The Attention Economy Robs Us of Time

Supply & Demand.

In 1971 Herbert A. Simon had a modest prediction about the growth of information technology and how it would affect us. His description demonstrates the issue with the attention economy.

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consume. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently.”

His premonition is identical to the current state of multimedia. As content increases, attention regulates our consumption more than access to information.

Attention itself is a limited resource. We only have so many hours awake and distractions abound. Distracted minds are actually a good thing for content producers. They want us to consume or interact with content as often and as long as possible. And they know an entertaining product can pull us away from even the most important work.

What it interrupts or how much enjoyment we get out of it couldn’t be less important. As long as we continue to attend, tech companies can guarantee our business.

Originally, information technology was the constraint between attention and consumption. Sluggish internet, limited distribution, and high fees meant content handled better offline.

As with all things technology these obstacles were overcome. We have an endless stream of media at our fingertips. But our limited processing power, choice agency, and attention are outside Silicon Valleys scope.

Advertisers and app creators know and understand these constraints. The attention economy provides incentives for companies to manipulate our constraints. The more time we have on their apps, the more ad revenue they earn, the quicker they can grow.

It’s not exactly evil, it’s just how a market economy works.

Information Overload

A primary externality of the attention economy is information overload. Every company sends out as much content as often as possible, relying on you to choose what you’ll consume.

But that’s a pretty inefficient way to make a choice. Overload often means settling rather than making an informed decision. If you’ve ever flipped through channels in boredom, you know how easy it is to settle.

Overload occurs when the amount of information exceeds our processing power. The personalization of content, reproducibility of information, and access have made information overload a prominent feature of our society. The attention economy helps drive this phenomena. Notifications on your phone and browser push for your attention. Each delivers morsels of information meant to pull you away from your current focus.

Filter Failure

Not all researchers think that quantity of information is the problem. Instead our inability, or the producers inability, to filter information, termed “filter failure” is to blame. If we, or the companies providing information, knew what we needed there’d be no issue. Sadly, knowing ahead of time what you’ll need in the moment is impossible.

If technology filters our information, we’re likely to fall into a echo chambers. We’ve seen that in our most recent election cycle. Currently we work in tandem with content distributors to filter information. We provide some data about ourselves and they make suggestions. But those subtle nudges can override our best judgement.

Consumption Explosion

The amount of multimedia available to us now is staggering. Both Google and Apple have over two million apps in their stores. Dozens if not hundreds of ways to stream video. An endless supply of games triple-A and indie. And, a proliferation of news channels and podcasts. Yet the growth of each of these media types increases several fold each year. For those of us that love to relax or kick back we’ve got one major issue, how do we take it all in?

Attention Economy Multitasker

Even as we do other work we keep a constant buzz of distraction in the background. A report from Deloitte noted, “more than 90 percent of US consumers now multitask while watching television.” With millennials admitting they balance up to four additional activities while watching TV. And, as we know, multitasking means they’re not getting much out of any of these media sources. At best, each is distracting from the other.

It’s estimated we spend 6.5 hours per day on multimedia, but manage to consume 8.5 hours in that time frame. We double up, scrolling through Instagram while Netflix plays, text with music on, and let the tv go while playing video games.

We always have something to hold our attention, for now this works out great for creators. Even if we only catch a glimpse of their content. They can still pull in revenue from ads. But as more tech companies jostle for position, they’ll need more of our attention to make it worth their while.

In the Face of Attention Scarcity

To stay competitive in the attention economy media companies have to invest in content and consumer data. Including how our brain regulates attention. The goals of the attention economy are often in direct contrast to our individual goals. Whether you want to spend more time with family or get in shape is irrelevant, even detrimental, to media companies. Because all those moments away from technology impact their bottom line.

YouTube autoplays videos, removing us from the decision making process. Facebook and Twitter push us further into our favorite niches, giving us more content we agree with without allowing us to see another side. Snapchat confuses friendship with streaks. And every other app has some form of notification meant to prompt you into paying it attention.

As we struggle to understand our own mind, tech companies continual research the underpinnings of cognition. They deploy their research through subtle developments. Almost imperceptible in everyday use. We usually shrug them off as minor changes. Or worse, we take for granted that they’re for our benefit. But we know that’s not always the case.

