The attention economy seems to have gone haywire. In the early days of the attention economy, the media and other companies competed for people’s attention so they could advertise products or keep us engaged so we would spend more time using their service. However, consumers felt that they were paying attention to these platforms or services voluntarily. The idea of ”stealing attention” only makes sense when a person owns the merchandise.
Today, the media and other businesses continue to compete for people’s attention, but it no longer seems that people consciously decide to give it away. Rather, people are getting more and more distracted. Attention span isn’t just declining; the spotlight has become largely out of people’s control. Passive consumption has become the norm, and social media has become the screen through which we interact with the world. The “War for Attention” is no longer between media consumers and the media industry. Now it’s between different media companies, and people are simply the territory to conquer.
For example, in his latest book, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Reshaped Our Minds and World, Max Fisher describes the tactic YouTube used to reach one billion views per day in 2016. Instead of providing the best available information given the search request, YouTube’s algorithm prioritizes videos that stir people’s emotions over convey the feeling that the community they are part of, and therefore their very identity, was under threat. For YouTube, the goal is not to satisfy the interests of customers, it is to increase the number of videos viewed. The emotional toll on viewers is simply the most effective means of holding their attention.
The ferocity of the attention economy has led to a decline in people’s ability to maintain strong relationships and engage in deep thought. In addition, distraction and multitasking harm both personal and business productivity. Despite the belief that it is possible to do two things efficiently at the same time, multitasking reduces productivity, causes stress, and could ultimately lead to burnout. In a 2020 study, The Economist Intelligence Unit found that in the United States, 28% of working hours in knowledge work are lost to distractions. This is about 581 hours per knowledge worker per year. According to the 2018 Udemy Workplace Distraction Report, 36% of millennials/Generation Z reported spending 2 or more hours per work day on their phones for personal reasons. However, the cost doesn’t just come from using social media at work. Employees are also distracted by other types of interruptions, whether personal or office-related.
In his new book, The power of unwavering focus, Dandapani shows that it is possible to regain the power to determine how to spend time. It offers a positive corrective to the attention economy paradigm, as it reframes attention from being a commodity over which we have lost control to being a skill that we can develop and use for our own purposes.
Through his teachings and exercises, Dandapani shows his readers how to develop the skills of concentration and focus, thereby improving productivity, mental health, and personal relationships. She also provides tools for company leaders to minimize distractions at work for the good of their employees. The concepts and definitions he uses are rooted in Hindu metaphysics and the teachings of his guru, Gurudeva, but can be appreciated by anyone who is interested in learning how to have more control over their life. Furthermore, many of his explanations of how attention and concentration work are in line with contemporary psychology.
One of the best ideas in the book is the recognition that most people don’t know how to concentrate simply because they’ve never been taught. Assuming that the ability to focus is innate, like an “on and off” switch, is inaccurate and dangerous. Through instruction and practice, individuals can learn to increase both the intensity and duration of their focus. It also becomes easier to concentrate and it takes less effort to do well. Furthermore, once one understands the mechanics of concentration, one can teach others how to hone that skill. Dandapani’s book is a testimony to that.
The danger of thinking that concentration is simply an intrinsic ability is that it sets children, and adults, down. In what other circumstances do we assume that a person is simply capable of doing something, and doing it well, without being taught how to do it? Parents and teachers spend countless hours instructing and training children to become better at reading, sports, and other activities. However, when children cannot concentrate after being told to do so, they are considered troublemakers. When adults have trouble concentrating, they are considered difficult to work with.
Another idea shared by Dandapani is what he calls “The Law of Practice.” Similar to the idea attributed to W. Edwards Deming that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” Dandapani’s law states that “whatever you practice is what you become good at.” This law is a double-edged sword, as Dandapani will call a person’s involvement in distractions practical, just as he will call working on one’s attention practical. In other words, “we become good at what we practice even if what we practice is not good for us.”
According to the Law of Practice, to improve our focus, we must not only consider how often we practice concentrating or holding our attention, we must also think about how often we allow ourselves to be distracted. Therefore, developing these skills can take longer and be more difficult than one realizes, since we are not working from a blank slate. We’ve already gotten pretty good at distracting ourselves and we need to unlearn those skills.
However, the effort is worth it. As Dandapani writes, “The ability to concentrate is one of humanity’s greatest assets. It is at the core of all human success and endeavor, because the ability to focus is what helps a person manifest their goals in life.” For Dandapani, if one can hone their ability to maintain focus and direct that focus toward what they want in life instead of what others want from them, happiness will be the byproduct.