Practical Attention Conservation

By Monte Fischer

Last updated: 10 Aug 2021

The hell of digital distraction

One of my college buddies has been working a corporate job for about two years. Last I spoke with him, he regularly works well into the night after spending hours and hours watching comedy specials on YouTube during the workday. He’s embarrassed by this, but keeps finding himself in the same situation. His sleep, leisure, and work performance have suffered because of his habit.

When I worked at Epic, I would take breaks and walk around campus. In about half of the offices I walked past, I would see someone hunched over at their phone, swiping and scrolling.

Let’s be honest: most of us are using tech as a drug to take the edge off, not as a lever to enrich our lives.

Choosing excellence

Call me an idealist, but I believe that most people don’t want to be this distracted. Humans crave meaningful work and leisure. We want connection with other people and the satisfaction of shared experience. Scrolling through Instagram for the 23rd time today doesn’t cut it.

I’m interested in helping people regain the time they’ve been losing to VC-funded infinite distraction machines. This article covers practical tactics to conserve attention and spend time on the things that matter. In the spirit of having skin in the game, everything in this article is something I have personally found helpful, in three categories.

  1. Distraction-proof your digital life
  2. Find analog alternatives
  3. Do better things

At the end of the day, your attention and focus is your own responsibility. These tools are useless if your head isn’t in the right place. But if you’re intentional about exercising ownership over your own time and life, then these tactics might be just what you need.

Digital tools to stop online grazing

Using a computer or phone to do anything productive in today’s tech ecosystem is the rough equivalent of a medieval monk sitting down to write his masterpiece in a well-stocked library that happens to double as a full-time free no-questions-asked brothel. Sure, all the necessary tools are at an arm’s reach, but an intense amount of restraint must be exercised if he is to get anything done.

The nice thing about the digital world is that you can use code to solve problems that other people’s code created. Instead of having to build your own library from the ground up, you can instead wall off the brothel at an absolute minimum of effort.

Leechblock

Use Leechblock NG (Firefox, Chrome) to schedule times to block or allow distracting websites. It’s funded by donations, open-source, and provides an excellent level of control to the end-user.

I use Leechblock to prevent myself from defaulting to Hacker News, Twitter, or YouTube every time I open a new tab. I keep these sites on a tight leash because I know how dangerous they are to my own productivity. One trick I’ve found especially helpful: if an outright ban of a distracting site causes you to just disable the plugin, try redirecting to a delaying page. When I’m in a mindset that craves cheap, instant distraction, forcing myself to sit and wait for a minute or two before browsing is often too boring! I’m forced to confront my state of mind instead of numbing it with social media or news aggregation sites.

If there are particular websites that have you addicted — whose business model is to maximize “engagement” ( = hours of your life spent scrolling) — then Leechblock is a effective, zero-cost way to kick the habit.

RSS feeds

The median individual consumes far more news than actually benefits their life and personal situation. Ask yourself the question: what is the absolute minimum amount of news I could consume each day / week / month and still enjoy the same quality of life that I do now?

News isn’t just the New York Times. News is Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Hacker News — everything that continually publishes and would love for you to receive notifications every time the latest content drops.

I default to blocking addictive social news sites and carve out specific exceptions when I can intentionally browse. But there are also individual blogs whose content I enjoy and value having as part of my life. For these sites, I use RSS feeds to manage my browsing.

RSS is a standard protocol that websites use to expose the articles they publish in a standard format for viewing in a standalone application called an RSS reader. To find a site’s RSS feed, look for the RSS icon , or try adding /feed or /feed.xml to the end of a website’s main URL. You can download and use any number of desktop application RSS readers (I use newsboat), or use a slick web solution like Feedly.

Make your phone boring

No matter how good your restraint is on a laptop, it’s meaningless if you’re addicted to your phone. The best solution I have come up with for this is to make my phone as boring as possible.

No notifications

The only notifications on my phone are from people who have directly called or messaged me. When my phone makes a noise, it is someone I know personally who wants my attention.

Delete social media apps

Pretty simple. Delete Twitter, Instagram, Facebook from your phone and you will use them less.

Turn your phone off

Another no-brainer. If your phone is buzzing in your pocket while you try to get work done or spend quality time with other people, you’ll end up checking it. Turn off the phone! Some people are in situations where this isn’t feasible, but many people are just afraid of not being reachable. Is it worth the price you pay by constantly dividing your attention?

Remove your browser

This is the nuclear option. If, like me, you naturally tend towards having 300 tabs open on your phone browser, the browser itself can be a major source of distraction.

If you use an iPhone, you can set up limits for apps in Screen Time. I choose to completely block Safari, and download Firefox Focus whenever I need a browser (e.g. traveling) . Firefox Focus is limited to only one tab at a time, which prevents tab accumulation and makes it very easy to delete the app when I don’t need a browser anymore.

