(Personal) Hello, April

Self Improvement 150Floating in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour was long enough for me to realize that a great deal of my problem is overstimulation. It’s tough for someone sensitive to sensory input to live in a world like this, geared towards making sure something is grabbing your attention all the time. We live at a time where it’s seen as largely acceptable to pay for something with our focus instead of money; think about all of the services we use for ‘free’ in exchange for ads, or the data that companies can use to make ads that much more irresistible. Corporations have learned to use our attention as another potential revenue stream; it’s time we start thinking of it the same way we do our hard-earned money. That’s why this month, I’d like to focus on budgeting my attention and focus the same way I budget my money.

I admit it’s a harder thing to do. Money is a finite resource (just like our attention), but it’s a lot easier to quantify and measure. We know exactly how much money we get in our paychecks, and we can subtract our expenses from our income to know when we’re stepping outside of our means. With attention, it’s not so straightforward. We can’t wake up every day with the intention that we only ‘spend’ 2 hours’ worth of attention on social media, or that today is a ‘no advertisement’ day where we refuse to pay attention to any form of advertising. We can’t slice our focus into discrete chunks, and then decide what parts of our environment we give those chunks to.

But we can be more mindful about when and where something is asking for our attention, and what our reaction to that request might be. On our phones, what apps and games buzz to draw our focus back to the screen? When we’re browsing a website, what links do we click to stay engaged with it, and how do we end up following article after article? When we’re walking or driving outside, what things grab our eyes and hold them? When we watch TV, how many times do we notice ads — especially ones that work around our ability to fast-forward through them?

Any time you notice something using obnoxious or obvious means to attract your attention, think about the process that created the situation. Why would a company risk the ill will of a potential customer just to force us into having to engage with its advertisement? Why on Earth would so many websites auto-play videos when we visit pages? What’s to be gained by forcing us to engage with something?

There are some websites that we might feel are worth paying for with our attention. When they ask us to whitelist them from ad blocking programs, we might be inclined to do so. When Google or Facebook asks for our information in order to better serve ads to them, we might think it’s a fair trade for the useful and convenient services they offer. That’s fine. But it really should be our choice, and I think our modern experience online and in real life isn’t set up in the interest of offering us that choice. Everywhere we go, there is something trying to get us to engage with it; we don’t have the ‘right’ to choose where our attention is going when we enter a public space.

I’m really not sure how we can address this on any big level, but I do know that I will take better notice of things that try to force my attention away from what I’m doing — whether it’s YouTube offering me other videos to watch, IGN auto-playing videos, movies with egregious product placement, or ad ‘stunts’ tricking me into investing time or focus towards something. One of the biggest pet peeves I’ve developed recently is a company taking advantage of my fandom in order to sell me a pile of crap; the endless rebranding initiatives of Marvel Comics and the “mystery box/alternate reality” model of Bad Robot properties immediately comes to mind.

I know enough about myself to know that it’s easy for my attention to be drawn away, and it’s best if I cultivate an environment where I choose when and how to switch my focus from one thing to another. I’ve already disabled almost all notifications on my phone, and whenever a website offers me desktop notifications I decline and resolve to use that website less in the future. I use apps like Ghostery and AdBlock Plus to clean the pages of the sites I visit, and I whitelist only the ones that I use frequently and don’t have obnoxious intrusive ads that pop up, play sound, or ‘trick’ you into being redirected by shifting the close button or using intentionally misleading UI. When I finish one task, or an article or a video, I try to take a breath to recenter myself and make a mindful decision on what to do next. That’s not always successful, for sure, but I’m getting better at this the more I do it.

There are a few other things I’d like to do this month, too. In the interest of making sure I’m on a more solid foundation for life, I’d like to double back and refocus on the basics: meditating every day, reading and writing every day, eating well every day, exercising as often as possible. The very basic building blocks of self-care that give you the best possible shot at being emotionally resilient. So far, it’s…still a process, but failure is bundled into that of course. The trick is to not let failure discourage you; take the lessons you can from it, then move on with a better idea of how to succeed.

So that’s it; being very judicious about my attention and how I’m spending it, then putting that attention to where it will do the most good. How about you folks? What would you like to work on this month?

3 thoughts on “(Personal) Hello, April

  1. I apologize if this is too great a diversion. But thinking about sensory deprivation and of mindfulness makes me think of the stigma we attach to boredom. It’s hard to find anyone with a good thing to say about being bored.

    And there is good to say about it. We dismiss boredom as the state where nothing’s interesting. But that’s almost exactly wrong. Boredom is the state where anything can hold our interest. When else would we try to figure out the gentlest puff we can give to make a loose sheet of paper stop dangling over the edge of the table and instead stand straight in midair? When else would we pay attention to the two kinds of tile lining the kitchen and how long it takes for the longer and the shorter tile edges to coincide? When else do we notice how fast the shadow creeps along the wallpaper pattern?

    It’s a state of mind that makes us notice things we hadn’t before, and it’s one that can herald being open to discoveries. It’s healthy to be bored some.

    1. Oh, this isn’t a diversion at all; I think you’re really on to something. 🙂 There’s this great podcast called “Note to Self” that I listen to on a regular basis, and one of their week-long digital projects was called “Bored & Brilliant” — all *about* the value of boredom and how to reset our expectations about being stimulated every single minute of every single day.

      More and more these days I recognize the need to have time where there is absolutely nothing going on; that moment where I get to breathe and…just decide to do something because I want to do it is increasingly rare, but invaluable.

  2. That’s very nifty, I’d love to hear more about your experience in the float tank, I’ve been fascinated by the idea for nearly 30 years (and have yet to go to one). I do concur that distraction is all to easy (and even that many things are designed to distract us as a way of capturing our eyeballs); one of the greatest things to learn as part of being a human being is how to be with yourself, and just be, with yourself. Without stimulation, without an external and passive source feeding ready activities/etc. There’s so much to come out of that kind of space and ability (and from boredom even, if that shows up, as Joseph noted); creativity, clarity, willingness to be connected and related, and a better handle on our rich internal life. And from that, how to handle the at times crazy outside life…

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