Your life is what you agree to attend to

Smartphones are super-useful and full of shiny attractiveness. But they also eat up attention and spit out discontent. They eat up attention for a reason - that's how they make money. Apps are usually free because you are not their customer. You are their product. The more time you spend paying attention to Instagram, the more adverts they can show you, the more money they make.

And every moment you pay attention to your smartphone is a moment you are not paying attention to something else – something that’s going on around you, something you could be thinking about, or something you could decide to start (or finish) doing. It may be that using your smartphone is absolutely the best thing to be doing at that moment. That’s fine, but make sure you are choosing consciously, not just giving away your attention because of the tricks and pitfalls described below. Your attention is too important to give away thoughtlessly. Google and Facebook know this – they made a combined $1,238 billion from it in 2017. That’s the revenue from advertising which they made from us once they had captured our attention.

William James – a highly influential philosopher and psychologist – died in 1910, so he didn’t have too much to say about smartphones, yet his understanding of attention is more relevant than ever. He wrote, ‘My experience is what I agree to attend to’. Try replacing ‘experience’ with ‘life’ because the meaning will stay the same but it helps get across the importance of deciding what you want to pay attention to – it’s a decision about the kind of life you want to lead.

There are numerous ways you can check and control the amount of attention you give to your smartphone, but here are some of the best:

  1. Create a smartphone ‘speedbump – something which will slow down the automatic smartphone check-in reflex. Save a message or an image on your lock screen which will cause you to pause and think about whether you really need to check your smartphone at that moment. This could be something simple and blunt like the word ‘REALLY?’ Or it could be more specific, like ‘A A A’ to remind you of the grades you’re aiming for, or ‘CEO’ to remind you of the job / promotion you really want. Or maybe a picture of someone you really admire. Anything which forces you to think about whether you really want give your attention to your smartphone, as opposed to giving your attention to something else that you really want to achieve.

  2. Buy an alarm clock, then charge your smartphone overnight somewhere away from your bed. This is so that you don’t start every day by reaching for your smartphone to turn the alarm off and carry out your bleary-eyed check-in. It also stops the late night check-in that somehow turns into a two-hour swipe-fest of alluring blue-light that’s guaranteed to disrupt your sleep.

  3. Use a tracking app to break down how much time you have spent on your smartphone. Again, simply becoming aware of this can be a powerful wake-up call for reclaiming your attention.

  4. Delete the apps which swallow up the most time with the least pay-back. If you really can’t face deleting them, use an App Blocker to control when you will and will not use them.

  5. Turning off as many notifications as you can face.

  6. Finally, if you’re a true revolutionary, you need to get the device that proves you really mean it – use a dumbphone. Also known as a featurephone, it has no touch screen, limited connection to the internet and vastly reduced functionality. In essence, it reclaims the ‘phone’ element of your handset by dropping the attention-gulping features that have cluttered up the smartphone. If this sounds radical, it shouldn’t: in 2017 global sales of dumbphones rose faster than that of smartphones. That said, you could always keep a smartphone at home, stripped bare of all unnecessary apps and functions, so you can still play music and use any other ‘essentials’, whilst sporting your dumbphone when you’re out and about. This way you will always have an excuse for not being on call 24 hours a day, but you don’t have to give up the shiny technology.

How deeply you choose to get involved is up to you, but the revolution has started. People all over the world are claiming back their attention – claiming back their lives.