The following quote is 2000 years old. But it seems like it’s about today’s world: “Most of what passes for legitimate entertainment is inferior or foolish and only caters to or exploits people’s weakness.”
That’s from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It couldn’t be more telling about our attention and the things we focus on. We allow other people to control us because we’re pretty much defenseless when the media exploits our weaknesses.
Now, I’m not against all media. But I do think there’s a lot of manipulation going on. Just look at every single social media platform, news website, streaming site, and every app on your smartphone and you’ll notice that you and I are being exploited.
You just have to look at the signs. What do you think I will do when I see a notification from Netflix, saying there’s a new season available for my favorite show? I’m going to pause everything else in my life and watch the WHOLE season in a few days.
And when I’m done, I’ll probably go on to the next thing on Prime Video or maybe watch some clips on YouTube. But I don’t do that because I shut myself off from those things.
I want to control my attention as much as I can. Why? Because If I don’t, millions of people and organizations are eager to control it for me. And what happens when others control your attention? You become a mindless drone.
A few tips to gain more control over what you focus on
First, you need to become aware of how important it is to be mindful of what you focus on. So let’s get back to Epictetus. He explained his point further in A Manual For Living:
“If you yourself don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will, and their motives may not be the highest.”
When I read this for the first time, I started taking this more seriously. I realized that I need to be the one who chooses to expose myself to certain thoughts, images, news, ideas, and messages.
Here are a few things I did to make that happen.
1. Turn off all your non-essential notifications
You can turn off notifications for every single app that’s on your phone. So you don’t have to put your phone in permanent do not disturb mode.
I don’t use do not disturb mode because it turns off ALL notifications. I just go to settings, notifications, and go to every individual app to toggle off notifications.
That way, I have more control over what I see on my phone. For example, I want to get calls and text messages from family, friends, my team, or people I do business with. I also have notifications on my calendar and reminders app.
The point is that you want to use your phone mindfully. Think about whether you need a certain notification or not. Do you need to know about breaking news? Or that someone liked your post? Probably not.
2. Don’t use social media to obtain information
The amount of garbage on social media is unmeasurable. If you want to use social media, use it to connect with people. Not as a replacement for books, articles, or Wikipedia.
I’m not against social media because it’s a tool. The problem is that most people aren’t aware that they’re being used. They think they’re in control, but they’re being influenced all the time.
That’s why you really want to be mindful of how you use social media. It has a lot of limitations but it’s not all bad. Just use it for the good stuff if you really want to. But you won’t miss anything if you’re not on social media. I just use it to connect with readers who message me.
3. Focus on knowledge over information
Information is generally about data, facts, or statements. Knowledge is usually about applying certain information to a specific cause.
Most people acquire a lot of information but not a lot of knowledge. That’s because it’s easy to obtain information. But acquiring knowledge takes time.
For example, reading a book or taking a course is a serious time investment that requires an actual decision. You actually think to yourself, “Is this worth my time?” Or at least, that’s something I think everyone needs to ask themselves.
But you don’t ask that when you grab your phone to consume random information. You’re thinking, “It’s just a social media post, a short video, an article,” and so forth. But the problem is that you go down a rabbit hole. And you end up consuming a lot of information. But most of it serves no purpose.
When you acquire knowledge, you do it with intention and a specific focus.
4. Read a few writers online
I read the Wall Street Journal, but I only read everything that Jason Zweig writes. Other than that, I only read WSJ stories that are useful to me. I don’t know the names of the other journalists, and I don’t follow anyone else other than Jason.
When it comes to blogs, I’m the same. I like Ben Thompson’s work when it comes to tech, and that’s about it. I don’t have the time and mental energy to read dozens of people online. And I don’t recommend that to other people either. If that means they don’t follow me and prefer to follow another writer, that’s fine.
Just follow someone who’s work you actually value. You don’t have to agree with that person all the time, but at least you like their style and perspective. Other than that, just consume content that’s relevant to you. And ignore everything else.
Will you miss some important information? Probably. Is it a little bit of confirmation bias? Probably. But as long as you are aware of these things you’ll be fine.
Your thoughts are influenced by what you focus on
It’s important to control your attention because it influences your thoughts and actions. William James, the founder of Pragmatism and pioneer of modern psychology, explained it best:
“Thoughts become perception, perception becomes reality. Alter your thoughts, alter your reality.”
To alter your thoughts, you need two things. First, you need to manage the negative chatter in your mind, which most people do through meditation. Second, you need to manage external negative chatter, which you can do by limiting your exposure to external sources.
It doesn’t mean you have to close yourself off from the world. Just ask yourself, “Is this worth my attention? Will this enrich my life?” If the answer is no, move on.