Each addition means to increase consumption and reduce time away from our screen. Notifications and automated video shift how you interact with your phone or computer. Over time these consumption patterns become habits changing your perception of what’s important. Eventually changing what you attend to and how you make decisions. Your brain starts functioning on autopilot around technology. If you’ve ever closed an app only to immediately reopen it, you know what I mean.

Reclaiming Time in the Attention Economy

To take control we need to understand how companies manipulate our attention.

Our primary connection to these companies is through the apps on our phones. They pull us in with notifications, reminders, accessibility, and promised entertainment. Tristan Harris and his team have several recommendations for taking back time. Notifications should come from people, not applications. Apps should only have access to your attention if give it to them. Only friends, family, and coworkers should have the instant access cell phones provide.

Second, you should add a few taps between apps for entertainment and you. Keep tools like maps, calendar, note takers, and workout trackers on your home screen. The rest should go where they belong, on the apps tab. Adding steps between use and consumption gives you a few more moments to think over your best use of time.

With computers you can install apps like RescueTime, StayFocusd, and Adblock plus. RescueTime monitors and reports the amount of time you spend in individual apps and web pages. A great tool for highlighting what apps you spend too much time in. It also serves as a stepping stone for managing your consumption. It’s far easier to reduce time in apps if you know how much you spend on each.

Adblockplus does exactly as the name implies. Each ad it removes is one less source of information your brain needs to filter through. One less distraction to fight against. Giving you back more energy to focus on what’s important.

StayFocusd limits the time you spend on distracting websites like Netflix or Facebook. Instead of trying to manage your own browsing you can let this extension work for you. A true tool for productivity.

Apps used for focused work

On your phone you can download Forest. An app that lets you lock yourself out of your phone with a couple quick taps. It’s easy to get back in, but you have to go through a couple shame inducing prompts to do so. Hopefully those are enough to dissuade you from whatever distraction you’re seeking.

How Will You Pay Attention?

While Simon’s prediction for the future of information may have come to pass, what happens next is up to you. Do you make changes in your life to counteract the effects of multimedia companies or do you let them tighten their grip on your attention? If you’re willing to let more time pass into the hands of an outside influence, then your choice is made.

If you feel as though your time is better spent elsewhere you’ll need to take the steps above to regain your time.


For further information watch this talk by TimeWellSpent co-founder James Williams.

James Williams – Distraction by Design: Why the Attention Economy Is in a Moral Crisis


Free Vector Graphics by Vecteezy.com

Multitasking, Function or Fiction?

Multitasking, What It is and Isn’t

The premise of multitasking has been around for decades. It’s a phrase we attribute to ourselves more and more with the advancement of technology. But, researchers are skeptical of any gain in productivity through split attention. There are countless tricks and delusions the brain plays on itself, and the appearance of multitasking is likely one of them.

We discuss our multitasking capability when we’re set on doing many things at once. Some of us believe we’re not cut out for it, others that they have a natural gift for accomplishing a lot at once. But decades of research says this isn’t exactly right. What we view as multitasking is actually the brain switching rapidly between streams of information. This gives the appearance we’re attending to two things at once, but that’s not accurate.

Cost Switching is the unconscious ability that allows us to shift from one task to another. It’s an evolutionary milestone that may attribute to humanities dominant rise. It allows us to change environments and adapt to new situations at phenomenal speeds. But, it’s not foolproof. Switching incurs cognitive costs that make it much less desirable for productive work and deep focus.

While we can move between two tasks quickly, it comes at the cost of productivity. Every time we refocus our brain has to reorient. It has to shift goals, track new inputs, and reframe context. While we’re able to shift focus in nanoseconds, each switch tacks on extra costs. These little costs add up over time and make it more difficult to get into the state of flow that characterizes sustained focus.

Similar cognitive actions require the same brains areas to function. This is the exact demand we make during multitasking. Our cognitive power starts to buckle. It can’t call on the same resource simultaneously, it must prioritize one before the other. But our brain has to work through several of these changes for each switch. And that demand adds up.

You can’t listen to two conversations at once, or respond through the phone and email at the same time. Just as you can’t listen to a lecture while notifications ring off on your phone. They all pull from the same communication base in the brain. Even seemingly different tasks compete for similar resources like decision making and self-control.

