I just revisited a classic blog post on attention as currency and the concept of setting an "attention budget." It feels quaint to read a piece from 2010 about our scattered attention (wait til the writer finds out about Instagram Stories...) but the lessons are timeless:
Our attention is valuable (extremely valuable to corporations), and limited, so we should treat it as the sacred, finite resource it is.
I know I have freely donated my attention to corporations and nonsense way too often, so I'm taking back some power and vowing to honestly observe my moments and hours so that my free time will reflect what I claim to value.
I have yet to set my own attention budget (taking time to do that is on my list of New Year goals), but here is how I'm thinking about where I'm spending my attention now in two specific areas: podcasts and Instagram.
I interact with both several times a day, so I'm starting there as I fine-tune my attention spending habits:
I’m very concerned as to what I put in my ears lately. This sounds like something specific to growing older; I feel extra sensitive to song lyrics that weave around my thoughts and the messages I absentmindedly absorb while working out.
Songs have powerful energy; lyrics stick in our heads like mantras (WHY do I still know every single word to Baby Got Back but can’t remember which email I use to sign into my laptop??). So I’m careful as to what I put in my system via my ears, just as I’m (theoretically) intentional about what I eat, which products I use, and which news stories I read.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition of meditation, the focus is on filling your mind with beautiful and good thoughts (rather than detach from all thoughts). I think about this as I discern what I fill my ears with.
I’m all for emodiversity--embracing the experience of a large range of emotions--so I don’t avoid music that makes me angry or sad, but I’m careful not to listen to messages that mess with my internal stories or perpetuate insecurity. (For instance, I avoid listening to songs that repeat limiting stories like I can't, I'm broke, I'm alone, I'll never...) Rather, I try to primarily listen to albums by musicians who are committed to artistic and personal growth.
(Some high-vibe faves this season are Emily King, Jon Batiste, Trevor Hall, Rhiannon Giddens)
Same goes for podcasts, which I listen to all day long in little spurts. They don't have the same staying power as songs, but I won't spend time on a podcast that isn't enriching or delighting me. I recently found myself listening to a salacious (yet uninteresting!) celebrity interview for way too long before thinking "Wait why am I doing this?" After listening for a joyless hour, my brain just felt sticky and gross, like a forgotten hard candy in a pocket.
I hesitate to recommend podcasts since they’re all so specific to my set of interests, but if you share my interests, here are the ones I give my attention to:
Culture: I’ve always loved pop culture, and with so much smart commentary all over the place these days, I no longer have to devour my tabloids under a cloak of shame but I can enjoy my beloved hobby in peace! I’ve been listening to Who Weekly since the very first episode (I’m a huge fan of hosts Bobby Finger’s and Lindsey Weber’s writing) and, at this point, there are so many fun running jokes and ongoing stories that the listening experience provides instant community. While that might be annoying for a first-time listener, it’s worth joining in if you care about C-list celebrities as much as I do…for some reason.
Meaning/Spirituality: The Liturgists podcast is the first I listened to in this category, and while they don’t release many episodes anymore, the back catalog is a rich trove of questions that challenge some of our culture's tightly-held stories. My favorite episode of all time is called “Are Those People the Problem?” which confronted some of my previously-held political beliefs (mostly the one about my beliefs being superior to others’). I’ve appreciated so many of the conversations on its British counterpart Nomad, and I lap up Kate Bowler's podcast on soulful lessons from painful times.
Free-Thinking: As I grapple with my own nomadic political identity, I’m increasingly drawn to compassionate thinkers who are asking questions about dogma, mob mentality, social media, and transformative justice. I’m continually seeking recommendations in this category, but I’ve gotten quite a few from Almost 30, a podcast that began as an exploration of life in one’s late 20s and has since evolved into a fascinating container for political, social, and spiritual discussions that have introduced me to many thinkers I admire, such as Africa Brooke. I agree with a lot of what Africa says, and a lot of what she says really challenges me—just the way I like it. On a long subway ride, I give my attention to provocative political and philosophical conversations with Russ Roberts on EconTalk.
