I have a real thing for shows and films set (at least in part) in offices. Mad Men, 9 To 5, The Office US, the first season of Gavin and Stacey. I love seeing how offices used to work before the internet came in and took hold of our lives. As part of a generation that remembers when the first iPod came out but was nowhere near old enough to buy one at the time, I have never experienced the world of work before the internet and I’m fascinated by the difference in dynamics.
What was it like, for instance, to be able to smoke at your desk (no offence if you smoke but the smell)? How different would my social anxiety be if I had to use the phone to reach someone? How much more could I get done every single day without the siren call of the internet constantly distracting me?
It probably seems like I’m blaming my work environment for my struggle to focus, shifting blame from my own (lack of) discipline onto 'society'. But I’m not making this up. There is ample evidence that technological advances are affecting our attention span. A recent study found that the internet is physically changing our brains so that we have shorter attention spans and worse memory. Dr Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at Western Sydney University told The Telegraph that high levels of internet use could impact the function of the brain: "The limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention – which then in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task." The study also found that smartphones are replacing our ability to remember facts. You probably know the sensation of subconsciously reaching for your phone, or going to google something you can't quite remember, or the excitable 'ping' in your head as you open a tab for Twitter. There have always been things in the office to distract us (the stimulating conversation around the water cooler, perhaps) but with the internet, it's much easier to be distracted surreptitiously, slipping in and out of our workflow without even noticing.
The internet is designed to be that way. We live in what is known as an attention economy, in which digital products are constantly competing for users' now limited attention spans. Ads are designed to catch our eye and draw us in immediately lest we lose patience and give up, apps are designed to be returned to compulsively thanks to endless scrolling, push notifications and the constant promise of something new. Our attention is as sought after as our money; in fact, you could argue that social media apps are free because our attention is the currency we pay to use them (before our data is sold on to the advertisers that target us, of course). The torrent of push notifications, red circles denoting unread messages and constant scroll keep us coming back for more, never offering an endpoint.
Simply put: corporations value our attention highly and therefore we should value it too, and take agency over it.
In this environment, it feels less like we choose what we pay attention to and more like it is chosen for us. We’re passive in this relationship, beholden to the compulsions that drive our thumbs to scroll down or our fingers to click.
This is what makes the concept of the 'attention budget' so simple and so radical. It's been knocking about the internet for at least a decade since Chris Brogan, an author and business advisor, wrote about treating attention as 'currency' in 2010. More recently, Molly Conway wrote for Man Repeller about how she's started treating her attention like a bank account after re-evaluating her relationship with social media. She outlines that you should see your attention as money and budget it accordingly, spending wisely on things you care about instead of less important things. Simply put: corporations value our attention highly and therefore we should value it too, and take agency over it. As Molly summed up so perfectly: "If I choose to spend an uninterrupted hour with a friend or a book (and actually keep my phone in my bag the whole time), how much would they [the corporations] have spent to buy that hour from me?"
If you think of your attention as currency, it makes you far more aware of its value and what it is worth spending it on. What is 'worth' it of course varies from person to person, so this is by no means to say that everyone should go on a social media detox and move to a cabin in the woods. Instead, figure out what's 'worth it' to you by ranking your priorities based on your job, your interests and your mental health, then allocating them the attention they need.
In practical terms, this means being more active and aware of how you spend your time. Start by making a new kind of to-do list of what you would ideally spend your time doing; it could be learning French, improving your relationship with your parents, finishing the book that's been in your tote bag since 2018. Then, instead of setting yourself impossible daily tasks, keep the list as a physical reminder or suggestion of where your priorities truly lie. When you notice yourself slipping into a pimple-popping YouTube video spiral, Chris Brogan suggests asking yourself: "Where can I add the most value to what matters most to me and the people who care about me?" Sometimes, if you're anxious and want to stop yourself from skin picking (guilty), a blackhead video is genuinely adding value. But more often than not that's the exception, not the rule.
An attention budget is not about cutting out technology or trying to get the greatest economic value from your time, it's about helping you feel good about how you spend your day.
The things we prioritize in our attention budget may not always be the easiest or most exciting ways to spend time – and will inevitably require more effort than chasing hot takes on Twitter – but because they matter to you they will always be more rewarding. Make use of timers and apps or employ tools like the Pomodoro Technique (where you take a five-minute break after every 25 minutes of focused work) to allocate yourself dedicated periods of time to pursue the things you enjoy. Outside of work hours, it can mean anything from putting your phone in another room while you do some yoga to dropping a book you feel like you should read but just can't get into.
In practical terms, an attention budget is not about cutting out technology or trying to get the greatest economic value from your time, it’s about helping you feel good about how you spend your day. When you remind yourself mid swipe that you probably don't want to spend your attention there, it's like putting it into a savings account. And when you spend your attention on the things that matter to you, it's like you're investing it.
While we can't dismantle the attention economy, we can reframe how we position ourselves in it. In doing so, we can go a small way to making ourselves happier. We can get the most out of the internet, read what we want, watch pimple-popping videos to relax and, maybe, get through a work day with limited distractions. Spend your attention wisely.