Attention is the Most Valuable Currency

I used to hear the phrase “pay attention” all the time when I was younger. To be fair, I was paying attention… just not to the things my parents or teachers wanted (I had a penchant for daydreaming). Although it’s been a while since I’ve heard those words, the demand for my attention has only increased since then. I can’t open my phone without seeing a million notifications vying for my attention and I can’t step outside without seeing a billboard doing the same thing.

The amount of information available at the tip of our fingers has exponentially increased and, as a result, the increased supply of information has inversely created a scarcity of attention.

micro economies of attention

As explained by political scientist Herbert Simon:

“[I]n an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a death of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

How do Companies Win Your Attention?

  1. They Know You (Possibly Better Than Yourself): It’s why TikTok’s algorithm is so addictive. They collect such an abundance of data that they literally might know you better than yourself.
  2. They Pass Your RAS Filter: Your Reticular Activation System is the part of our brain that acts as a filter for incoming sensory information. It prioritizes bringing information important to survival and well-being to your attention. The deeper a company understands you, the better they’re able to A) (ideally) build a product that truly adds value, which B) passes the RAS filter.
  3. Strategic Ad Placement: An ad for walking canes on Snapchat probably won’t be very useful to anyone. Similarly, an ad for Kylie Jenner’s newest lip liner in the newspaper won’t be super useful either. Volume is equally as crucial. The Marketing Rule of 7 states that a potential customer needs to see a message at least 7 times before they'll be compelled to take an action. It’s why it feels like you see the same ad a million times.
  4. Disrupting the Pattern: Humans are hardwired to notice pattern disruptions. An ad that makes you stop and think, “WTF is this???” accomplishes this perfectly.
  5. Sticky Products: Sarah Tavel’s “Hierarchy of Engagement” provides a great structure for this. You should read the full framework, but the TLDR is that products with virtuous loops of engagement are hard to leave.

Why This (usually) Sucks:

dopamine graph

Although the complete picture of how your brain pays attention to stimuli is far more complicated, the science behind dopamine’s role in attention can help us understand the impact of overstimulation.

Here’s a quick summary:

  1. When we do something enjoyable (i.e. scrolling through social media), our brain releases dopamine (feels great).
  2. After the initial spike, our brain downregulates the amount of dopamine receptors stimulated in an effort to maintain homeostasis, resulting in a dopamine hangover as dopamine levels return to baseline.
  3. When this happens, our first inclination is to go back to whatever gave us the dopamine spike in the first place, causing dopamine to spike up again before completely coming down.

When we continually behave like this, our brain’s dopamine baseline drops, and suddenly we need more stimulation just to feel normal. Simple tasks like sending an email or making the bed become much more difficult to actually execute. For a much more detailed picture of how dopamine works, “Controlling Your Dopamine for Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction” by Huberman Lab does a great job explaining it.

I’m extremely worried about the broader implications of this. The proliferation of technologies that give us an abundance of easily accessible dopamine spikes has greatly shrunk our attention span. In fact, it’s now literally worse than a goldfish’s. The implications of this reach everywhere. Kids can’t pay attention in school, people can’t practice delayed gratification or patience, no one is living in the present moment because they find it too boring. How are people going to put in their 10,000 hours if they can’t stand to watch more than 3 seconds of a boring video?

It’s not to say that these technologies aren’t useful or should be tossed completely, but getting rewards without putting in any effort can easily become a habit. If you’re using ChatGPT all the time, everything else suddenly feels much harder. Yes, it can write your emails for you, but it won't push you through a hard workout or invest in your relationships for you. Nor will it get you through the inevitable trough of sorrow when you’re learning something new. You need to do all of these yourself. Having a habit pattern of giving up when it gets hard will render you incapable of accomplishing your goals, or even just maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The solution?

  1. Let yourself be bored. Sit with your thoughts, do your morning run without music, embrace silence and nothingness, etc…
  2. Get used to putting in a substantial amount of effort for a reward. I would even go as far as intentionally making things more difficult for yourself from time to time.

Meditation allows me to practice both. I find it horribly boring and difficult to focus on something as mundane as my breath, especially while my legs feel like they’re on fire and a million thoughts flood my mind. Yet this is the very reason I meditate. I want to change the habit pattern of my mind; instead of running away from boredom and difficulty, I want to embrace it.

Of course, there are many ways to do this. Walk to the grocery store instead of driving there. Read an interesting book instead of watching a movie. Produce your own music instead of listening to it on Spotify… just kidding (I did this once and my ears are still recovering).

Your attention can either be your greatest asset or someone else’s. In a world full of distractions and easy dopamine hits, it takes intentional and continued effort to maintain ownership over it. In my opinion, investing in it is well worth the discomfort.