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.
Attention is the currency of achievement. It takes continuous attention and intense focus to perform at an elite level. This is true for every domain from knowledge work to music to sports. Without the ability to focus on something demanding for an extended period, you're at a disadvantage.
Attention is also the currency of connection and love. If you've ever been on a date or hung out with a friend who is constantly checking his or her phone, you know how annoying this is. It doesn't feel like the person who is with you is paying attention.
When my brother-in-law and sister started dating, she mentioned that she played the cello. She wasn't much of a cellist, but that's easy for me to say as the brother who made the all-state band. But she was a badass human and still is in every other regard. For their fifth date, he asked her to go see Yo-Yo Ma at the Hollywood Bowl. When I was helping my dad write his wedding speech, I asked him why he thought this guy was perfect for my sister. My dad told me this story, and said: "he pays attention."
After Cal Newport published Digital Minimalism, he realized that the benefits of becoming a digital minimalist went far beyond being less distracted. His readers lost weight, started volunteering, read more books, and were more connected to their real life than their digital one.
In my own experience, when I gave up social media for 30 days, I was happier, started publishing a blog post every day, and made progress on projects that mattered. When I gave it up for June, I raised my first round of venture funding for The Unmistakable Creative. That was enough to convince me that I was significantly better off without Facebook.
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 things is getting you what you want. If not, keep reading.
1. Put a High Dollar Value on Your Attention
A while back I said that if you want to manage your time more effectively, put a high dollar value on it. This is the path to the $1000 an hour mindset. For the sake of my argument here, assume that time and attention are the same. Now, your attention is worth $1000 an hour. For every minute you spend on a source of distraction, you're spending $16.00 of your attention balance.
If you want to really geek out on this, install a tool like Rescuetime. Track exactly how much time you're spending on social networking sites. You might be disturbed to find that the way you spend your attention is costing you a small fortune every week.
2. Become a Digital Minimalist
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 "tips and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves 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", says Cal Newport.
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 quit social media for 30 days. First, you'll see how little it is adding to your life. Second, you'll start to lose the impulsive tick that causes you to end up on distracting web sites and apps in the first place.
3. Fill The Void
Without the constant buzz of bullshit from social media, you have time to be alone with your thoughts, reflect on what matters, and make important life decisions based on your values. But when something that has taken up so much of your time and attention no longer does, it can drive you nuts.
However, it's the perfect opportunity to fill your time with things that add more value to your life than validation from strangers on the internet. Don't forget the currency of hearts and likes are worthless. I've never been able to pay rent with hearts, likes, retweets or any other vanity metrics.
4. Be Wary of the Outliers
When I was with my old business partner Brian, I told him the stories of baseball outfielder Bryce Harper's 330 million dollar contract. He pointed out sales expert Grant Cardone and entrepreneur Gary Vee (Vaynerchuk) who have both thrived because of social media. We both agreed that we were looking at two sets of outliers. And outliers are terrible role models for most people.
In the end, we agreed the bigger issue was not the technology itself, but the fact it was a form of escapism. Without it, you're forced to confront your boredom, existential angst, and even painful emotions.
Even though Cal wrote about many famous people, he's also had many readers who aren't rich or famous, not outliers, but got better jobs, improved relationships with their families, and accomplished more when they became a digital minimalist. Just because the overwhelming majority of society does something, that doesn't mean you should.
5. Abandon the Any Benefit Mindset
Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of platforms is a conflict of interest. Many of the Internet celebrities who are a touting a platform as the "next big thing" are also investors in these companies. They have a significant incentive to get you using those things.
But it's worth asking if the benefits you get from using these things support your most important goals.
- If you buy a hammer, it's because you want to put nails into something.
- If you buy a vacuum cleaner, it's to clean.
You don't buy any of these tools because they might offer some benefit. They have a purpose. If you value your time and attention, take the same approach to your digital tools.
In Deep Work, Cal offers the following exercise:
The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts substantially outweigh the negative impacts.
I created a simple template in Notion to determine whether the tools I was using supported my most important goals. You can see it below.
What you'll notice is the answer is not positive in most cases. The opportunity costs of social media often outweigh the benefits.
6. Do More Deep Work
Shallow work like checking email, updating your status or uploading pictures feels productive, but it's not. Run them through Ryder Carroll's simple framework.
- Is this vital"?
- Does this matter"?
- 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 gives a shit. I haven't received one email saying, "Hey man I wish you were posting more on Facebook or Instagram."
When you focus intensely on a demanding task for an intense period of time, you don't just get a significant productivity boost. You get the joys of experiencing flow which beats the hell out of the temporary, but not guaranteed satisfaction from a "like" on your latest status update.
7. Spend More Time With People in Person
The time we have left with people who matter most is limited and precious. But we treat it like it's always going to be an option.
A few months ago, I was having dinner with my parents and two of their close friends. As immigrants, developing a community was how my parents and many other Indians from their generation adjusted to life in the United States. Given my experience of being much happier in the past few months, I had a sense there was a strong connection between human contact.
So I asked them "how often do you guys see each other?" They both said "oh at least twice a week. And we talk on the phone every day. If we don't, one of us will call and say, 'I haven't heard from you today'."
I couldn't think of any of my friends that I saw twice a week. For a moment I thought, "What the hell is wrong with my friends?" But it's not that something is wrong with my friends. We've just defaulted to text messages and social media as our primary way of keeping in touch.
Somewhere along the way, social media went from being a connection tool to a broadcasting tool, and we began to confuse attention with affection. The most valuable connections I've made from using social media have been the people I've met in person. But our interaction on the Internet is minimal.
If you're serious about using your brain to create value, the inability to manage your attention will put you at a severe disadvantage. For knowledge workers of the future, the rewards will skew disproportionately in favor of those who can manage their attention and do deep work. You can either be a focused creator or a distracted consumer. The attention economy rewards the former. So which will you choose?