The only exception to this is for tasks ingrained in our subconscious. They take little mental activation to continue processing. When we talk or sing while driving, we’re demonstrating true multitasking. Though it is possible to be over occupied and fail to react in time. Only in ideal conditions are these activites safe enough to be better than focusing on a single action.

Media Multitaskers Suffer Most

In 2009, the Stanford Communication Lab conducted a series of experiments on multitasking. One hundred students went through a series of tests examining their cognitive ability. The research, led by Clifford Nass, Eyal Ophir, and Anthony Wagner, demonstrated alarming results for heavy media users.

According to the study high media multitaskers (HMM) suffer most from their media use. HMMs are worse at blocking out environmental distractions than low media multitaskers. Almost habitually, they absorb irrelevant information. HMMs were “suckers for irrelevancy”, Nass says.

Each new piece of information interrupts flow. Because they can’t block these interruptions they face a cognitive decline. And, that decline reduces the resources essential for selective-sustained focus.

In another experiment, participants held onto mental representations longer than instructed. Each participant had a string of letters shown to them. There task was to mark when a letter repeated, but only up to a certain extent. HMMs failed to discard irrelevant letters resulting in incorrect duplicate counts. As the amount of letters increased HMMs did worse.

Ophir characterized these results by saying, “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

Cellphone with multiple tabs
Distractions abound

Not only were HMMs worse at blocking information from coming in, once they had it they couldn’t let it go.

The researchers hoped they’d see gains for HMMs in task switching. Again, they were let down. When given two sets of instructions and asked to change their focus at intervals they took longer to perform the task with no gain in accuracy. The studies authors attributed their declines to their inability to filter one set of rules for another.

At no point did heavy media multitasking prove useful to participants. It’s possible the tests didn’t measure every conceivable benefit. But it seems just as likely that there are no benefits to heavy media use. At least from my experience.

The Impact of Task Switching

To switch tasks the brain must make two distinct transitions . First it needs to shift goal orientation from one task to the other, then change the set of rules applied to the new task.

We do this frequently as we complete tasks, like cleaning your room then doing the laundry. And the switch is fast, done in several-tenths of a second. But, when you move between two objectives each switch carries those same burdens. As they add up your efficiency starts do decrease.

And, as demonstrated by Nass and his colleagues, the longer this goes on the worse the burden becomes. Instead of getting used to mental switches the cost compounds decreasing performance over time. Those declines even seem to extend to work you do in the future. Falsely believing that you’re able to multitask craters any hopes for true productivity.

Multitasking can certainly feel like a better use of time. After all knocking out two assignments at once feels better than one, but it’s likely you’d complete them more effectively one by one. David Meyer, who’s done significant research into multitasking, believes that, “mental blocks created by shifting tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productivity time.” Even a tenth of that estimate is a startling. When you compound those effects throughout a month of year, the wasted time is staggering.

One Task at a Time

The myth of multitasking is pervasive and belief in it is incredibly tempting. As new technology allows us to do more in the moment it’s hard to resist the lure. After all, we experience no obvious drawback from working on everything at once. It feels effective, and that feeling is all that’s important.

But decades of research should have us rethink this belief. We can get more done and do it better, if we shift to a single stream of tasks.


Media Multitaskers Study – http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583.short

Multitasking Undermines Efficiency – http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct01/multitask.aspx

How Focus Changes Your Future

The Importance of Focus

Our ability to focus drives much of what we do in life. As the renowned psychologist William James put it, “My experience is what I agree to attend to”. What we’re drawn to determines each experience. There is an impossible amount of information to comprehend in every interaction. Because of our brain’s capacity to remove the irrelevant, our attention, becomes reality. And that shaped reality influences the self you are and will become.

What Happens When We Focus

Attention is a term for a complex neurological and behavioral system. But focus isn’t just one thing. It’s a myriad of interactions that take place in any given moment. At its simplest, our executive networks process the environment and our possible reactions. From there it creates an appropriate response. Whether it works out as intended is another story.

When you actively focus on a bit of information you allow it to affect your behavior in the short and long term. Ultimately this information may turn up useless, but for a brief moment it can alter our reality. Every one of us has some class we took in high school that turned out a waste. But our what we focused on during that time made ripples throughout our life.

