Defeat the Attention Economy with Your very own Focus Chamber

Have you ever set aside time to sit down and complete an important task on your computer? When executing such a plan, in these moments, you may experience a common temptation. 

“Oh, there’s ‘that thing‘ that I need to check. I can do that quickly… before I get started. Then I’ll REALLY dial it in and get my work done.”

It always seems reasonable in the moment. Doesn’t it? However, the next thing you know, you have checked the weather for the rest of the week (and likely forgotten it), responded to a couple of text messages, logged onto social media for 10 minutes of doomscrolling, and read 3 of the most juicy but irrelevant news headlines of the day.

When you look at your nearest clock, disappointment sets in as reality strikes. 30 minutes have passed.

Nothing got done and now it’s time to cook dinner.

Big Tech’s Playbook

There are a variety of reasons why people fall into these distractive traps. Companies want us to pay attention to them. Many even depend on our cooperation in their efforts to divert our time in a way that serves their interests. If they fail in their efforts, they will lose money. If they win, we will lose a proportional amount of our direction and discipline.

For social media companies in particular, the stakes are extraordinarily high.

Some have referred to this new market dynamic between companies and consumers as the attention economy. This arrangement has largely supplanted the previous information economy. You may note that this concept is also closely aligned with surveillance capitalism.

To do what they need to do, tech companies have identified weaknesses in the human psyche and made plans to exploit them. They are masters at this game.

But there is good news. Once we know their playbook and plan accordingly, we can fight back by protecting our time.

Big Tech’s Playbook

During the Fall of 2021, several investigative journalists took a steep interest in the recent impacts of social media on the mental state of humans.

Besides Congressional testimony, and lots of media coverage, perhaps the most revealing analysis was done by the Wall Street Journal series, ‘The Facebook Files.’ In this research, 1 in 8 users were reported to be compulsive users of Facebook. Back in 2018, Facebook’s own research also showed that 3% of users experience “serious problems.” These include issues with sleep and poor maintenance of work relationships as a direct result of too much time on their platform.

Perhaps most problematic trend of all is the impact on teenagers, especially young girls who use Instagram, a Facebook asset. According to the analysis:

  • 32% of teenage girls who do not like their bodies said that Instagram made them feel worse.
  • 13% of British and 6% of US teenage girls said that Instagram contributed to their thoughts of killing themselves.
  • Teenagers in the US spend about 50% more time on Instagram than they do on Facebook. Instagram is much more oriented toward the sharing of pictures, which exacerbates body image issues.

While social media does connect people in some innovative and useful ways, the manipulation of human emotion by tech companies through strategic and artificial dopamine hits are short-lived and illusory to the user. 

Unfortunately, our brains are not wired to recognize the superficiality of this manipulation when we are engaging with the platforms.

These Companies Want YOU

In a 2017 interview, Sean Parker, the first President of Facebook candidly describes what must happen for their business model to be successful. As he puts it, the key question is, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

He elaborates further. “…That means that we need to, sort of, give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post, or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content and that’s going to get you more likes and comments. You know, it’s a social validation feedback loop.”

Social media addiction

According to Parker, the user’s attention is captured by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” This is deeply telling.

Don’t Spam me ‘Bro’

Similar trends can also be observed outside of social media. In an attention economy, the news media are incentivized to run news stories with sensationalist titles, even when the content is disconnected from the article title. This diverts people from what really matters in their lives and creates a vast and growing outrage economy. These sort of distractions come with costs.

Spam text messaging and email operate similarly. To put a number on it, according to one estimate, each American gets 39 spam messages. And those numbers are only for one month, August, 2022.

Build Your Focus Chamber

Thankfully, there is reason for optimism. These companies need us far more than we need them. Very few adults ever master the skill of consistently directing their attention onto their top priorities.

But you can join the ‘few and the proud’ who do.

‘Build a Wall’ to Limit Disruption

Before deleting all social media accounts, frantically uninstalling every mobile app, or whipping your smart phone out the window in favor of a ‘dumb phone,’ let’s think about some basic strategy. 

1. Build a Physical Space

Human beings thrive when their physical environment is conducive to success. The area from which you go to for your most important work should be clean and orderly. This physical space should inspire diligence and maximize the avoidance of distractions.

Routines matter too. Putting your child to bed at a certain time each night, waking up at the same time, and other approaches like these should be considered. Try some different techniques and a sustainable, orderly, and distraction-free environment is just around the corner.

