Fighting Skynet: Owning your attention back

| 8 min read

You might have not noticed it, but if you are reading this, chances are you are part of an ongoing conflict right now. The war against machines is up and running! It's not a war fought with rockets and flamethrowers (at least for now) but with databases and scripts.  It's not a war for oil, gold or territory. It's a war fought for your data and your time..

Everyone seems to be pretty aware of the data side right now (thanks Cambridge Analytica 🤘🏻). But the time side is as important if not more.

The formula is pretty simple:

Human makes  robot > Robot consumes data > Robot excretes money > Human gets richer

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Without your data robots are useless. And without earning your time, it's pretty difficult to get your data from you. Understand that robots means: websites, apps, social media etc... everything is automated, and many of those things need your data to thrive. While the robot stays alive it will produce money, and in order to accomplish that,  it needs a constant supply of data.

And how do they get your data you may ask? stealing it? tricking you into giving it away?. Not exactly, and maybe yes. The simplest way of course is if you give it to them voluntarily.

The key concept here is "voluntarily". If right now I ask you, if you are voluntarily reading your email, voluntarily reading your latest Whatsapp messages, voluntarily watching that new viral Youtube video... You will probably answer: "Hell yeah! No one put a gun to my head to do it. Right? riiiiight?" *nervously looking to the sides*

Of course they didn't you silly. Smartphones and laptops don't have arms, and can't hold guns (thank god 🙏).

We are the ones actually holding the gun

You might feel surprised if I tell you that you are not as owner of your actions as you might feel you are. Yes, you have the option to not do it, but most of us have programmed ourselves to live in a constant dependency loop.

This habits have been mainly established and strengthened because sites/apps etc.. are nowadays developed and optimized to make you engage with them. And this is because sites live of engagement, no one wants to be on a dead social network where no one does anything right?. Again, the formula is pretty simple:

More engagement = More data 🤖 + More interactions ❤️ + More money 💶

And how do sites do this? With some mechanisms that might sound very familiar to you:

  • Suggestions
  • Transactional emails
  • Push notifications
  • In site notifications
  • ... the list is endless!

Don't take me wrong, nothing wrong with it! I'm all for products and tech to engage with their users, offer more value to the world and for users to get the benefits of using new technology.

Leaving aside the ethics of how you engage with your users, which is a completely different topic. I feel there is a general lack of information and we as consumers should be more educated and conscious of the situation. This will allow us to choose: When, How and Where are we going to use our limited attention/time instead of wandering in the loop mindlessly and getting consumed by the void.

Attention as a resource

So once I realized this ongoing conflict and the fact that I was pretty much addicted to many ‘self harming’ behaviours. I started to dig deeper on the topic

Thanks to authors like Cal Newport I started to realize:

Attention is a resource like any other.

Not unlike oil, gas or gold, attention is maybe the most important resource in the times we live in. This is more widely acknowledged with time, but I don’t think its so widespread knowledge when it comes to attention.

Once you realise and interiorise this, things start to change. If you don’t give away your money to the first person you cross on the street, why are you so willing to do it with your attention?.

The addict

Hey thats me! 👆🏻

After having that eye opening realization about attention, I realized I was wasting tons of "attention units" in things that didn't really matter that much to me. Why was I doing that? Repeating and repeating a behaviour that did more wrong than good... that definition sounds familiar. I was an addict. I was completely addicted to information and had developed some pretty hurting habits with repetition.

The first step to recovery is acceptance right? So with this in hand I could now start to look for the things that where keeping me 'hooked up' and fixing them. Here are a few things I did in order to get my attention back:

1. Notifications. Disable them

You get tons of notifications every single hour of your life. Each one of them is a loud cry for your attention by any of the services/devices you use. The problem with this is that turning on notification settings means giving away your right to decide WHEN to use a service/device.

Burn this in to your brain:

Once notifications are turned on, your are no longer the one making decisions.

You instantly into a puppet with many masters, and you will dance to their stingy music, like it or not.

The solution here is pretty obvious, turn them off. Obviously this is a personal decision and they might be some specific use cases that require a notification, but the key here is to act consciously and think this trough.

What apps/devices are important enough to give them the right to take you out of your amazing life and pour your attention into them? (In my personal experience 99.9% of them aren't worth the luxury)

2. Email. Clean it

This might sound familiar:

You are subscribed to thousands of mailing lists. You receive tens of emails daily. 99% of them are useless. You delete them. You continue with your life.

The problem with this is two fold:

  1. Makes the experience of receiving/reading mail tedious and boring

  2. Wastes a lot of energy/time/attention in discarding what is useless

I tend to subscribe to a lot of mailing lists, and apparently spammers have the same passion for doing it in my name.

