Attention Saturation Disorder

At the beginning of April I challenged myself to give up sports and politics for one month. For the entire month of April I intentionally did not consume anything related to politics or sports. No sports shows, political blogs, newspapers, etc. This post is a follow-up on the experience as well as some thoughts in regards to the information we spend so much time consuming.

Politics: This entire experiment was inspired by the soul-sucking marathon that was the Republican party primary. Whatever your political allegiances are, you have to admit the primary process in the United States has transcended any actual discourse and turned into a media spectacle. Following it was about as pleasant as taking a shard of glass to the eye… and about as informative too.

Yet, January, February and March passed with me glued to my screen, processing every poll spike, every debate gaffe, every hate-infused political ad, with no tangible effect on my life other than stoking a general hatred toward humanity as I went about my day-to-day.

I read political blogs and news media daily for over a decade. I majored in International Relations in college and wrote massive term papers on the foreign policies of various US presidents and the geopolitical significance of the Middle East in regards to the Iraq War. At some point or another, this stuff all felt life-and-death important to me.

But to my surprise I didn’t miss following politics or current events one bit. In fact, ditching it was a large weight off my shoulders. Despite reading Andrew Sullivan daily for the past eight years, I never once had the itch to go back… and still don’t.

I thought I’d miss The Daily Show or Real Time With Bill Maher, two political shows I’ve watched religiously for years. Nope. Haven’t seen a minute of either since, nor do I care.

When I undertook the challenge a number of readers told me that if something was important enough, I’d find out through the grapevine, even if it was a few days or weeks later than most. This was true. I catch the occasional article that’s passed around Facebook and that seems to be good enough for me. Meanwhile my stress levels are down, I have more free-time and I love humanity again.

Sports: Unlike politics, I missed sports a lot, particularly the first week. In fact, I must admit I cheated on the sports challenge and checked box scores a few times. What I eventually found though was that my ability to follow sports definitely had an 80/20 quality to it.

I discovered that I still got 80% of the satisfaction out of investing only 20% of the time and effort keeping up with sports. I catch the big games, maybe read a recap or two each day, and perhaps one opinion column each week. This satiates my interest just as well as the hours and hours I used to spend each week watching highlights, following debates and listening to talking heads ramble on about why Lebron is overrated or whatever.

In fact, I found that my tolerance for that type of punditry has gone out the window. Podcasts which I used to love, I can hardly make it past the 10 minute mark without questioning why I’m investing 90 minutes of my life in prospecting the NFL draft and how good Peyton Manning might be. Who cares? It doesn’t affect me. As with politics, I’ve found that I am willing to wait and find out once it happens.

Attention Is A Limited Resource

Beyond giving me a lot of free time back, this experiment got me thinking about attention and how we budget it.

A while back, I wrote an article called Why We All Suck At Dating. In it I looked at perceptual biases and how they influence the way we value and perceive members of the opposite sex. For instance, your perception of the attractiveness of a woman will be influenced by whether you meet her in a coffee shop or in a board meeting. Your sense of connection with a significant other will be affected if there are perceived barriers such as long distances or the disapproval of her parents.

This is totally half-baked armchair psychology here, but I think we may have similar perceptual biases going on with the information we consume. We overvalue new information we receive, no matter how trivial or meaningless it is, because it’s new and stimulates excitement and interest within us. We also get unnecessarily attached to drama and the pointless information that fuels it. We overestimate its value because we vicariously experience emotions through it.

Market forces have taken advantage of this. There’s only so much information in the world relevant to your life or mine. But news companies, sports media, gossip sites, and the good ole’ interwebs inundate us with an endless stream of beautifully-packaged nonsense. And we can’t resist. They know how to trigger an endorphin-cocktail in our brains — Angelina Jolie’s new Africa baby, Lebron James’ fight with his coach, Mitt Romney’s electric bill — easing and soothing us into the latest info-tainment, helping us feel as if we’ve learned something important without actually having learned anything at all.

