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How many of your thoughts from yesterday can you specifically remember?

I’ve done this many times, and each time I barely remember any. This includes all that were snarky, depressing, serious, hilarious, witty, elating, sweet, sour, or secret prophecies from the future. The next day, they’re all lost in the ether. Never to be thought of virtually ever again.

I actually see this as a positive.

Whenever some thoughts intrude on my mind and get me down, I remember any power they have will fade by the next day. I feel their presence, count down from five, and imagine they’re a gust of wind flowing by. I see them fading into the ether myself, and moving on without them.

We often don’t have a choice with what thoughts crop up in our minds. We do have a choice with how they affect us. I think those choices do much more to determine who we are.

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December 30, 2017

Answering to Ourselves

From "The Art of Being" by Erich Fromm

It’s amazing how many worries of mine vanish by thinking “I have the benefit of not caring what they think.”

I partly have this Fromm quote to thank, which reminds me it’s often the right response.

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Something I always marvel at with today’s society is just how in-demand everyone’s attention is. In many cases it’s in more demanded, and more easily wasted, than our money.

In a weird way I find it comforting. The whole “everyone staring at their screens together” meme isn’t just the downfall of humanity, but a result of changed economics. Granted that’s not much better, but it gets me a few extra minutes of sleep before I silently stare at a wall after waking up in the middle of the night.

Regardless of how it affects my routine, attention is still a hot commodity today. As such, it should be budgeted and saved in the same way.

The Attention Economy

As a whole, this “attention economy” isn’t new or surprising. In a digital world people expect so much to be free, especially entertainment. Often the only way to profit from something is targeted ads, which only work when businesses know as much about us as possible. So they need people using and staring at their screens as long as possible to gather all the data they can. Attention leads to data, data leads to ads, ads finally lead to revenue.

Some ads also lead to bizarre and disturbing campaigns…

Many businesses only see our attention as a source of revenue. Businesses without your best interests at heart. Or the best interests of how all this attention-hunting affects society by making us more distracted and manipulated. Businesses with dozens of designers whose sole job is using your brain’s quirks to keep you staring.

You may see why this is a bad thing.

Spend Your Attention Wisely

This is all why I see my attention as something to be used extra carefully. It’s finite and can improve or destroy our lives, depending on how it’s spent.

So many of the same rules for handling our finances now apply to it:

  • Don’t spend it on anything that doesn’t give a good return on investment somewhere else.
  • Save some reserves in case of emergencies.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut your losses.
  • Be careful who you spend it on.
  • Watch how much you spend on junk food and fluff.
  • Unless you lack a soul, don’t invest in Bitcoin.

Most importantly, the less seriously you take managing your attention, the more seriously others will. Others with only their interests in mind.

These are the companies who use any number of tricks to keep you staring at things you’re likely to forget right afterwards:

  • Infinite scrolls of distracting media
  • Auto-playing videos you’re just interesting in enough to watch
  • Encouraging “streaks” to hardwire your brain’s habits
  • Making notifications, even mundane ones, seem urgent and demanding
  • Flashy sounds and effects to create feelings of fake accomplishment
  • Titillating info that ultimately has no real effect on our lives

Ultimately one’s attention will be bled dry, and that’ll drag their entire lives down. Focus falters, important facts are forgotten, our mental strength as a whole is fractured. This leaks into our ability to learn new info, understand the world, make good decisions, plan for our goals, and more.

In other words, it destroys our basic ability to be functional adults. Like money, having a good attention budget can make or break our future.

I’m not saying you need an Excel spreadsheet to calculate your attention budget each month, as Google Docs has no good template for this. But before every attention “purchase,” pause for five seconds and reflect on the investment. Ask yourself if you’re being scammed out of your attention or spending it wisely for yourself.

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Despite being of a single mind, most people have at least one other inner voice pulling them in many different directions. One tweet I saw with an Anthony Bourdain quote sums this up well.

My theory is everyone has at least one horrible voice like this. A voice that sounds just like them, trying to pull them somewhere that seems great but only hurts us in the long run. It’s hard to ignore, since it seems like it’s just us. If it’s in our own mind and sounds just like us, it must be normal to accept what it says, right?

That’s what the horrible voice wants, to make acceptance of what it says normal. That’s how it succeeds in dragging us down.

Lately I’ve recognized what my own horrible voice is like. It sounds nice enough, nudging me when it thinks I did something wrong. Pointing out even the smallest flaws in a passive-aggressive, overly-critical tone that seems encouraging. All it really wants is to wear down my self-esteem until I’m paralyzed with doubt. If I try to argue with it, it claims it’s just trying to help and I need to be open to feedback.

Let the Horrible Voice Just Exist

Your horrible voice may be the same. It may be totally different. It may still sound so much like your own, you can’t tell it apart. But I believe it exists in all of us. It knows exactly what buttons to push, what fears to poke with a stick, and how to break us.

As terrible as I make this sound, this horrible voice is totally normal. There’s no shame in acknowledging it exists and the weaknesses it reveals in our character. Trying to deny it only makes it stronger.

Our true tests of strength lie in recognizing the voice and choosing not to listen. I treat my horrible voice like a passing breeze: it suddenly appears and tries to bother me. I acknowledge it, laugh at myself, squint my eyes, keep walking forward, and pick my thoughts back up where I left off. Eventually it passes, and I only register it slightly before life goes on.

The horrible voice simply exists there. Fighting it or denying it only makes it louder. Accepting it as it is with little acknowledgment won’t silence it, but can reduce it to hum in the background.

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