How to Focus in an Attention Economy

On a recent Thursday evening, I found myself doing no less than six things simultaneously: I was reading a recipe; cooking the recipe; watching the evening news; rehashing an awkward conversation my husband had with his supervisor at work; answering a text from my mom; and looking at a recently posted photo of my niece on my husband’s phone. It wasn’t until the chicken was overcooked and the balsamic sauce not properly reduced that I realized that I had way too much happening.

I hear this all. the. time. in my practice: clients who feel overworked, burned out, and completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks demanding their immediate attention. One client so consistently answered texts during his therapy appointments, I had to institute a no phone policy during our sessions—and then we spent weeks processing his anxiety about not being immediately available, to everyone. I see it all the time on the train: people staring glassy-eyed at their phones, scrolling through newsfeeds while wearing earbuds, occasionally glancing around to take in the subway car advertisements or their fellow straphangers.

This is the world we live in: an infinite number of advertisers/media/friends banging drums, clamoring for our attention. Advertisers/YouTube stars/Instagram celebrities make big money from keeping us distracted and constantly plugged into their products. But attention is a finite resource: we only have so much of it. As content increases, our ability to pay attention to it (or not pay attention to it) is a limiting factor in our consumption of someone else’s information. With our focus being extremely limited, what do we choose to focus on? Cue everybody trying to one-up each other on being the catchiest song, most eye-pulling advertisement, or the best new thing.

This attention economy leaves us feeling anxious, depleted, and distracted.

The constant intake of information prevents us from really knowing how we think and how we feel, inhibits intimacy in our relationships, and keeps us from ourselves. While we can’t stop this influx of “attention material,” we can slow it down and regain control. Here are some of my favorite tips for focusing in an attention economy:

Put down your phone. Like right now. I cannot stress this enough; your phone is a tiny computer that keeps you at the beck and call of everyone and everything, except yourself. Remember when we had to go to the library or the family computer to “go online?” Now, there’s no going on the internet; we’re living in the internet. Pump the brakes on Instagramming your gorgeous culinary creation, and eat it.

Go outside. Spend some time in the park, go one a hike, sit on the beach. Leave the books, the music, and the phone at home. Notice the leaves, the mountains, or the waves, and feel the air on your skin. Notice the birds, the sky. Allow yourself to recalibrate emotionally.

Turn inward. Tune into your physical body’s sensations. Is your stomach in knots? Do your hips ache? Maybe your head feels heavy with mental fatigue. Your body is your most immediate and present reality, and it knows what’s going on with you before your mind does. How are you doing, really? Breathe deeply and notice what arises.

Do one thing at a time. Research shows that we are not good multitaskers, as much as we’d like to believe that we are. We’re actually more productive if we focus on one task at a time, and we get better outcomes from said tasks in a shorter amount of time. If I had listened to research I already knew, my chicken would not have burned and we wouldn’t have ordered Seamless for the fourth time that week.

Just like anything, controlling the flow of information you allow into your orbit is a process and takes practice. It might feel scary at first; this is a re-learning of how to be with only yourself, a re-education on your thoughts, your feelings, and your attention span. You can do this, I promise.

Need some “me” time, or a space just for you? Need some help sifting through the information overload? Send me a message; I’d love to help.

Illustrations by Jon Ehinger