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The economy of attention

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

A few months ago, in this blog article, I explained what mindfulness means to me and how it changed my life. Simply put, mindfulness is a practice that asks us to bring close attention to our whole experience as human beings and to be with it just as it is without reacting to it. Easier said than done!

Especially since our attention is in very high demand. Social media, Netflix, podcasts & audiobooks, music, and phone calls are just some of the distractions that consistently take away our attention. And if tuning out from professional or familial demands might be healthy and necessary at some point, excessively distracting ourselves can be an unconscious sign that we are avoiding facing unpleasant, difficult, or unresolved situations in our lives. And not only excessive distractions can reveal important aspects of our emotional health, but it also has a huge impact on our physical health as well. When the CEO of Netflix declares in 2017 that they are competing with sleep, that says a lot about how the entertainment industry will do anything to win our attention to the point of depriving us of the sleep essential for our health.

We are in the era of the attention economy. The market treats our potential attention as a scarce resource, and companies adapt their business models to capture it to make money. Sound and vibrating notifications, auto-play videos, as low as 5 seconds countdown before the next episode of a series ... all creative ways to keep our precious attention. Some companies even stretched the expression of paying attention out to where their consumers can either pay financially for ads to disappear or pay with their attention and listen to/watch ads.

This is not new. Our attention has always been limited, valuable, and scarce. When our attention is allocated to one task, the attention available for other tasks is limited. This cognitive process limits both what we can perceive in our overstimulating environments and what we can do. What is new though is that with the technological era that we find ourselves in, we are overwhelmed by the amount of information and distractions available. There is far more information in our environment (and in our own minds!) than the brain can fully process.

Internal distractions

External distractions are not the only burden on our limited attention. Our busy thoughts can take us away from what is happening right here, right now, and drive us into an endless loop of rehashing the past or meticulously planning a future over which we have no control. Our attention gets hijacked by our thoughts. Neuroscientists agree that at any given moment, there’s a 50% chance we are not really here and that we are mind wandering.

A study released in 2020 shows that the human brain processes about 6 000 thoughts each day. Even more astonishing is that 95% of those thoughts are repeating themselves day after day and 80% are what we wil

l call negative thoughts. Negative thinking is taking over our lives and we are doing it day after day! And most of the time, this process goes on unconsciously.

The fact that we are not aware of this insidious process doesn’t mean we are not impacted by it. Those intrusive thoughts shape the way we perceive and go into our lives and often create limiting beliefs about ourselves, others, and life. And after years of repeating the same thoughts over and over again, we believe them.

Lack of connection

But for me, the most impactful consequence of this attention-based economy is the little amount of attention left to interact with others.

Our Attention is essential for connection. It is how we can show and communicate our interest, our care, and our love for others. Fixed to our screens, binge-watching TV shows, and scrolling our phones, lost in our own world, we are not open and available to connect with others and our immediate environment.

We find ourselves living in a poverty of connection. Even when we are surrounded by family members, friends, and colleagues, we can feel alone and lack a real sense of community and connection with others.

This poverty of connection extends to the natural world as well. Most of us spend our time between being inside buildings for work, in our cars commuting, and then at home. According to Outdoor Foundation, in the USA, the number of outdoor outings has been in decline for the past decade despite recent (pandemic-related) increases in the number of participants in outdoor activities.

Yet our well-being depends on our interconnection with others and the world around us. We belong to the great web of life. And when we get closer to the natural world, we can be in touch with our unique Essence.

Web of life

Restorative practices

The good news is that our attention is trainable. So, what can we do?

Mindfulness practices

The best effective way to train our attention is without a doubt to integrate mindfulness practices into our lives. Because mindfulness practice is about training our mind to concentrate, to keep our attention in the present moment without judgment, and to increase our ability to maintain that awareness, it protects us against rumination and being hijacked into believing that our thoughts are reality. And because it also involves recognizing mental distractions, mindfulness practice strengthens and helps restore our attention.

When I teach Qigong, I always invite my students to keep their eyes on their hands as they move them into the space. Just like focusing on our breath does, it helps to really embody, stay present for our practice and notice the subtle changes in the flow of our energy throughout our body.

Soft Fascination

Many studies show that spending time in nature is beneficial for our mental and physical health in many ways. One of them posited that what makes Nature so restorative is that it brings us into a state called soft fascination. Soft fascination is experienced when our attention is held by a less active or stimulating activity compared to hard fascination which requires our direct attention to focus on tasks.

The smell of grass, trees, and plants, the sound of water, the warmth of the sunlight on our skin, the birds singing, and the feel of the wind on our skin are all phenomena that hold our attention softly and allow our brains to pause and recover. Experiencing the state of effortless attention is calming for our brains and it brings us back into balance. It provides a rare opportunity to reflect and introspect.

Of course, it goes without saying that it only works in the absence of distractions (like earbuds).

Turn off the TV

Finally, we can simply offer ourselves and others around us the generous gift of our attention. We can turn off the TV, put down the phone, and see who is around us at any given time, be it at home, at work, or in a restaurant. The next time we are tempted to look at our phone while standing in a line, stopped at a red light in our car, or waiting for an appointment, we can instead look up and take in the world around us. Opportunities to connect are waiting for us!

We need to realize that our attention is powerful. It determines the flavor of our moment-to-moment experience of our life—what we perceive, feel, remember, think, and do. And we have agency over our attention; we are the only one in control in there! It is time to show the Netflix of this world who is in charge.


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