I don’t care how Facebook’s IPO went. It doesn’t matter to me what Newt Gingrich’s ex-wives say about him. I was never going to vote for him anyway. Jeremy Lin is Chinese. Good for him. I don’t know the guy. I don’t care about Michelle Bachmann’s 27 adopted kids or Prince William’s favorite brand of floss.

Attention is a limited resource. Society has evolved to the point where it can provide information at a far greater rate than any of us could ever hope to consume. Marketing and media has mastered packaging information in alluring and dramatic manners to suck us in and constantly want more. But what if we don’t need to maximize our consumption of information? What if maximizing it was actually hurting us?

I’m starting to believe most of us are over-saturated with information. I think the eruption of so-called “Attention Deficit Disorder” may not be so much a deficit of attention rather than a saturation of attention. There’s so much stimulation to consume that our brains train themselves to only focus on each item for the bare minimum amount of time. And then move on. Life has more breadth but no depth. No focus.

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59 Responses to Attention Saturation Disorder

  1. Drewid says:

    I ended up dumping politics myself back in March. It was nice to see someone else doing the same.

    National politics *seems* interesting, but it’s also fundamentally disempowering. It takes a tremendous amount of time and attention for something that you can have little or no effect on. If it takes you a year to choose who to vote for, you have other problems. When people ask me about politics now I tell them I only truly have one issue: Campaign finance reform.

    Being focused on something specific gives me a chance at being effective. Following the horserace is a suckers game.

  2. Jamie says:

    I have been considering this for a while actually. Something like no Forums for a month or Facebook unless I am actively seeking to chat with someone. I have a tracker on Chrome and it says I have had over 2500 mins of Facebook use, 1000 mins of my fave forum and 900 mins of the Daily mail which I only use to check out sports news. This within the last 4 weeks or so.

    If i invested all these hours into learning German or playing the guitar then I wouldn’t be constantly annoyed with myself that I’m slacking in these activities.

    • Tim says:

      I highly recommend you try cutting one of these man. I haven’t really followed politics for a long time, so giving it up completely wasn’t a big challenge for me. But I’m currently doing a 30 day no-TV challenge and that was much more difficult. I find I rely on TV as something I fall back to when I’m bored, instead of going out there and making my life more interesting. Needless to say, giving it up is pushing me to put more effort into making my life more interesting.

      I don’t intend to keep this ban up after the 30 days, but I think it’ll be good to know I can walk away from it any time. And I’m getting a lot more done at the moment.

      • Zac says:

        Tim, I’m calling you out. You’ve watched every game of the NBA playoffs. You’ve watched more T.V. in the last 2 weeks than I have in the last 2 months. It still counts if you stream it from your computer on to a T.V. Boom. Roasted.

        • Tim says:

          Whoa! I count no TV as no TV programs! Cutting TV and sport? What are you crazy?

          Mark, I said it was harder than cutting out politics.

      • Mark Manson says:

        Haha, wait… no TV is harder than no sports? You’ve been watching sports every night… and ON TV!

  3. RONDOISM says:

    I completely agree with you mark. I’ve been doing this since start of this year as part of my new year’s resolution. Whether Kevin Durant or Lebron James win a championship ring, it’s something I’m not going to discuss on my deathbed with my children and grandchildren but good for them if they do. There are so many stuff to do that I can contribute to humanity myself than be sucked into and become heavily invested on things that have no true significance or value in my life.

    It’s funny how people project their issues too in sports like many of my Laker friends rely their happiness on whether Steve Blakes makes a three or Kobe makes 50 points. (Imagine many Laker fans actually threatened Steve Blake for missing a three pointer and his wife had to block 200 people in her twitter).

    I’m starting my blog soon mark, i’ll definitely give a highly recommended link to your website.

    More power!

  4. Jack says:

    Cool article. I’m giving up some shit now.

  5. Jordan D. says:

    I haven’t cut out politics completely, but I have cut out most political TV shows. They’re just awful, with all the arguing and scaremongering and petty nonsense. I still read political articles, but mostly from good sources that focus more on facts, not emotion and vitriol. I still watch Stewart, Colbert, and Maher for the comedy, but it can be very aggravating. I’m on the fence about them because I enjoy the comedy, but I’m sick of the political stuff.