If focus shapes our reality, then what happens to the thing we don’t focus on? Our limited ability to absorb information means the environment outside our attention may as well not exist. Because of this, focus is a powerful guide. Either as a motivator, or as a distraction and inhibitor.

Limitations of Focus

It’s estimated that the unconscious processing abilities of the brain is roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. Whereas the estimate for conscious processing is about 40 pieces per second. At any one moment our processing power determines conscious thought. What we’re able to process is a part of your active reality, while the brain removes the rest or stores it away.

If you watch the video below you’ll see one of the greatest examples of selective attention.

The instructions are simple, count the times players in white pass the basketball. Most individuals can get an accurate count, but as with most experiments, that’s not the actual goal. The underlying study means to test how many individuals also catch the person in the gorilla suit. Often participants aren’t even able to see the gorilla. Their attention to the ball is too strong to notice seemingly unimportant interruptions. On varying experiments meant to test the same response, over 50% of individuals miss the distraction.

We have no way of knowing what our brain will determine is important enough to pay attention to. The various modules making up our brain seek different stimulants. And, as they seek, they vie for control of attention. When one of these modules takes hold it influences our conscious to take action. Even with these strong motivators it’s possible to change our perception of a situation.

Shifting Input to Change Attention

New Year’s resolutions can shift focus and change our behaviors. Your brain may convince you to eat a slice of cake, but it also remembers your commitment to lose weight. The instant reaction is to cut another slice, but your brain starts to backpedal. Recently you’ve focused on your waist line and comments from your doctor. That influences your reaction and gives you more time to think through your decision.

As someone with a fear of heights the first couple times I went rock climbing were horrifying. So much so, that I disregarded proper falling techniques and ended up damaging my elbow. This added another element dissuading me from going climbing. Eventually, after a lot of practice and experience, I was able to shift my attention. I’d built up a store of positive moments after each climb. Instead of focusing on the immediate reaction I was able to shift towards the excitement of accomplishment and the joy of a good workout.

Types of Attention

Selective Sustained Attention: Produces consistent results on a task over time. Common estimates for healthy teenagers and adults range from 10 to 20 minutes, though empirical evidence is scant. And what that limited time frame means is up for debate itself. After all, if we find something engaging we simply choose to focus on it again. Furthermore, experiments that espouse this time frame show no impact on information retention.

Divided Attention is the act of working through two or more simultaneous actions. It’s something we do all the time without thought. And we’re capable of doing these things because we’ve committed one of the acts to the subconscious. Actions like singing while driving or walking and talking.

At the same time divided attention can be impossible. If we try to count two different sets of objects at the same time or hold distinct conversations we will ultimately fail.

Our brains can’t handle this type of processing. Instead, we attempt to switch between both tasks retaining separate streams of information. Unfortunately we’re also pretty terrible at this, ending in failure.

What Affects Our Attention Span

How we attend to an object or task is largely affected by our motivation. Depending on our motivation we can experience identical stimuli in completely different ways. If we’ve recently eaten, our response to and focus we give a plate of food is minimal. But, if we’ve gone a while without eating or recently exercised, we’re prompted to attend to the smell, look, and taste. Here need triggers motivation and drives our focus.

Emotional prompts work to influence attention in subtle ways. If you’re feeling morose, you’ll notice unhappy emotions faster and remember negative news better than positive. Instead of taking in the entirety of a positive moment you’re apt to focus on whatever negative features you find. That’s because you’re in a state preparing you for further upset. It’s more important, in the moment, to focus on potential problems to mitigate their effects. We’d rather protect ourselves from further hurt in the moment.

Attention also changes based on our competence. The better we are at completing a task the less opportunity we have to encounter difficulties that slow progress. Instead we move through the task in a fluid state often referred to as ‘flow’. Competence, unfortunately, does have a limitation, repetitive easy tasks lose their attraction quickly. At that point we’re likely to try and find something more engaging.

The Importance of Focus

What you’ve focused on in the past has made the person you are now. And, what you focus on from this moment forward shapes the person you’ll become. Whether you focus deliberately or as a passive participant will determine your accomplishments and how you live. When you focus you create your future self, when you attend passively, you become your reactions.