must realize the importance of managing your attention. This is a victory in and of itself! If you’re not busy building your dream, you’re going to be busy building someone else’s.

When I worked the drive-through at Chick-Fil-A years ago, we practiced a linguistic trick that worked like a champ. Anytime someone orders a meal, repeat it back to them and then say, “With a Coke?”. If you said, “What would you like to drink?” people would take much more time, debating or thinking out loud. When asking about the Coke, many people would immediately opt for it. Even if they didn’t opt for it, they would quickly decide upon something else. We don’t rise to the level of our aspirations. We fall to the level of our habits. That is why crafting your environment is so important. If you don’t consciously decide what you’re going to do, you’ll likely do what you’re presented with.

We do similar things with our attention. Once the TV is on, we can keep watching until we decide to change the channel or turn it off. With algorithmic feeds on services like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc., someone else is deciding where we should put our attention. Granted, these feeds are designed to show us what we want; this makes sense. They aren’t designed to show us what we want. They are designed to show us what will keep us using them, and keep us paying.

Unfortunately, what we want and what we pay for aren’t the same. There’s a scene in Anchorman 2 where they give a history of a televised police chase. It’s exciting, it’s dangerous, it’s an issue of public safety, all rolled into one. Fear sells. Sex sells. Almost everything we buy pokes at these two things, whether explicitly or implicitly. If you walk around fluctuating between being terrified and horny all the time, that is a whacky lifestyle. But, we are surrounded by environmental triggers designed to get us in these emotional states and then make a buying decision.

Once you’re aware of that, the next step is to change it. For me, throttling is tough. It’s much harder for me only to eat two Oreos than to eat zero. I generally have none or crush a box in one sitting. Cultivating awareness of your attention isn’t easy, but it is simple. You can use the Screen Time widget on the iPhone to see where your attention is going on your phone. This is particularly cool because it runs on autopilot. But, it’s limited to your attention only on your phone. The simplest way to track total attention that I’ve found is to set an alarm at a regular cadence and then track what I’ve been doing for that chunk of time. I found that 30 minutes was right for me.

Factors to check vary person to person, but the act of becoming more mindful is an epic victory by itself. A few simple ones you may like are time, location, activity, who you are with, and mood. You can use a spreadsheet, or an app like Qwantify, too. If you have notifications on your phone, it can be easy to get sucked into traps and reinforce the habit of checking your phone as you track your attention. When I was younger, I went on a weight loss journey. It was an Occam’s razor approach. My primary tool was writing down what I ate. I did this for over 1,000 days straight. Once you become aware of your behavior, changing it becomes easier. I remember eating at Chipotle frequently and how my standard order transformed over time. I’m the type of person who can eat the same thing over and over without getting sick of it. My order started as a burrito with a Coke and a bag of chips. I’d finish it all in one sitting, and then refill the Coke and bring it home. Then I stopped refilling. Then I stopped getting the chips. Then I switched to Diet Coke. Then I went for burrito bowls instead of burritos. Then I switched from Diet Coke to water. It wasn’t all at once, and it wasn’t part of some master plan. It was just the result of being mindful of what I was eating.

After you become aware of how you’re spending your attention, the next step is to spend it more proactively. Even if you want to “do nothing,” you can be intentional about that, too. I have a dear friend who usually keeps his weekend schedule clear. If I want to meet him for coffee at 8 am on a Saturday, the answer is TBD. It depends on when he will wake on Saturday morning, and he deliberately doesn’t schedule anything in case he wants to sleep in. This deliberately blocked off, “do nothing time” can be a beautiful thing, especially if you are the type who likes to schedule everything. You can even schedule your time to do unscheduled things!

As per what to do, to proactively manage my attention, I try to do a few things every day. While it may seem oddly robotic, I’ve found that deliberately scheduling them increases the likelihood that they occur. Eventually, they become habits on autopilot that happen whether or not they are scheduled. For me, these involve — getting nature time, ideally with some skin contact with the earth, getting some movement or exercise, learning, spending time with people I care about, eating foods that are both healthy and yummy, and getting good sleep. Almost all of these can be scheduled or blocked off. If it’s not in your calendar, it’s not real! The idea behind the calendar is to set up environmental triggers in your life for positive, desired behaviors. It may seem Pavlovian, and it is. You’re training yourself to do things that help you be the person you want to be.

A new challenge for me is getting a two-fer or three-fer or more with these items. For example, exercising in nature with friends checks quite a few of these boxes. Making a healthy, delicious meal with friends and loved ones does, too. These are simple yet powerful experiences that, when added up, lead to quite a fulfilling life.

Another thing to be mindful of is noticing when you fall off track. Many anger management techniques work well — when you’re not angry. As snickers says, “you’re not you when you’re hungry.” You can even make a system for this! For me, the best thing to do is to breathe. The main hack or insight here is recognizing that our biochemistry impacts our emotions, and our emotions impact our biochemistry. The beautiful simplicity in breathwork is that we can hype ourselves up or relax by consciously adjusting this otherwise automatic behavior. Just being proactive about the positive behaviors wipes out many of the negative, undesired behaviors at once. For example, often, when I get off work, I am super tired, mentally, and physically. I’m not primed to make great choices. But, I have some behaviors set up to help me make good choices on autopilot. While I don’t always make the right choice, I do make them much more frequently than if I didn’t have a plan. I come home, get in the hot tub, and fire up a podcast — these podcasts are from a queue I’ve created that are enjoyable and help me learn without stressing me out before bed. I do some stretches while relaxing in the tub. Then, I get out of the tub and do some more stretching and moving around in the grass.

The system that I currently use may evolve over time, but the thinking behind it is something I imagine will remain relatively static. I’d love to hear about other systems that may work for you all.