Once I receive an email I ask myself: Is this email worth it? (even if it's not spam) if not, I click that tiny: "Unsuscribe me from this list" link that every email legally has to have somewhere (99% of the times in tiny low contrast letters in the footer).

By doing this for a few days/weeks you progressively start to receive less and less emails and your inbox starts to become cleaner.

Since still I like to use my inbox as my main source of information consumption I still like to be subscribed to a bunch of mailing lists. But instead of subscribing to 1000 independent lists, nowadays Im subscribed to a handful of really good ones  that keep me up to date in my favourite topics and that I genuinely expect with excitement!

Once you develop the habit it's very easy and little time consuming. For me, it has turnt about an hour of email checking a day, to a bunch of minutes. And for me the most important thing is that I don't waste my energy sieving shit anymore, which has made the experience of receiving email pretty enjoyable again.

3. Social Media. Do you really need it?

This was a very big one for me. I have never been that much comfortable on "personal" social media. But still I was dragged in sometimes by the hype and others by social pressure etc... so this resulted in a constant cycle of opening accounts, closing them and leaving them abandoned.

Just realize that social media is not something you MUST have. Yeah, it might be useful and fun. But you really have to stop and think about what good you are getting out of it. If you are a photographer Instagram might be extremely useful for your career. If you are a journalist Twitter might be a way to keep in touch with people or post your content. Even by pure fun you might enjoy Youtube to watch content. It's your decision but don't assume you need social media because everyone uses it. Most of the reasons why we use many social networks are artificial and in some way "forced" into us.

On this topic I highly recommend Cal Newport's blog and videos, since he explains it much better than I would ever can/

4 . Websites. How are you using them?

This one can't be too specific since it depends on the site. Basically sites have many mechanisms designed to hook you up: Suggested videos, auto play next, infinite scrollable content etc... You just have to have an eye out and be conscious of which ones you tend to fall.

For example, I was pretty much addicted to Youtube. I could go on watching video after video for hours. I identified my main problem, I'm damn curious and youtube knew that. So even though it sounded crazy, recommending: "How to set up an Industrial Hydraulic system" after "News on your favourite video game" is pretty damn effective.

Do you really need to subscribe to that user's feed/profile to keep up with him/her, can you check on them manually? Can you limit the info you see to some specific users... the options are endless.

Stop and think for a few minutes on how you use the sites you are most addicted to and solutions may appear naturally:

  • Avoid using the homepage/only use subscriptions tab (You wont get recommended videos and will only see videos from your subscribed people)
  • Hide related videos section with Adblock: I go to youtube to watch one video!! not 1000! This solves that.
  • Don't follow anyone and just use Twitter lists (lists get less random stuff than the main feed in my past experience)

There are as many solutions as problems. The thing is that humans are a curious folk by nature, and even though you might feel that watching that "Dog riding a skateboard" video is important. Trust me on this one, it might not.

5. Phone. Make it dumber

This was probably the decision that had the biggest positive effect on my life. It's a pretty complex topic that probably deserves an article for itself, but I will summarize the key points.

I was COMPLETELY ADDICTED to my phone. And the funny thing is that if you asked anyone from my inner circle, they would have said that I used very little of it, usually took ages to answer messages etc... but in reality it completely filled every crevice of my daily life. Sitting in the metro, take out the phone. Going to the bathroom. take out the phone. Sitting around waiting for someone, take out the phone etc...

It was so subtle that it almost felt like nothing. The problem was that I had literally no time to spend with myself, to think... to just do nothing! I was filling every one of those moments with mindless phone usage.

I realized I was spending most of my time consuming information: reading blogs, watching youtube videos, using instant messaging etc....

My solution was to uninstall any application that could provide me with that information source. No Youtube, no Instagram, no Diaries... If you don't have any incentive to use your phone you are not going to use it. So turned it into what I wanted it to be, a tool: Maps, Music, Shazam.... just tools to be used when needed.

To be honest I haven't been able to take parts with instant messaging completely. And in the future I would like to try and ditch my smartphone in favour of a completely dumb phone, but I haven't had the courage yet.

But still just by doing those things, my life has improved a good bunch.


Most of this patterns derive from a main major one that is: The Fear of Missing Out or FOMO. It's very important to realize this and accept it: you are human, you have a finite number of minutes in your day, a finite number of "energy" units in you and a finite attention span, don't waste them. YOU DON'T NEED TO BE UP TO EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS. Chances are if something important happens you are going to eventually know it, and if you don't, it probably wasn't important enough.

Take care of your attention and don't give it all away for free. Or you won't have any when you really need it.