The Key to Investing Your Attention Wisely


You are what you attend to

Michael Shaun Conaway
Publishing Editor
June 27th, 2023

It’s late at night, past my bedtime and I am still up scrolling through the news. Next to me my wife Alex is watching food reels on Instagram, you know the ones that look so great but never get made by anyone anytime. The moments slip by and we slowly exchange a good night’s sleep for mental junk food. Smart phones were supposed to liberate us from our computers. Social media promised to connect us to old friends and family. We all know it didn’t work out that way. Rather we have invented and optimized an attention grabbing machine that gobbles up our time. But we all know that the Faustian bargain we signed was a bad deal.

Your attention is your most valuable possession.

We live our lives moment-by-moment. Each moment holds our entire existence. We have a past that is made up of your recollections, stories, and memories you can see in your mind, but you can’t touch them — they’re not real in this moment. The future is the same. You might have plans, expectations, visions and scheduled events, but none of that is real, in this moment. This moment is all we have and it is precious. The question is will we celebrate our moments or will we squander them away.

Imagine, if you will, a silver bowl of perfect pearls. These are the moments left in your life. Young or old there are a finite number of them. And every moment you take a pearl out of the bowl and do something with it. The bowl now has one less pearl as you take another one in your hand. Stop and contemplate the pearl in your hand. It is perfect, luminous, rare and so fragile it will be gone before the second hand can make its sweep of the clock. And now there is a new pearl to consider.

In this way your life is renewed, reborn every moment of your existence.

This might be a good time to stop reading this essay and go for a walk, tell someone you love them, or go smell the roses. If you journey forward with me a little further, I very much appreciate you investing your time in me and this conversation.

If you can get the immediacy of this one precious moment — the pearl that is your life, it’s easy to see why people would want to grab your attention and keep it for as many moments as they can. The combined market cap of Meta (Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram), Alphabet (Google and Youtube) and upcomer Tik Tok is nearly $3 trillion. That’s a 3 with 9 zeros. $3,000,000,000. That’s a lot of wealth being generated from your minutes.

So what do we do?

By now we all know that we should be “more present”, “be mindful”, “be here now”. But knowing this doesn’t magically make us more present or mindful. WHY NOT? It hardly seems fair. If we want to develop the ability to really savor our moments, we have to get to the bottom of this question.

First of all let’s face the facts, most of us are highly distracted. We spend large chunks of time down rabbit holes that leave us unable to explain “where the time has gone”. Worse yet we are like blackout drunks, unable to even recall exactly what we did last night. In the morning we might even say to ourselves, I’m not doing that again. But when the evening sets in our willpower is weak and we are back at whatever time wasting activity is calling us most loudly, binging a new series, infinite scrolling our social feeds, left/right swiping our desires or old school channel flipping (if you are old enough to have that time wasting pattern in your brain).

The reason why we do this is not very complicated. It goes like this: Life is not so easy. We get roughed up by the pressure of our jobs or school. We have challenging relationships with colleagues, lovers, friends and family. The background of our cultural life is filled with divisiveness and turmoil. Media pundits tell us that the sky is falling everyday. Civility is rare if you live in the states, traffic is ubiquitous. Even the weather cannot be counted upon any more due to climate change. It can seem like you are under assault all day everyday. It’s no wonder you want a break, or more accurately your brain want’s stimulation that distracts it from the onslaught. So we click that link when we should be working on a report. We leave our notices on and end up a million miles away in an instant.

From a psychological perspective these are coping mechanisms and they are not necessarily bad (addictions being the exception to this statement). They help us manage our emotional world. The problem is when we go from needing a coping mechanism a few times a month or a week, to needing a coping mechanism everyday and for some of us almost every minute of everyday.

Getting this illuminates why you can’t just be present. If you are triggered and a coping mechanism comes up, it’s unlikely, unless you practice, that you can say no to engaging in the coping mechanism.

Digging a little deeper we can see that the real lever here is stimulus that triggers us. If we can limit, slow down or disconnect from the onslaught, then we will begin to experience life when it is not an emergency. Then we can start doing things that are important to us rather than dealing with emergencies, including the urgent items we can handle and the urgent ones we practically have no say about like political drama.

It’s time for a digital/information detox.

The first step here is to find a way to limit your exposure to the drama machine that our media provides. This might include scheduled time away from your phone and computer every day. You might consider a media free vacation or staycation where you don’t touch a phone or a computer for a number of days. Or you could set aside a day that is device and media free.

Then, with nothing streaming in, it gets quiet in your brain. That alone might trigger you if there are underlying issues in your life like loneliness, depression or physical challenges. If you stay with it though, even those issues will begin to calm. After a number of days, hours for some of us, a kind of boredom will arise. This is when you can begin to focus on the things that bring joy to your life. I recommend reading, making a cup of tea or coffee and drinking it in silence — savoring the flavor, going on a long walk to nowhere for no reason, preparing a simple healthy meal, gardening, listening to some favorite music or simply being quiet for some time. These are all activities that have you be present with whatever is happening in the moment. This includes daydreaming, which can also be present in the moment. Make a list of these small quiet things that bring you joy, and calm your mind.

All of these activities are ones that foster mindfulness. You don’t have to have any special mediation practice, just the practice of doing the things that bring you simple joy.

If and when you are ready to take a step towards meditation, I recommend a simple breathing practice to my students. You can start with a box breath: Inhale fully for a slow count of four. Hold your breath in for a count of four. Slowly exhale for a count of four. Hold your breath out for a count of four. You can start with 5–10 breaths in the box and slowly extend that time to 10 minutes. I find that this breath pattern puts me into a deep reflective and relaxed state after only a few minutes of breathing. And if I am ever stressed or about to do something stressful, I take three box breaths as a grounding reset.

To live a life savoring our precious moments, we have to make space for us to be. This is swimming against the media current and is a challenge if you don’t have a habit of having media free time. Then the kind of media you put your attention on is important. You can seek out positive news like our PROOF magazine, or read curated news themes on Flipboard. If you feel the need to be social, phone calls with friends and family can be very sweet. Creating these new habits builds a mindful existence that leads to the presence of life that we have all been missing so much.

You can get started with this joyful project by scheduling a few hours of media/device free time today. It’s absolutely worth your time.

In the meantime, we’ll be looking for PROOF of a thriving future for humanity.

The Generative Futurist
Editor PROOF

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Proof 52 – The Key to Investing Your Attention Wisely

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