writing

Taking back control of my attention

Sunday, September 2, 2018

We’ve all heard about this, right? Devices are designed to keep us addicted. Websites are designed to hijack the pleasure centres of our brain. They’ve trained us to expect novelty all the time.

In my own brain, I’ve noticed that I can no longer focus on a large, singular task for long periods of time. Even when I am fully engaged in something, I’ll “self-distract” — open up a new tab and go straight to some kind of social media feed, for no reason at all. I’m not even bored with my current task! It has become habit.

I wanted to be able to focus again for reasonable periods of time, uninterrupted, without self-interrupting too. I wanted less anxiety from staring at the five million feeds that I subscribe to. But I didn’t want to feel like I was missing out on important events or chats with friends either.

In this post I’ll go through the things I did that had the biggest positive effects. These include:

Then I’ll talk about the hardest part of all: monitoring my own behaviour.

Let’s get started.

Unsubscribing to email newsletters (time: ~2 hours)

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a whole pile of “to read” type emails that have been sitting there for months, untouched. It’s time to declare bankruptcy and delete them all. But before you delete them, one by one, go in and hit the “unsubscribe” link. You can use an automated service if you like, but I just went through and did it manually.

It’s absolutely worth it. You’ll get rid of 80–90% of all your email subscriptions in that hour, and over the next month or so a few more will trickle in, reminding you to unsubscribe. From then on the only emails you should receive are direct communications. (There is one single newsletter I am still subscribed to.)

The principle here is that you want to remove the things that might be automatically generating a “to-do” list for you. For me, this usually turns out to be nothing more than a source of anxiety. Newsletters do that by giving you all these things that you “need” to read.

Disabling (almost) all notifications (time: ~20 minutes)

Much like how email newsletters generate to-do lists for you, app notifications hijack your priorities in the same way. I left notifications on for messaging, but I’ve cut everything else. If I wanted to see how many likes an Instagram post got, I can go into the app and check. But with time you’ll find that without the constant notifications, you don’t actually care about that kind of stuff and it’s not important.

The only notifications I have on my phone are

You’ll notice that messaging applications used for work like Slack and Flowdock are missing from that list. I have a bad habit of working when I shouldn’t be, so I’ve turned off notifications (even DMs) for work apps. If there is a true emergency, people can always call me.

Straight up deleting phone apps (time: <1 second)

It’s a pretty common experience in 2018 to find yourself scrolling through a feed. You’ve been there for half an hour, you haven’t really processed anything you’ve read. In some cases, you can’t even remember what you have been reading. But you’re there, in the app. You’ve been in it for two hours now. What were you doing on your phone in the first place?

Some apps are problematic enough to delete completely. You won’t miss anything, trust me. If someone wants to talk to you, to invite you to an event, whatever, they will message you.

I’ve deleted Facebook off my phone and never looked back. I’ve deleted Twitter off my phone and the world didn’t end. You’ll find that different apps will have different behaviour patterns for you. Identify the most problematic ones and axe those. Feel free to keep any that you have a healthy relationship with. (For all I know, you might have a super healthy relationship with social media! It’s about what works and doesn’t work for you, don’t take my decisions as prescriptions.)

The idea here is to turn your phone from the dopamine dealer that it’s become, back to a tool, like it was supposed to be. There’s a lot of weird tips on the internet to do this (like making your screen greyscale), but nothing is more effective than deleting the apps that are sucking away your time.

Moderating usage for everything else (time: ongoing)

This is the hard one. The other actions are straightforward and simply need time. This one requires constant vigilance and self-control.

(I’m talking about websites and apps as if they were drugs, but let’s be real, they pretty much are.)

Some people use time trackers on their computers and phones to track how long they’re on certain websites and apps. I would actually recommend against this, as it’s not the time you spend in whatever apps we’re trying limit. It’s the quality of that time spent.

For example, YouTube¹ is a site where most of my time spent on it is mindless. But it’s extremely addictive, and very good at keeping you watching the next video. Sometimes, though, I’ll have a legitimate use for YouTube. I’ll need to know how to fix a tap, or iron a shirt properly. So I want to keep the freedom to use YouTube as a helpful resource, but limit the amount of mindless, auto-play time spent on it.

You’ll start to see a pattern here, and that’s one of tool vs entertainment. You want to maximise your use of technology as a tool, and minimise its use as entertainment. Not to say that entertainment is bad, but we live in a world overflowing with novelty and entertainment. Even minimising it means we’ll probably get a healthy dose anyway.