2. Be Intentional

Your attention must be directed with intention. If not, the dynamics of the attention economy mean that others will direct your activity. Most people check social media incessantly at virtually every moment that they have downtime. This is a habit worthy of breaking.

If you cannot resist sifting through irrelevant but mildly interesting posts on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, or God for bid Twitter, schedule a time to do this on a calendar. This sort of activity can be done in your downtime if you believe the entertainment value and the online connectivity with others is worthy of your time.

The costs from a lack of intention is a life of mindless wandering. If this happens, brain cells will be burned and life will resemble a internet-fueled, hyperactive abyss. In the process, the vision of what is most important to you is easily surrendered.

3. Handle Push Notifications

Every mobile app allows you to cancel notifications. For most people, there are very few apps that have something to say that is so important that it justifies an invasion of your precious time bubble. Instead, bolster your bubble by blocking these unwanted distractions.

When this is done, those satanic little red dots that appear on your phone’s mobile apps cannot haunt you anymore. Turn those damn things off.

Social media companies devised this scheme and chose the color red for a reason. Just like red restaurant logos are thought to make people hungry on a subconscious level, red conveys urgency when scrolling through your phone. When we erroneously interpret notifications as urgent, we are likely to compulsively click to get rid of them.

This is never the best time management strategy. It is better to check them later, if at all, but only during time that is planned in advance. You are the one who deserves to be in control.

4. Manage Email Subscriptions

Most marketing experts still consider email marketing to be among the most cost-effective ways to communicate with prospects and customers. Do not let the marketers win, unless they deserve to.

There are some products and services that are useful to receive information about. For example, this blog! Be sure to subscribe if you have not yet. For basically all the others, always unsubscribe.

One thing I have done that helps me manage personal and business emails is to use a secondary email address. I use this to follow blogs of interest, along with certain products or services, and some entertainment. By using this second address, my primary inbox only deals with priorities such as my finances, notes-to-self, and sometimes communication with family.

The amount of time and maintenance that this requires is negligible when compared to the disarray that comes from letting marketers run the show. Especially when they have shown that they have the upper hand against us in the modern economy. Sorting through an entire inbox full of messages that are vying for your attention is exhausting. Don’t do it.

Sort Information Based on Its Utility

Even with the right systems in place, distractions will still strike. When this happens, our brains go into filtration mode. Unfortunately, our brains are not reliably good at this sort of task. Since this process happens unconsciously, with a little awareness, we can and should take more control.

The next time something unexpected or undesired invades your focus chamber, try sorting it into one of the following four categories: Useful, not so useful, useless, and toxic. Once you’ve made the determination, handle it accordingly.


If a piece of information is aligned with your values or priorities, the logical next question is whether to act now or later? If it’s later, make a note in your mind, on a mobile app, send yourself an email, or write it down somewhere. My personal favorite is to send myself a lot of ‘note-to-self’ emails. Every few days, or so, I go through them when I have a moment. Then I file them accordingly.

It’s not perfect, but it works. It gives me something to do in my downtime, which helps keep me away from the death trap that is Twitter and other social media news feeds.

Not so useful

When information is not helpful, it is usually best to ignore it. If it is entertaining, it may be worth the indulgence. But limits are needed. A fulfilling life cannot just be fun and entertainment. However, a little entertainment makes life enjoyable, so complete deprivation is not the answer.

Strive to strike this balance, imperfectly. That’s the best anyone can do.


These bits of information are typically boring or irrelevant so they should be easy to ignore.


This category is the biggest threat. It’s magnetic, captivating, and attention-grabbing force makes it hard to ignore. This includes news headlines designed to fuel an inferno of passionate emotion at the expense of the rational part of our brains.

This last category deserves further examination because we are all not only vulnerable, but likely being routinely victimized by toxic messaging.

Resist Toxic Information

Like the social media companies, news outlets have learned to capitalize on another vulnerable part of our brain. When confronted with something toxic, our minds enter a heightened state of over-stimulation. We must look past our biases and learn to spot and reject toxic news content.

As entertainment and journalism have meshed together, toxic content is more popular than ever. Many Americans, especially those who identify as either Republican or Independent voters have become deeply distrustful of the news media.

Whether its your crazy uncle who insists that an outlandish conspiracy theory that he found on the internet is 100% true, or a credible news outlet that insists on a narrative while intentionally ignoring loads of countervailing evidence, the last thing you need is to become the prey of those who peddle divisive, extremist content. Even if not overtly extremist, narratives that group people into factions and pit them against each other can pervert worldviews when they are casually accepted as reality.

