Paying attention is hard. Here's what I do about it.
This morning, my computer screen gave me a snapshot of the world I live in. And of the world in my mind. (Are they different?)
The original task was to find a great quote from Anne Lamott to share with my readers. I googled it. Then I paused for just long enough to realize what was in front of me: the endless, insidious presence of corporations vying for my attention.
Take a look at the image above. In just one view, there are no fewer than five ads (two of them animated), all whistling, catcalling versions of, “Hey! Look over here. Baby I got what you want.” Gender doesn’t seem to matter. It’s still “catcalling” because: 1) The ads are unwanted. 2) They don’t care. They still whistle at you. 3) And they assume it’s a compliment. (Look at all the money you’ll be saving! Get over yourself and let me make you happy.)
As I relaxed into this exploration, I noticed the url. The google results came to me via a website I never heard of: kidadl.com — something about “best educational resources for fun and learning throughout the year.” (See the blue question mark and its target.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, it just bears noticing. Nothing is free.
Nothing is free.
The part outlined in green is the information I wanted. It was almost impossible to read, because of the two ads that were animated…jumping around, drawing my eyes away from the text.
Now add to all this the partial images of the folders and files I had on my desktop, sticking out like tabs around the edges of the google search result.
There is an awful lot of unconscious processing going on here. And this was just for an uncontroversial, quick moment with google. How much worse does it get when you scroll through CNN or Fox or Twitter or TikTok?
This has to stop.
The culture is how it is, and there’s pretty much nothing I can do about how the world shows up for me. But there is something I can do about how I show up for the world. I must take responsibility for my own decisions.
When I’m on my laptop, I choose “Full screen” view. This blocks out all the visual “noise,” so that all I see is whatever I’m working on.
I’ve learned to use the “Screen Time” feature on my Apple device. This enables me to set limits on my engagement online. I have mine set for “downtime” from 10pm to 7am — so if I try to start poking around between those hours, I get a little hourglass icon and a reminder that “downtime” is on. It’s on me (not the world) to respect those limits.
I get in at least a half hour of reading from an actual book every day. There are no ads trying to feel me up when I’m reading a book. Just the page and the words on it, leading me into whatever world I chose when I chose the book.
New rule: no devices at the dining table. Except for the crossword puzzle in the morning. (We all have our limits.)
Whenever possible, I pay extra for an app with “no ads.” But this gets expensive, so it’s not an ideal option.
Finally, I look at the image above with great compassion. It’s a picture of that moment, the world I live in, and of the mind that created it. It’s a snapshot of all the energy wasted jumping around till I’m clicking on this ,I’m going to Aruba, to hell with everything. I put my arms around the image, and fill with love for how hard I’m trying, for how hard it is — for everyone — to just settle down, be calm, and focus.
We have agency in this world. We can use it not only to change how things are but, more importantly, to change how we are.
Judging by how hard companies try to get my attention, it must be very valuable. So starting today, I’m going to value it at least as much as they do. I will think of it as money, currency. Where will I invest my attention? What kind of returns are there? Does that investment make the world a better place or does it just reinforce impoverishment of spirit?
The ads won’t stop. The whistles and the catcalls will always be part of the world that lusts for my attention. But my attention isn’t as vulnerable anymore to these distractions. I take better care of it. I protect it. I put it in income producing accounts.
I don’t complain about the world. I take responsibility for how I show up in it. I do this imperfectly, without consistency, but I do it.
And that’s all that counts.