Are You Selling Your Attention Span Short?

“Gambling/slot machine addicts don’t play to win. They play to keep playing.” NYU Prof. Natasha Dow Schull

In the age of online gaming, streaming content and ubiquitous social media, our (already limited) attention spans are under siege in an endless sea of distraction.

From Netflix to our old friends Facebook and Twitter, it’s all designed to attract us, distract us, absorb our limited concentration, and addict us as quickly as possible. Even more worrying, the real masters of this stuff have even prayed on our kind natures to make us feel guilty when we ignore “likes,” comments, and connection requests on Facebook. They’re using a methodology called “Persuasive Design,” which focuses on influencing human behavior through a product or service’s characteristics.

Wow. How do we compete?

I don’t know about you, but I’m a big believer that knowledge is power. If we can understand how the wizards at Google and Facebook are commandeering our attention, we’ve taken the first step toward fixing our problem. I say the first step because while we can understand the pull of Facebook and Twitter, for most of us, going cold turkey isn’t an option. We have to learn how to live with the temptation, finding reasonable techniques for managing it.

So what’s happening to us? If you’ve noticed that you’re spending more and more of your working hours toggling back and forth between work and social media, you’re not alone. I’ve fallen prey to this practice, too. It’s cost me hours (and more hours) in lost productivity and missed opportunities. In my new book LIFESCALE, I recount my journey back from distraction while offering insights and exercises for regaining our capacity to focus and create.

In LIFESCALE, I explore the ways in which social media, which has so much potential for good, has been used to distract, manipulate, and exploit us. But the book is more than condemnation, it’s an exploration of the problem with short-term hacks and long-term solutions to help free us from distraction’s grip.

Manipulators Seek Redemption

After years of lining their pockets, some social media leaders, like former Google engineer Tristan Harris and former Facebook insider Justin Rosenstein (inventor of the “Like” Button), are coming clean.

They’ve spent years using Vegas-style, slot machine tricks to addict us. In Harris’ words, “You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.” Software and social media platform designers have incorporated this trick into all sorts of products.

Now developing software that helps streamline work processes through his new firm Asana, Rosenstein describes the epidemic his magic button helped create:

“Distraction is where your attention and your intention is not the same thing.”

In an interview with TheVerge.com, Rosenstein shared his thoughts on social media, which largely reflect mine:

“Then you do have distraction, filter bubbles, polarization, information privacy, and a lot of problems social media needs to fix. And I’m hopeful. I think these are all fixable problems. You look at industries like tobacco. The difference between this and tobacco: no matter how you package that product, it’s harmful.

Whereas social media, if done the right way, if we have a commitment to making sure the content we’re showing people is relevant to them if we’re only sending notifications when something is actually timely and important, the potential is for the pie chart to move very much in the positive direction.”

Through the Lifescaling movement, we’re looking to help achieve Rosenstein’s vision of “social media done right,” as a useful tool that helps to enrich our social, cultural, and professional lives without becoming a destructive distraction.

Distraction is destructive. Our attention has intrinsic value. We’ll work together to make sure our attention and intention become one!

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