Confusion and disarray.

Even the laziest among us are far too busy to keep up with all of the poisonous information that confronts us. Here’s how we can keep control of our minds.

Junk Information is like Junk Food

“If you only have access to healthy sources of information, then you end up spending your time consuming healthy sources of information.” – Mark Manson

The absorption of toxic content is to human intellect what junk food is to our health care system. Like bad health, junky information puts a strain on the collective improvement of humanity.

When this sort of information is shared, it tends to grow upon itself. Someone once said that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” No one really knows who said this, but if nothing else, it is now written here.

A bad information diet that lacks critical examination and only relies on the swift emotional response that toxic content evokes, sucks valuable energy away from more useful patterns of thought.

Replace ‘Bullshit’ with ‘Nutrition

I crave ice cream every evening. The only thing that prevents me from not indulging is not having ice cream in the freezer. Similarly, having nutritious but also sweet food such as fresh fruit available allows me to satisfy the craving for sweetness without compromising my vitality and long term health.

The same basic principle applies to the information we consume.

Blogger and best-selling author Mark Manson has called for renewed emphasis on the consumption of quality information.* He writes about how the attention economy of the 21st century calls us to develop a proper “attention diet.” 

How would you rate the quality of your attention diet? Chances are, if you are a human being with a brain and a pulse in our current social environment, things could be improved.

*Viewers and readers beware, Mark Manson tends to use the ‘potty-mouth’ method to get his points across. Since I am describing his ideas, I’m going to follow in his footsteps a bit here and be slightly foul-mouthed.

Here are three steps that Manson suggests:

1. Cut Out all the “Bullshit”

Have you ever read or looked at something online and thought to yourself, “wait, wow… what the hell am I doing?” This is one obvious sign that you may be absorbing a bunch of bullshit. Manson’s advice is to avoid getting sucked into all the craziness.

Unfollow people who do not make you smarter and ignore information that is not relevant to your daily life. Once these not so useful, useless, and toxic sources of information are off your social media news feeds, things will look more pleasant.

2. Seek out Nutritious Forms of Information.

Read, watch, and listen to information that takes time and thought to produce, rather than emotionally-charged, half-thought-out Tweets or Facebook posts from people who you cannot be certain, have the slightest clue as to what they are talking about. A book or well articulated article from a credible person is more valuable than some random 20 year old’s TikTok posts.

Look no further than the recent “quiet quitting” trend as an example of how random internet voices who lack any discernible expertise can still exert outsized influence on popular news narratives.

The approach here should be two-pronged. On one hand, develop a habit of identifying and resisting toxic information. On the other, absorb valuable content that doesn’t leave you feeling miserable or hating people who think differently than you.

3. Be Very Deliberate About how you Use your Technology.

Take will power out of the equation by removing devices from certain situations where you tend to compulsively engage with modern technology. If you check it when you go to the bathroom, put it somewhere else. If you check it before bed, don’t. Checking Twitter right before bed is a recipe for a bad night’s sleep 100% of the time.

Another tactic that many people have suggested is to log out of the most addictive social media platforms. By making yourself type a user name and password each time, you add an extra layer of effort. This will make you think twice before logging in. The most hardcore adherents of this technique will change their password to something so complex that they cannot remember it without looking it up.

If these things do not work, remove the social media apps from your phone. For most people, you should consider doing this anyway.

Congratulations and Welcome to Your new Focus Chamber

We all know how important it is to watch what we eat. Now it is time to be more intentional and protective of the information we consume. If everyone has a bad information diet, we all will suffer accordingly. Conversely, when more people take action steps to improve their own diets, less bullshit will get regurgitated around the world.

If you want this for yourself and others, go ahead and ‘be the change you would like to see in the world.’

Whatever you choose to do should be entirely customized to your life, your interests, and what you are looking to achieve. What works for me may not work for you.

To make the best decisions, there will need to be trial and error. Systems of personal habits should be created. These take time to form. Trial and error is required. If you are patient and refrain from expectations of perfection, progress is likely. Just keep working at it. A little bit of awareness, mixed with some action will go a long way.

When your focus chamber is constructed and maintained according to your unique interests and priorities, the rewards are immense and can stay with you long into the future once positive habits are formed.

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