Other: As much as I love cooking and eating, most food podcasts don’t really do it for me because audio + food = ?, but Spilled Milk has been a reliable companion for years. My most trusted food writers are the ones who don’t turn their noses up at anything, and I love how Molly Wizenberg and Matthew Amster-Burton go to the depths of such subjects as peanut butter cups and kohlrabi alike. A podcast where I always learn something is well worth my attention.
On my quest toward Spanish fluency, I listen to every episode of Radio Ambulante, but I need more Spanish-language suggestions, por favor!
A constant goal for me (because I’m not sure if it can ever be attained) is to be extremely intentional about how I consume social media and who I allow to take my attention while I’m there.
As I continually clean out my follow list, I spend a bit of time viscerally reflecting on each account and why I enjoy it or what I’m getting from it: Am I better connected to someone I know and love, Am I getting useful advice, Am I learning more about a topic that interests me, Am I using this as an entertaining escape (totally valid)?
When I know exactly why I follow someone, it’s easier for me to take in their provisions with gratitude or intentionality—rather than just scroll to numb out or keep myself awake or avoid doing my dishes.
As the writer of Attention as a Currency and Noise wrote, "When I feel like I’m just chatting for chatting sake, I ask myself, “where can I add the most value to what matters most to me and the people who care about me?" The same question can easily be applied to social media: When am I adding value, and where am I gaining value?
Even though fashion, home, and travel accounts can be visually vitalizing, more often than not they just make me feel either envious or inferior. I look up from a gorgeous street fashion moment in Copenhagen and see my messy apartment, and slump.
So, I’m attentive about when I choose to look at those and my capacity for potentially a post-scroll slump: Do I truly need some inspiration for a specific part of my apartment, or am I actually in the position to consider traveling, or do I actively want to borrow ideas from someone's winter look? If not, then it’s probably best that I mute for now and take a purposeful look later.
Here are a few accounts that will always deserve my attention. My list will be very different from your list, but may I suggest you assess your own favorites and then get curious about the others you’re following? (May I suggest this to myself??)
Art: God bless Instagram for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it’s made art very accessible. Accounts like Artist For a Week (which posts a sampling from a new selected artist every week, like an ongoing Advent Calendar), Van Gogh of the Day, and Jurgen Vermaire (an informative art historian) have been joyous for me to see in my feed. I’ve genuinely learned about a lot of different artists this way, and I’ve even incorporated some new methods into my own paintings (thanks, Matthew Wong!)
Relationships and therapy: I am super discerning about the directives I take from Instagram (as we all should be!), but a few folks have consistently given outstanding guidance that always makes me think and learn: Mark Groves is my go-to for dating and relationship counsel (I will often search through his account to find wisdom on a certain topic like “Why did he tell me he wasn't ready for a relationship and now he’s dating someone else?”), Dr. Becky is my favorite and yours for parenting advice (or, in my case, self-parenting advice!), and I always appreciate Seerut Chawla’s cutting insights on contemporary psychology.
Writing: My brain isn't set up to consume writing in any meaningful way on Instagram, but the accounts Poetry Is Not a Luxury and Paris Review offer tender moments that interrupt my regular scrolling with a delicious thought for a hungry mind. Shockingly enough, writers tend to have great captions, and I enjoy some like Hanif Abdurraqib, Ocean Vuong, and Suleika Jaouad for their life and work updates (and fashion sense).
Thinking: It's very important to me to seek out opinions that are different from mine so that I don't cultivate my own personal echo chamber on Instagram, and I intentionally follow folks I respect but don't always agree with. I also follow people who nourish some of my blossoming ideas that I want to grow, such as the brilliant Aaron Rose and accounts devoted to my dearest teachers, like Ram Dass and Richard Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation.
As the Northern Hemisphere deepens into darkness, it's a juicy time to take note of our attention-spending, and to remember that our focus is a precious belonging to guard and protect. And, like any good guardian, we may allow our attention to roam free from time to time and see what it brings back for us. Next week I'll be going on a little trip, and I plan to allow my attention to float from fireplace to sea to book to companion to whatever catches it in between.