No email on your phone

It’s hard to remove email completely from your phone. At the time of writing, I still have the Fastmail app installed. In the past, I have experimented with removing email from my phone completely. If you are in a situation in which you can afford to do this, I found it to be an excellent way to stop myself from constaintly checking my phone.

Grayscale

If you have an iPhone, you can set up a grayscale color filter (Settings > Display & Text Size > Color Filters) to make your phone look like a black-and-white film. I have found that it has the effect of reducing the visual stimulation I receive by glancing at your phone and reminding myself to limit my usage.

Use unsexy tech

My everyday laptop is a Lenovo Thinkpad X220 from 2011, bought used on eBay for $80. I used it to research, write, and defend my master’s thesis on deep learning in computational photography. It’s an unsexy, corporate-looking business laptop that I use with Linux Mint and a vanilla Xfce4 desktop environment. In the past I used Arch Linux with i3, but eventually decided that spending a bunch of time crafting a Linux DIY desktop environment was just another kind of distraction.

My phone, a 2016 iPhone SE, has such a small screen that it’s almost unpleasant to browse media content on. The result? I spend less time on my phone.

This advice isn’t for everyone, and can sometimes even be counterproductive when frustration with older technology gets me into a distracted and irritated state. I count it better than the extreme opposite of upgrading my phone and computer into digital candy stores, but there’s plenty of middle ground.

Cut out the middleman: analog tools

Paper books do not have hyperlinks. It’s not possible to watch cat videos on your spiral-bound notebook. You’re not going to accidentally find yourself browsing Twitter on a whiteboard.

When you can use a specialized analog tool for your work instead of a digital solution, you reduce the number of opportunities for digital distraction. In my personal experience, screens fatigue me faster than paper.

Books

It’s very tempting to satisfy your curiosity with Google searches and Wikipedia articles. The internet gets hyped as the digital library of Alexandria but high-quality, well-researched content is in the minority online. Books are still the best way to learn about a subject in depth.

I spend a lot of time reading physical books, both for information and entertainment. I keep a list of what I’ve read here. If owning a bunch of heavy books isn’t your thing, public libraries still exist! They are free, and you can use inter-library loans to request books from across your state.

Pen and paper

I’m yet to have a digital notetaking experience superior to the pen and small paper notebook in my front pocket. I can turn my notebook sideways and draw a diagram that would cost me a specialized app and five times the time to create on my iPhone. I can seamlessly insert doodles or drawings in between my notes, or scribble down some mathematics. Even if you can buy an iPhone app which can perform all these functions, it won’t be as fast or seamless as pen and paper. I use Mnemosyne notebooks right now, but there are tons of options out there.

I personally have yet to experience the kind of productivity gains from notetaking apps that many proponents claim. In general, notes that simply replicate passages or concepts from a main text don’t do much for me. From my experience in college, it’s impossible to learn mathematics without working out problems. Until you have a reason to use knowledge, it’s difficult and unnecessary to remember it. Instead, work problems and use spaced repitition software like Anki for those things you absolutely must remember.

Kitchen timer

When I decided to spend at least two hours reading every day, I bought a cheap kitchen timer to track myself. Could I have done this through my iPhone’s clock app at zero cost? Yes. But the only time my cheap kitchen timer has ever distracted me from my book was when I misplaced it and had to go looking. No notifications, no email, no analytics or web tracking, no fuss. I can put the timer in front of me to monitor how much time I’ve actually spent on the task at hand. Starting or stopping the times involves no passcode, no switching apps, no checking my email — just a simple button press.

When we measure how much time it takes us to actually get something done, or how much time we really spend on something we say we value, there’s no room for BS or excuses. Measurement is inconvenient, but clarifying. It’s worth decoupling this from sources of distraction.

Reset your physiology

When it is impossible to focus, I go for a walk.

If it’s still impossible to focus when I’m done, I drink some water, slow my breathing, and go for another walk. Sometimes it’s not worth fighting my own physiology. If I ate sugary foods or a huge, carb-heavy lunch, it’s no wonder that my head is foggy. If I haven’t been to the gym in a week, my brain isn’t in good shape either. Physical movement and hydration are helpful ways to do a small reset.

Do better things

“When the unclear spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes he finds it swept and put in order. Then he goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.” — Luke 11:24–26

Since procrastination is a message from our natural willpower via low motivation, the cure is changing the environment, or one’s profession, by selecting one in which one does not have to fight one’s impulses. — Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

If you constantly return to digital distraction because you don’t have anything else better to do, the solution isn’t an endless struggle to eliminate distractions. Instead, find something better to do. In Taleb’s language, procrastination is a signal conveying valuable information: I am bored. If this is a very loud signal, it’s worth reevaluating what you’re doing.

It’s possible to take this view too far. There will always be parts of life that are routine, uninteresting, but necessary. It’s also possible to develop digital addictions that take away time from things you really do value and want to be doing more of. For most, a mix of both approaches is appropriate.