Observe triggers

A simplistic view of your brain and your body is an elaborate if-x-then-y_machine. We learn patterns and routines at the drop of a hat—it’s all a part of our brain making our life easier. So if we want to limit occurrences of _y, we might want to investigate the occurrences of x.

For example, I’ve noticed that at random times, I’ll open up a new tab and type twitter.com, without even thinking. Upon reflection, I noticed that the thing that triggered this response was the feeling of being stuck on something. When I didn’t know how to word a sentence I was trying to write, or when I needed to do a task I had been putting off. So the next time I noticed this trigger, I stopped. I thought to myself, “wait a minute, I don’t actually want to look at Twitter, I’m just putting off replying to this email.” After realising that it was a silly response, I went back to my initial task.

This is not always successful, but remember: willpower is a muscle. It’ll be uncomfortable, but the more you exercise it, the easier it will get.

Much like what we covered in part one of this series, be curious about your behaviour. We’ll all have our guilty pleasures, and that’s okay. But be mindful of these times. What triggers a bad habit? Are you getting what you wanted out of it? How does it make you feel afterwards?

Qualitative monitoring

Tracking how certain behaviours make you feel _works way better than quantitative measures. Remember, we’re not preaching abstinence here. No one _wants to spend 0 hours on the Internet, we just wish it didn’t make our brains feel like everything was on fire, all the time.

This mindfulness approach (rather than an abstinence approach) works because of how habits form inside the brain. You may have heard that our dopamine levels spike when we experience reward or pleasure. This is not the complete picture. What also happens, is that our dopamine spikes in anticipation to a reward. The dopamine acts as our motivation. It makes sure that we are sufficiently motivated to perform the actions required to lead to that reward.

That’s all fine and dandy if it’s used to motivate you to cook dinner, or go for a run, but it can also be used to motivate you to open a new tab, go to Reddit, whatever. Or it can motivate you to have another cigarette, or gamble.

Behavioural studies have shown that when the reward is less frequent and more unpredictable, the dopamine spikes even higher. This is how systems with random reward schedules are the most addicting of all: things like gambling, or your social media feed. In psychology, this phenomenon is known as intermittent reinforcement . You’ll never get more motivation out of someone than someone who is starved of, but intermittently fed, a reward. Terrifyingly, this also explains some of the psychology behind abusive relationships.

Bad habits, whether it be smoking, or zoning out to YouTube videos, form not because we get rewarded, but because we expect that reward. And the greatest con that addictive websites, casinos, drugs and narcissists perform, is tricking your brain into thinking you’re going to get rewarded 50% of the time, where in reality it’s more like 1% of the time.

This is how qualitative approaches to behaviour observation works better than quantitative. Instead of feeling horrible about spending 2 hours 31 minutes and 42 seconds on Twitter, you can mindfully interrogate your real experience. Being curious about your feelings, rather than beating yourself up over it, allows you to realise that actually, you’re not being rewarded as much as you thought you were. Which then allows you to update your reinforcement system. It tells your brain, hey, maybe I don’t need to perform this action for this reward, because the reward is simply not worth it.

A quick note on habit trackers

None have worked for me. When I focused on a proxy goal (like keeping up a chain on my calendar, or making my HabitRPG character stay alive), instead of my real goals, I lost sight of my real goals and eventually stopped caring about the proxy goals too. It might work for you, but for me, they were just vanity metrics. Numbers that had no meaning.

The tl;dr

Habit forming and habit breaking are hard things to do. Be kind to yourself. Not only is it a nice thing to do, there’s science to prove that it is more effective at changing your habits.

Some key points:

This is definitely still a work in progress for me, but I am finding that it is easier now to catch myself in the middle of initiating a pointless habit and going back to focusing on what I’m doing. I hope that in the future I won’t even have to stop myself, and I’ll be able to maintain my focus for even longer.


[1] My friend Tom made a good point in his PyCon Australia talk about learning: he and I have the same weakness on YouTube, and that is “infotainment videos”. This is stuff like Crash Course, or mini lectures, or Vox’s explainer videos. It gives you the feeling that you’re learning something, without teaching you much at all. True learning is uncomfortable. You should not be having a good time. You should be spending most of the time in a state of struggle, as your brain tries to comprehend new concepts and synthesise new connections. I experienced much the same thing in my last year at university: physics was torture most of the time. But sometimes, something clicked, and suddenly I understood the concept I had been struggling with for hours. It was pure euphoria. It made all that struggle worth it. At that time I thought it meant that I was stupid, and that I was an imposter of a scientist (even if my grades, and my lecturers, said otherwise). Now I realise, I was learning.