November 12

The Hidden Dangers of Confusing Attention with Accomplishment

Here's a fundamental truth about creating compelling work that many don't get: attention and accomplishment are incredibly different animals, and confusing one for the other will cause you to delude yourself into thinking you're making progress towards a goal.

You can do work that people naturally feel compelled to talk about. Or you can attempt to get people to talk about your work. The first is much harder than the second because it requires deep work and a focus on mastery instead of metrics. Unlike the latter, it doesn't give you rapid feedback loops or instant applause. It forces you not to confuse attention with accomplishment.

Successful Creators Who Don't Use Social Media

Some of the most well-known writers don't use Twitter or Facebook. But people are talking about them on Facebook.

  • Seth Godin doesn't use Facebook. But, lots of people share Seth's content on Facebook even though he doesn't use the platform.
  • Cal Newport doesn't even have a social sharing plugin installed on his blog, yet it's incredibly popular.
  • Michael Lewis has had a thriving career as an author, and he doesn't use social media

When Tim Ferriss asked Seth how he deals with overwhelm, he didn't offer a productivity hack. Instead, he shared his essential priorities. One of those priorities was to show up and write a blog post every single day. To honor that commitment, he doesn't watch TV or use social media which gives him the time to do something rare and valuable. I think all of us who are fans of Seth can agree that we'd much rather have him write a blog post every day than be active on social media.

The Illusion of Productivity

Study after study has shown that all social media tools are designed to be addictive, thanks to variable rewards, and an endless fire hose of information and dopamine hits. But the hidden danger is the false sense of productivity we get from using these tools. It feels as if we're getting something done, even when we're not. I can't tell you the number of times that I've been with my family over the last few years, claiming that I had "work to do," even though I just was posting stuff on Facebook.

"Whenever you recognize a task or project as completed, your brain releases a load of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for generating feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction, and happiness. This release of dopamine not only makes you feel good but also motivates you to continue completing tasks and extend that pleasant feeling," says Francisco Saez. "The same process occurs when you use social media, even though you're not getting shit done."

The Illusion of Accomplishment

The day I wrote a status update about my book deal, I got hundreds of likes and comments congratulating me. One of the things that Ryan Holiday said to me an interview was that he never talks about a book until it's finished because you're receiving congratulations for something you haven't even done yet. This deludes you into thinking you've accomplished something when there are still hundreds of hours of work in front of you.

In his recent article on the two things you should be doing instead of social media, John P.Weiss said the following:

Social media success is a side effect of quality, not the cause. You can pretty your Instagram account all you want, and upload all kinds of lovely pictures on your Facebook page. None of that stuff, by itself, will make your art or business take off. - John P. Weiss

Weiss's writing is exemplary of this. It's likely you've read one of his articles because they frequently become popular. For a former police officer to become a skilled cartoonist requires deep work.

This doesn't just happen to creatives. It happens to startup founders as well. They might get featured in TechCrunch because they raised a round of funding. But, that doesn't mean they've accomplished anything. They still have a business to build. In his How to Start a Startup Podcast, Sam Altman warns founders not to get caught up in their press.

Satisfaction that Doesn't Last

The two most popular things I've ever posted on Facebook were pictures of my finished books. For about a day, I was insanely popular on Facebook. But, the hundreds of likes and comments I received did almost nothing to move the needle on book sales. And 24 hours later, I was an afterthought.

Attention, instant applause, and the satisfaction they provide is always temporary. The only way to sustain it is to seek more. Post another selfie, compose another clever tweet, or craft another poetic status update. Satisfaction is an insatiable beast that you have to keep feeding.

Measuring Meaningless Metrics

I was recently having a conversation with my friend Mike about how much less time I'm spending on Facebook, and he asked: "Does using Facebook make you money?". I knew it didn't. It barely moves the needle on the most critical metrics in our business.

Confusing attention with accomplishment causes us to measure meaningless metrics. Likes, hearts, and comments don't do shit for the bottom line of business. They don't allow you to keep the lights on, put food on your table, or pay for things you need. Seven hundred dollars in your bank account is far more valuable than 700 likes on your Facebook post.

