The Attentive Rebellion: The Backstory

On January 25, I had a panic attack for the first time in 10 years.

Two months later, I quit my job.

It seems abrupt, but a decent meteorologist would’ve noted the conditions for this particular storm brewing well in advance.

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The first time I can distinctly recall realizing something was happening to my attention span was during my final year of college; 2010 or 2011.

Those were fun years for diehard Chicago Bulls fans like me. I’d settled into a game-night ritual: flop onto the couch, flip on the broadcast, crack open my laptop and start tweeting.

But I wasn’t just tweeting. I was scouring my feed for comments and analysis from reporters, media personalities and other fans. I was liking, replying, retweeting. I was announcing to the world on an embarrassingly regular cadence that Derrick Rose was TOO BIG, TOO STRONG, TOO FAST, TOO GOOD.

These were still Twitter’s early days; thankfully, there was no Twitter app on my Blackberry. So when I attempted to watch a game without my laptop, I noticed something disconcerting: the on-screen action, evidently, wasn’t compelling enough to hold my attention.

I yearned for the comments, the snarky quips, the video clips — those dopamine hits to which I’d unknowingly conditioned myself.

If only I’d seen #BullsTwitter for what it was: a gateway drug.

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Fast forward to January 2023. The technological advances of the past decade are staggering. More than half of Earth’s population — 4.7 billion people — use social media.

I’m working as a content director for a marketing/advertising agency. I’ve long since deleted my personal social media apps, though I keep up with trends for professional purposes.

I like to pretend I have things figured out; after all, I still read physical books and the print Chicago Tribune, and I unplug with hikes and bike rides over the weekend.

But deep down, something’s still off. I’m morbidly fascinated by people who appear in control of their attention, expertly balancing their tech habits, their information intake and their careers, while remaining fully present in their relationships and personal lives.

More than ever, I crave vacations off the grid. Cutting the cord, fully disconnecting. Not your typical “I need to get away” feeling…more like a narcotic. And returning to reality following such a trip — I don’t even want to think about it.

It’s January 25, cold and dark. I’m finishing my last Zoom call of the day at around 6pm.

It’s been a pretty typical workday; 11 consecutive hours of chat messages, video calls, texts, urgent client requests, critical internal requests, phone calls, emails, presentations, letting the dog out and finding time to eat.

I’m answering chats and monitoring my inbox while (poorly, I imagine) guiding the Zoom meeting. An email notification appears. My biggest client. Very upset about a very important project that’s already very behind schedule. We need to talk.

More chats are pouring in. Someone on the video screen is asking a question. My phone’s making noises. My heart is racing. My vision is blurring. There’s a throbbing in my temple. I can taste metal. My face is on fire.

I can’t remember what I said, but I managed to excuse myself from the call before hitting the floor. Forehead on the carpet, I focused on slow, deep breaths. Tried to clear my mind.

I remained conscious, but I didn’t move for a long time.

I couldn’t move for a long time.

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For most of human history, land was the main economic scarcity. Then, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, it was labor.

During the 20th century, knowledge became the primary scarcity, leading to the rise of marketing and advertising as dominant economic forces.

Which leads us to…

Today, attention is the world’s scarcest commodity.

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It’s August 26. I haven’t managed to commandeer full control over the forces that assault my attention, but everything feels a hell of a lot better than it did seven months ago.

Maintaining focus is hard. Those who master the ability to control their attention will not only be this era’s most successful in a professional sense, but in even more important ways: building and maintaining relationships, being present for family and friends, minimizing harmful stress and enjoying creative (and leisurely) pursuits.

A lot of really smart people — from modern-day experts like Cal Newport, Nir Eyal and Gloria Mark to 19th-century philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche — have plenty to teach us on this subject. And we’ll get to that soon.

But in the countless hours I’ve spent researching human attention this year, one certainty has crystallized: we are what we pay attention to. 

There’s no shortage of commentary on the topic, but the guidance offered often feels like a battle between ruthlessly optimized productivity and restrictive minimalism, with little room for middle ground.

But that’s the secret, I think. That middle ground is the sweet spot.

So how should one navigate today’s attention economy? How can one balance a healthy information diet with a productive professional career and a fulfilling personal life — all while keeping the notifications, screens, ads, emails, meetings and invasive ruminations at bay?

That’s what I’m figuring out.

And that’s the purpose of this newsletter — to shed light on the struggles we face in today's attention economy. To empower people by sharing knowledge and tools that allow them to thrive on their own terms.

Even though this system is designed to hijack our precious commodity of attention, we can take back control. We have to.

Glad to have you along for the ride.

🛠️ The Attentive Toolbox

This is where I’ll be sharing apps, software and other tools worth considering for improving focus, blocking distractions and managing your attention.

But first, let’s focus on how to choose tools wisely.

I’m inherently wary of attempting to solve a tech problem with a tech solution. But truly useful tools do exist.

The key is being extremely selective.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport offers the best system I’ve seen.

The Craftsman Approach to Tool Selection: 

  • Identify core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life.

  • Use these factors to guide your evaluation process.

  • Adopt a digital tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.

Contrast this with most peoples’ default tool selection process:

The Any-Benefit Approach to Tool Selection: The feeling of justification in using a digital tool if you can identify 1) any possible benefit to its use or 2) anything you’d miss out on by not using it.

Example: An author might see Twitter as a useful promotional tool for her new book a clear benefit, making it a viable choice using the “Any-Benefit” model.

But when using the “Craftsman” model to factor in Twitter’s potential drag on her time and attention, she decides to focus her limited resources on a solution with fewer negative impacts.

In my experience, the Craftsmen Approach requires investing a bit of time, effort and testing upfront, but the long-term payoff is well worth it.

Most tools offer a free-trial period — use this wisely!

This “tool” passes the test

Countless apps and software claim to "cure" iPhone* addiction, but the iPhone itself may offer the most useful tool:

Grayscale mode

By changing distracting colors to black and white, the previously addicting stimuli on your screen become far less interesting — and less likely to steal your attention.

To enable: Open Settings, then ➡️ Accessibility ➡️ Display & Text Size ➡️ Color Filters ➡️ GRAYSCALE

Your reward? That next screen time report. Also provided by your iPhone.

*Not an Android guy, but I’m told you can achieve the same effect using the color correction feature in Android's Accessibility Toolkit. Select “color correction,” scroll down and select “Grayscale.”

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