    I spend much less time on FB nowadays, but that’s thanks to my FB friends. For whatever reason, they’ve been much less active this year than in ’10 and ’11, so there’s less going on in my Newsfeed. And I only have about 65-70 FB friends, so that helps, too.

  6. THOMAS says:

    Great post – I also quit for the month after reading your first post – but have since gone back to following sports (though also at a greatly reduced rate).

    However, one issue that always seems to pull me back into the nonsense is what to do at the end of the night when I’m not tired enough to pass out but too braindead to read or do anything productive.

  7. Creatine Dreams says:

    Great article, Mark. I am addicted to the internet. I try to soak up as much knowledge as I can. Although I definitely learn stuff, I think the 80/20 rule might be a good suggestion. I do not need to read every self improvement article under the sun. I need to do some stuff!

    • Mark Manson says:

      Self development is a contact sport. Reading by itself won’t get you very far.

    • EaSyebes says:

      You’re right on with the “information overload” of self-help, CD. It can be like intelligence work (CIA, NSA, etc.): We likely have all the information. Not many signals and movements evade our collection instruments, but there are two other steps after collection: integration and action. Turning that information into knowledge and then actionable intelligence is the key, and that takes time both for us and the CIA.

  8. Brett says:

    Because of this over-saturation of information in our world, I’ve adapted a new strategy. Instead of constantly trying to consume more and more and more, faster and faster and faster, I try to consume the same amount of information, but am constantly on the lookout for the highest quality information. That’s why I try and read blogs like this; I feel like it’s a source where I can get a whole lot out of a whole little. I say, don’t try and decrease the amount you consume – keep it the same, but constantly look for ways to increase the quality of the information so you don’t spend days of your life watching shit like 22 republican primary debates.

    Speaking of which, anyone have any really great blogs/references that they feel is of such high quality that the time they spend reading it is well worth the information they get out? Post here! (Things I like; new technology, self-improvement, and ways to use new technology to self-improve…lol).

    • Brett says:

      although, I guess that’s what you were kinda getting at with the whole 80/20 thing.

    • Tim says:

      Hacker News is probably the best source I know of for tech news.

    • Traindom says:

      You could try anthonymychal.com. His blog is top-notch and I’m very picky about the blogs I read. Fitness blogs can be commercial and boring sometimes, but this guy has it all together. He’s dispelled a LOT of myths in the fitness industry and he’s an innovator too. You’ll like him a lot.

      Imagine that it’s the only fitness blog and one of two blogs I ever bother to read and visit regularly. Give it a try.

    • Mark Manson says:

      Yeah, totally… it’s not how much you consume anymore, it’s selecting the best information which will give you the highest return on attention.

      I should coin that term: Return on Attention (ROA)

      • Zac says:

        So now I have to set my reader up by +/- EV?

      • Brett says:

        lol, you could say the internet has created a whole new attention economy (tm…patent pending)

      • THOMAS says:

        What subjects have an inherently high ROA? I disagree with fitness – all the knowledge necessary to get in shape could fit in a short blog post.

        • Mark Manson says:

          ROA would be determined by:

          – Information important and pertinent to your well-being.
          – Information that is easily consumed.

          It’s not just subjects, but information within a subject. For instance, fitness and nutrition information has a high ROA, but once you get into drinking water at this hour affects your blood sugar this way and makes you more likely to digest in this way… you’ve gone way off into mental masturbation most likely (unless you’re a professional nutritionist or bodybuilder or something).

        • Traindom says:

          I agree that there is a base level of information that combined with experience will get one results, but there’s a LOT of innovation taking place behind the scenes that constantly adds to all the different approaches people can take. What if the six-meals-a-day approach isn’t for somebody? Well thanks to Martin Berkhan, we have another approach, Intermittent Fasting. Or the Warrior Diet. Whatever floats one’s boat.

