“Money isn’t the most important thing in the world. Your time is.”
Parents, teachers, and mentors all around the world have spoken these words to us, in one form of another, throughout our lives. It makes sense, too.
Most of us come to realize at some point that money is a means, not an end. It affords opportunities, but as research has shown, there are diminishing returns to what it can do for you. In fact, the strongest link between money and well-being comes from its ability to buy you time through conveniences.
Our time is limited, and the prevailing wisdom is that the more we have of it, the more opportunities there are for us to experience joy and fulfillment. But is that the whole story? Is time really what adds more to life?
I’d argue otherwise. The most important asset in your life isn’t time, but attention. The quality of the experiences in your life doesn’t depend on how many hours there are in the day, but in how the hours you have are used.
You can spend 80 years of a life with as much free time as you want and still not get out of it as much as someone who only lived for 40 years but managed to appropriately direct attention to the things that mattered to them. Although time is indeed limited, with attention, it can be diluted to expand beyond what most other people get out of the same quantity.
Unfortunately, this happens to be harder than it sounds.
The World Is Designed Against You
One of the biggest problems of our generation is that while the ability to manage our attention is becoming increasingly valuable, the world around us is being designed to steal away as much of it as possible.
The internet and the technology companies that are built on it have democratized opportunity. It’s hard to argue that the net effect of these innovations isn’t positive. That said, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t costs. Smartphone addictions are real. Technology-induced stress is real.
Companies like Google and Facebook aren’t just creating products anymore. They’re building ecosystems. And the most effective way to monetize an ecosystem is to begin with engagement. It’s by designing their features to ensure that we give up as much of our attention as possible.
Last year, Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, shared how designers create product functions that exploit our mental impulses. They find blind spots in our perception, and they use them to influence our behavior without us realizing. Every notification you receive, every email you get, and every website you browse is carefully created to ensure that you maximize the time you’re engaged with the company’s product.
Today, more than ever, we need our mind back. Fortunately, there are ways to get it. Here are 3 methods that will improve the quality of your life.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
In the Buddhist tradition and modern psychotherapy training, meditation is used to cultivate mindfulness as a means of being unconditionally present. The idea is to sit quietly in a space with your eyes closed focusing and observing what is occurring in your body and in your mind. It’s used to inspire relaxation, stress-reduction, and detachment from distractions.
The practice is fairly straightforward. You simply sit and focus on a single thing in your surroundings. For most people, it’s their breath. They breathe in, and they breathe out, and they keep their attention on doing just that. Thoughts and a wandering mind are natural. The point isn’t necessarily to remove any sort of mental activity. It’s to observe it in the present.
With time, this becomes easier, but if that doesn’t work, I’ve personally seen similar results by restricting my attention to a singular part of my surroundings while exercising or doing other simple, repetitive chores. By forcing yourself to focus your mind on one thing, you train your brain to develop a sense of control over your attention. Studies are continuing to show promise, with some suggesting notable results in as soon as 8 weeks.
2. Ruthless Single-Tasking
Contrary to what some people believe, multi-tasking is rarely an effective way to be productive, especially not when it comes to mentally taxing work. Not only that, but it’s also harmful to your brain. Every time you move from one task to another while engaged in more than one thing, there is a cognitive cost that weights your mind down and causes needless stress.
Even switching between multiple projects and work environments over longer periods leaves behind what business-school professor Sophie Leroy calls “attention residue,” and it affects your ability to focus on the new task. Single-tasking with deep focus for extended periods helps fight these adverse side-effects. It’s both more productive and more attention-friendly.
In fact, the effects of single-tasking are similar to those inspired by mindfulness, and the more you do it, and the better you get at it, the greater your ability to purposefully direct your attention to where it matters.
3. Routine Detachment
Impulsively checking notifications and mindless web-browsing may seem innocent enough, but they often lead to subtle, reactive tendencies.
Every time you pull out your phone to scan your social media accounts, and every time a 10-minute internet break turns into an hour-long binge, your brain is building a habit loop that reinforces itself to encourage such behavior.
Naturally, these devices and technologies are an important part of modern life, but in order for them to be a net positive force in your life, you have to set boundaries. Routine detachment isn’t just ideal, but it’s critical.
I personally try not to check my notifications and emails until at least 3PM, and on the days that I succeed, I feel a notable difference in the level of control I have over my day. I also routinely go a full 24 to 48 hours without touching my computer or my smartphone.
Different things will work for different people, but you don’t quite realize how much of your daily attention is being hijacked until you step away.
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher
As the legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in his seminal book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
“Control of consciousness determines the quality of life.”
Attention has the power to make you happier by helping you appreciate the little things that are easily neglected in day to day life.
Attention can allow you to bypass the limitations imposed by death because it inspires you to better use the time you already have.
Attention can guide you to a fulfilled life by forcing focus onto the things that really matter to you, rather than the things that steal you away.
Happiness, productivity, presence, and fulfillment all find their roots in your ability to proactively control where you direct your mental energy.
Although the world around us is working harder and harder to take it away from us, with awareness, practice, and the right habits, we can fight back, and we can take control of our own minds. If you protect and cultivate your attention, there is almost nothing stopping you from living the life you want, because that’s where it all begins. In fact, it may just be the only thing in your way.