If you think a social media platform is necessary to sell your books as an author, don't delude yourself. All you're doing is feeding your ego with likes, hearts, and selfies with you holding your book.

The number one driver of book sales for any author that's not already a celebrity is email. You could spend several thousand dollars on Facebook ads, however, you'd sell more books if you just bought thousands of dollars worth of books and gave them away.

Sometime this summer, when I was searching for a roommate, I met a girl who wanted to be a writer. She had a substantial presence on Instagram. Every one of her posts was getting 100's of likes and comments when she posted a picture or video. And it's precisely this kind of attention that is incredibly dangerous because it creates the illusion of progress towards her goal of becoming a writer. She's not the only one who has done this. She just happens to be the one that came to mind as I was writing this.

Just because somebody is wildly popular on social media, it doesn't mean they are rich or successful. This became quite clear to me when I was having breakfast at a dinner with my friend Brian, and he pointed out one of the waitresses who had a massive Instagram following. I've also heard stories about "social media celebrities" who are baristas at Starbucks. Don't be fooled by the carefully edited and deliberately curated avatars of people. Remember, there's a lot you don't see.

The internet gives every one of us a microphone. We can either waste the potential of the internet by seeking instant applause and uploading selfies, or we can do something that matters.

Self Obsession, Narcissism and a Toxic Psychological Environment

The most important book I've read in 2018 is Selfie: How We Became Obsessed With Ourselves and What It's Doing To Us. Confusing attention with accomplishment gives us an over-inflated sense of self-importance.

By 2014, 93 billion selfies were being taken every day on Android phones alone. Every third photograph taken by an eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old was of themselves. - Will Storr

People are so concerned with their image that the majority of pictures they posted were of themselves. The impact of this kind of narcissism should be deeply disturbing to all of us.

In her interview with Oprah, Julia Roberts mentioned that she'd recently joined Instagram. Her niece posted a picture of them hanging out on a Saturday morning. People commented on how bad she looked and how terribly she'd aged. Even as a 50-year-old woman who has had an incredibly successful career, she told Oprah that reading those comments hurt.

Endless Comparison and Decreased Happiness

"What we see are studies that show social media is associated with diminished well being and lower life satisfaction because people are always looking at people with better lives" - Will Storr

Social media fuels anxiety, envy, and comparison. But we overlook the fact that we're comparing ourselves to an illusion. We're seeing nothing but the highlight reels of people's lives. We judge our happiness on a relative scale, based on how we stack up compared to other people. Social media skews that scale because there's always someone who has done something more impressive than you have.

A few days ago I was interviewing Jennifer Miller about her new book Mr. Nice Guy. She's had a long career as a journalist and author of four books. When I asked her if she had ever felt envious of other authors who have sold more books, she said, "Yes, that's why I quit social media."

One of my friends suggested that I should explore the reasons why seeing other people's achievements on social media triggers envy. Personally, I think a much better use of my and any another creative person's time would be to eliminate the trigger and put that energy into deep work.

Unintended Consequences

It's likely that we will see a mass exodus from social media over the next year. Between addictive productive design, mental health issues, behavior manipulation, filter bubbles, and long-term damage to our attention spans, and turning us into the cognitive equivalent of athletes who smoke, and it's no surprise that Mark Manson referred to smartphones as the new cigarettes. 

As someone who used to smoke when I drank, I've noticed how rare it is to see someone smoking a cigarette these days. I can't help but think that a similar fate awaits many social media platforms, eventually becoming digital graveyards on the internet.

Social media may not cause cancer, but that doesn't mean it's harmless: 

  • A Facebook group for the event I planned became a substantial source of drama; gossip eventually led to dozens of burnt bridges and the end of many friendships. When I asked Danielle Laporte about Facebook in a recent interview, she called it a "playground for vitriol".
  • The endless dopamine hits from talking with somebody I dated long distance sent me into a spiral of depression that derailed my life for more than a year and almost caused me to run my business into the ground.

Attention is the currency of achievement, and Mark Zuckerberg has become a billionaire by capturing yours and selling it to advertisers. It's worth considering what you might accomplish if you stopped confusing attention with accomplishment.


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