Can I Have My Attention?

Mama always said, "I feel like I live in a pinball machine." 

Summed up, adulthood is realizing that your parents' pithy catchphrases are truer than you want them to be. My mom's pinball machine metaphor comes to mind daily. My toddler is one of the many balls launched on tightly-wound springs, and she bounces off every surface, her energy creating a ripple effect that scatters toys and food and my patience around the house. My smartphone—an obstacle my pinball eyes routinely smack against—keeps my head bouncing: up and down, focusing and refocusing, screen and reality. My eyes can't land on anything long in pinball reality; dishes, laundry, fussing, mail, e-mails, errands, life.

The fastest-moving, least stationary ball in my too-bright world of sensory input: my attention. It's wanted everywhere. The morning cries of my children are the initial spring that starts my attention's wild daily careening. There's not enough of me to go around, bodily, emotionally, spiritually. Everything wants attention. And somehow, the technologies around me are stealing too much of it. 


We're a society obsessed with value. Give me the ROI. Analyze the cost-benefit. Calculate my yearly worth for doing these dishes, cleaning these floors, washing these children. I'm valuable because I could be replaced with money. 

Our obsession with worth in terms of bartering and trading comes out in our idioms, and just listen to how we talk about attention: 

We pay attention. 

We give attention. 

We receive attention. 

We need attention. 

Bell Hooks: "Attention is an important resource."

This is how we talk about things that have value—things that we could replace with the right figures behind a dollar sign. And our attention is wildly valuable. 

I'm not saying that metaphorically. Every smart company in the world is battling for today's scarcest (and yet) most prolific commodity: attention. They're battling for your attention. And if my attention is a valuable asset that I own, I'm woefully irresponsible with how I spend it. I track the dollars that flow from my bank account with careful precision, but my attention? I pay it and give it and waste it all day.

I don't mean to; in fact, when my time has slipped by while my attention is arrested by the infinite Facebook newsfeed, I feel robbed. I feel cheated. I feel ashamed that I let myself trade my limited and precious resources of attention and time in exchange for—for what? A cheap pump of dopamine when a red-flagged notification popped up? A sudden sense of angst and anxiety from reading a blood-bath comment section? A fuzzy, fractured mind that can't even remember what I spent my scrolling time seeing? 

I sound addicted, right? I'm doing something I don't want to do, compelled, arrested, powerless. A few times a year—maybe once a month even—I delete my Facebook app, I mute news app notifications, I wean myself off Instagram. That week or so is always a little clearer, my brain seems to function a little better. But eventually I log back in to check on a favorite discussion group or organize my next writing group meeting, and then I'm back—subconsciously unlocking my phone and reading the newest article from The Atlantic before I realized I'd even decided to do so. 

But I also know it's not all my weakness and lack of discipline to blame. If you sometimes feel that the technological deck is stacked against your mental health's favor, you're not wrong. In the attention economy, apps and websites and screens are designed to keep you scrolling, to foster a strong sense of urgency and immediacy, to keep your FOMO alive and well. And since we use our technologies for useful tasks—keeping up with friends, coordinating social groups, planning our days, reading our news—it can feel impossible to find balance. All-or-nothing hardly works, not for long, when nothing leaves us isolated and all leaves us feeling isolated. 


So, back to my pinball machine home. I want a calm heart, a clear mind, a ready hand for my family and friends. I want to stop feeling that my attention is stolen from me—I want to give it and pay it like I give and pay my money: (mostly) through my own choice. 

When I began to think of my attention as a resource, I started to feel angry. My attention is being wrested from me, and I miss it. I miss giving undivided attention to anything. I miss thinking while I'm stuck in line at the post office, instead of checking out. I miss feeling in control. I miss creating instead of consuming. I don't want to divorce myself from social media and technology. I love my Facebook moms group; I use my list app daily for groceries and other information. I value my Instagram community, and would be lost at times without Google. 

But can't I use them instead of them using me?

Mary Oliver writes, "Attention is the beginning of devotion." I want my attention to center devotion on my children, the natural world, things that bring me joy and peace and connect me to others. I'm tired of waiting for Silicon Valley's conscience to kick in and help me disconnect when I need to; I'm taking back control myself. 

On a practical level, this spells habit changes. No all-or-nothing, no ultimatums, no account deactivations. I've deleted apps to certain social media sites (Facebook is the number one offender) to put a barrier to access—the mobile site requires more conscious thought than the easy-to-use app. I've started using a strict no-scroll policy on sites that leave me feeling depressed, frustrated, or tempted to compare.

Instead, I use websites and apps the way I used them back before tech companies started finding ways to stop us from leaving (and I’m suddenly nostalgic for 2006): I check in. I glance at my notifications. I navigate to peoples' profiles when I want to see what they're up to. I search for a recipe instead of scrolling through edited photos of white-on-white-on-perfect kitchens. I visit websites to skim the headlines, hearkening back to a day when we sat down with a newspaper—a finite, contained dose of daily information—and read the news I need when I'm ready to digest it, instead of when it breaks. I limit technology's omnipresence by quarantining it to controlled moments of my day. It's the difference between browsing a store for impulse buys and going in with a list and a purpose: you'll spend fewer of your resources, you'll get what you wanted, you'll be a smarter consumer.

One of the best new habits I've adopted? Leaving my phone plugged in. We used to lose our cordless phone daily in the late 90s, and once my little sister lamented, "Why don't they invent a phone that's attached to the wall so you don't lose it?" (We all laughed.) Now I attach my phone to the wall so I can finally stop having constant physical awareness of its presence. I want to lose my phone.



My youngest daughter loves attention. Sometimes we say this about people in a negative way: he's only doing this for attention; she's addicted to the attention. But my daughter, she knows the value of look-you-in-the-eye moments in a way that's not encumbered by dollars and cents. She doesn't want to be tummy-to-tummy, faces pointed over backs—she doesn't want to be toted around on our shoulders. She wants eyes met, noses close, mouths mirroring twin smiles. She watches us while we flutter around the house, busy with unnecessary necessities, waiting for that magical moment when our lines of sight match up, and then her face succumbs to an overjoyed smile.

There it is. Attention.

When I asked my Instagram friends to share their resources for healthy disconnecting, they (of course), came through. Here are some tips, tricks, and resources. 

  1. Apps: Several people had luck with apps that help you disconnect, like the Freedom app (and web extension), Checky, or Moment. There are also browser extensions such as Facebook Disconnect for Chrome. 
  2. Habits: A lot of people have done similar things to what I wrote about to change their habits. Many said they leave their phone upstairs or in their bedroom, delete their Facebook apps, and give themselves "rules" about when they are allowed to check social media or websites. I particularly like habits that are doable—i.e. you can still hear if someone is calling you, but you don't have any notifications set for social media. 
  3. Tricks: Sometimes, it's easy to trick your brain into doing what you want. In some ways, that's what our phones are already doing: tricking our brains into thinking this is something we want to do (hence the subconscious scrolling). James Hamblin suggests turning your phone screen monochrome, and I actually love it. A black-and-white screen does not have the same appeal, and when it's black-and-white I immediately consciously realize, "I don't want to be checking my phone right now." 

What do you use to disconnect?

Emily Fisk