Focus in the Age of the Attention Economy

Long-term focus isn’t only about increasing your performance at work; it is so much larger than the work-related spin we put on it.

Long-term, or relaxed, focus is something that improves both the professional and personal aspects of your life. At the office, it is greater productivity, discernment and quality; at home, it is peace, creativity and better relationships. Who wouldn’t want more of these attributes in their lives? However, today’s attention economy tends to pull us away from achieving relaxed, sharp and controlled focus through playing into our automatic focus ability.

What Does That Mean?

Simply expressed, there are two types of focus: controlled focus and automatic focus. The former is conscious. It is improved over time and involves keeping your attention on one item despite the distractions surrounding you. Automatic focus is the opposite, reacting to immediate occurrences by shifting your attention from the item at hand to the source of the distraction. It is an unconscious, involuntary and direct response to an impulse. For example, if you’re driving and a deer jumps in front of your car, you’ll immediately divert your attention from driving to pumping the breaks to avoid a collision. In this instance, automatic focus is certainly a useful thing to have, but modern society tends to abuse this capacity, whether it realizes that or not.

Earlier, I referred to today’s “attention economy.” This is the idea that everything and everyone is trying to shift your focus to them. Take, for example, the tech industry’s profitable business model that is designed to have us spend as much time as possible on their platforms. Many of us spend more time than we’d like scrolling through the various platforms. We check out of “real life” and give our attention to our feed, fueling a false sense of “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and impulsivity. We have conditioned ourselves to ignore the present, and our capabilities in this moment, in favor of checking in on a carefully curated version of other people’s lives that warps our own sense of purpose. We fall victim to the endless opportunities we could pursue and, in turn, cannot commit to one path.

This, alongside advertisements, emails, media—the list goes on—adds up to a plethora of distractions that, if not managed, can pull us far away from our true sense of purpose. If untrained, the attention economy can grab our attention so easily that we never pause to truly consider what we want out of our lives. We sacrifice cultivation of the passions at our core and deeper relationships with those we care about for a fleeting idea or activity. 

Don’t Panic! Just Be in Charge of Your Attention 

While these outcomes sound scary, there’s no reason to panic and delete your Instagram or Gmail account! Connecting with friends on social media and checking your inbox doesn’t inherently mean that you’re disconnected from your inner core and long-term focus. Even though we (or perhaps just I!) wish for a more human tech industry, as it stands, you can exist in the attention economy without falling victim to it. It’s all about practicing your focused mindset and tethering yourself, despite the distractions around you, to the motivations anchored deep within yourself. Your attention is your own; respect it and treat it with care. Do not give it away to everything and everyone, because some things just aren’t worthy of your thought. Keeping this in mind, alongside remaining in the present moment and ignoring the “what ifs” and “could have beens,” allows you to set a more clear, intentional course for your entire life. You will understand what does and does not deserve your time and energy, giving you greater peace, direction and freedom.