Pay Attention

“To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful,” says Ming Hsu, a researcher at UC Berkeley, “and just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful.” Psychologists have long seen curiosity as an innate motivation that can spur actions by itself. For example, sports fans might check the odds on a game even if they have no intention of ever betting. Sometimes, we want to know something, just to know. Ming Hsu found that information activated the regions of the brain specifically known to be involved in valuation, which are the same dopamine-producing reward areas activated by food, money, and many drugs. This was the case whether the information was useful, and changed the person’s decisions, or not. While the research does not directly address overconsumption of digital information, the fact that information engages the brain’s reward system is a necessary condition for the addiction cycle. “The way our brains respond to the anticipation of a pleasurable reward is an important reason why people are susceptible to clickbait,” he says. “Just like junk food, this might be a situation where previously adaptive mechanisms get exploited now that we have unprecedented access to novel curiosities.” [Berkeley Haas, 2019]
For the average person, their consumption habits aren’t deliberate, their digital environment is on default, and there are a thousand things competing for their attention. Prolific creators, on the other hand, have gone out of their way to eliminate the competition for their attention and made deep work a big priority in their life. It takes continuous attention and intense focus to perform at an elite level. Without the ability to focus on something demanding for an extended period, you’re at a disadvantage. Your attention is worth a fortune. The founders of the major social networks, what author Tim Wu calls the “attention merchants”, have become billionaires by getting you addicted to their services and selling your attention to advertisers. It’s worth asking if the amount of your attention you’re spending on these digital things is getting you what you want. If you’re convinced that you should be spending your attention on more worthwhile pursuits, it’s not enough to implement a bunch of hacks because vague resolutions are not sufficient to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape- the addictiveness of their design and strength of the cultural pressures supporting them are too strong for an ad hoc approach to succeed. In other words, all the solutions we use to deal with distractions are band-aids on bullet wounds. This is why the most effective way to become a digital minimalist is to just quit. Shallow work like checking email, updating your status or uploading pictures feels productive, but it’s not. Run them through this framework: 1 – Is this vital? 2 – Does this matter? 3 – What would happen if I didn’t do it? These things usually aren’t vital, don’t matter, and nothing would happen if you didn’t do them. I haven’t uploaded a picture to Instagram in weeks. Guess what? Nobody cared. [Srinivas Rao, 2019]
The quality of life you want for yourself ultimately comes down to how you spend your time and what you give your attention to. Time is the most valuable asset you have. It’s a non-renewable resource you can never get back. At my very first internship at a startup, the CFO asked me, “Why do you want to make a lot of money?” As a 20-year-old, I rattled off the list of luxuries I was imagining (Ferraris, McMansions, jets, etc). He said, “You’re wrong. What money buys is time. Time is what’s really valuable.”  Yet people wait to start a business, a project or pursue a dream as if they have all the time in the world. They waste time doing things they hate or suck at doing. They think there’s some mythical date in the future when the conditions will be perfect; the stars will align;, and they’ll have enough money in the bank or time to spend on their art. But the only thing that changes when you wait is that time passes. In order to use your life-fixed time effectively, you need to pay Attention. It determines the state of our lives, and is under constant assault from social media, inboxes, text messages, pings, pops and buzzes. Think of your attention as credit that you have every day after waking up and when you spend it on sources of distraction, you don’t have it anymore to yours other more meaningful pursuits. If you want to improve your attention span, start by reducing the competition for it. If it’s not relevant to the task at hand, remove it from your environment. Drown out the sound with some noise cancellation headphones. And design an environment that’s free of distractions. [Srinivas Rao, 2019]

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