Living With Attention Debt

I’ve started referring to any dishes left in the sink or on the counter overnight as dish debt. Not only are they just left for my future self to do, but they accumulate interest in the sense that they’re in the way of other things I want to do the next day (i.e. make coffee), or they’re just a little bit grosser than when they were left to sit overnight.

Debt isn’t just monetary, although that kind can loom over a person. Student loan debt. Medical bill debt. Credit card debt. The kind of monetary debt that can follow a person for months, years, or even decades.

There’s attention debt, too. When you add a new person to your Twitter feed. When you make Facebook friends. When you start reading a new blog, or decide to watch a new TV series. When you add an app to your phone that uses push notifications. Actions that you take in one moment that make a commitment toward further actions in the future.

An aspect of all of these forms of debt is that they prevent you from living in the moment. It can aggressively follow you, like knowing that you have a payment to make at the end of the week, so you’d better be careful on what you spend your money on today. It can shift you out of the present moment and make you question your previous choices; make you wonder if you could have done things differently instead of accumulating that debt. Or, in the case of attention debt, you can slip into distraction for periods of time and come out wondering where all the time went.

Attention debt is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. The way that you pay off your attention debt can mimic paying off a monetary debt in some ways. If you make small installments, checking your feeds frequently throughout the day, each payment on that debt seems small, but you’re also paying more interest in the time you’re taking away from focused work. If you set aside time to focus on those feeds in a larger, less frequent chunk of time, you do less harm to your focus. You pay less interest.

But sometimes it’s not easy to avoid those impulses. Sometimes it can be overwhelming to try and breeze through everything in a set amount of time and resist that sense that you’re missing out on something. Again, attention debt is taking you out of your present moment by making that sense of missing out even more acute. It’s not merely a sense that there’s more going on outside of your view, but you have a specific list in your head of what you’re not keeping up with. Keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just about appearances and conspicuous consumption now, it’s about keeping pace with your neighbors’ updates. And our neighborhood is ever growing.

I’ve been thinking about how to create a payment plan for attention debt. Things like Email Bankruptcy and Quitting Twitter are just crash diets for the brain. Living debt-free in this sense also means reducing your connection to other people, and that’s not really my goal. We take on debts because there are things of value attached, but with attention debt there’s more room to negotiate the terms.

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