          I believe the kinds of approaches are just as important as the base levels of information. For example, I know about counting calories and all the “basic” stuff I need to know to succeed. At this point, it’s about seeing what works best with me. I’ve found fasting works well with me.

          If I had tried eating six meals a day, I would have had a panic attack long ago.

          And given the nature of the fitness industry, the precise amount of information needed to get fit is extremely fickle and likely to be biased. So I think it’s best to read as much as you can, find an approach you like, and experiment from there.

          After one finds an approach they like, it’s all time and consistency, no matter what approach is taken. I think reading is helpful to find the most compatible approach.

          I’ve already read tons of fitness articles and blogs. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve found my approach and it’s just time and consistency. I find myself tweaking things and experimenting with my relatively static workout. I don’t read as much as I did before. And if I do, it’s out of curiosity. I’m just looking for any innovation for the fun of it, not to find that magic pill. I’ve found it, it’s time and consistency.

  9. Traindom says:

    I totally agree. It’s a daily struggle for me. Right now, I have 12 tabs open. Imagine that I patted myself on the back for closing 10 the other day. It was the highlight of my Sunday. I had a major facepalm moment. It’s too much. And half of them I keep because I want to savor them for later while I look for more. Sometimes I’m delighted whenever my computer decides to reboot because I’ll lose all those damn tabs.

    I said to myself that it’s better to really enjoy one article or video and then close it forever instead of staying like an idle car. I’m all revved up and I’m going nowhere fast.

  10. Ashley Wills says:

    Currently reparing to send all of my technological possessions to my best friend for safe-keeping whilst I embark on a 30 day ‘detox/trial’. It’s gonna be super tough but it’s absolutely necessary. Ever since I got my first computer 10 years ago barely a day has passed when I’ve not logged on. MSN messenger, Facebook and now Twitter… all compounded the problem in their own unique, debilitating ways. Not too mention blogs of various topics & the variety of news sites.

    There’s a new book out called ‘The Fix’ which basically attributes these ‘soft addictions’ that digital technology has gifted us as the next big social problem.
    It’s a supply issue; essentially because all of these info-tainment sources exist we are defenceless to their charms. But a decade or even less ago, this wasn’t such an issue. Humanity’s ability to innovate far out-strips it’s ability to self-regulate.

    Here’s a link (just so you can open one more tab, haha) –
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Fix-Damian-Thompson/dp/0007436084

    For myself, I’ve claimed to be an aspiring screenwriter for a few years now, my actual completion rate is 0%. Turns out its’ easier to read one more blog about human nature then it is to work out that same human nature in my characters.

    Hopefully writing more consistently & freely will be one side-effect of taking up this challenge. I pray there are many more.

    Time to actually face.. scary ‘real life’.

    • Traindom says:

      Let us know how it goes and how you feel. I could never bring myself to completely ditch technology like that. It’ll sure make for an interesting read, that’s for sure. I’ll check the link, since I’m already up to 14 tabs now anyway. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I do find it fascinating that humans are capable of innovation on such a scale so that our biological systems are taken by surprise. I see this with porn. It totally messes with the way we are wired for novelty.

      • Mark Manson says:

        A childhood friend of mine did a “no technology” diet for a couple months. It was impossible to get in touch with him unless you physically drove to his house and knocked on the door.

        Anyway, when he came back to technology, he was a born-again Christian.

        • Geert says:

          I’m really curious about no technology as well. But I’ve been in this situation before where I couldn’t use internet because it was broke. From firsthand experience, I can tell you that it definetly wasn’t easy. Virtually everything is done through the internet these days. But what I can’t stand the most is when a colleque (or student) comes to me and say “oh didn’t you get my email”. Seriously why don’t you just call me if it’s something important.

          But that also got me thinking. For a while I wanted to delete my facebook account and immediately I started thinking “oh but what if there’s a girl I can chat to, that would raise my odds with her” or “oh but I wouldn’t be getting invited to social events anymore”. I just tought to myself are we becoming so superficial in our social contact? What about just calling people.

          In the no more porn thread, I ‘ve noticed how dropping porn has immensely changed my view on sexuality. I’m really curious whether or not my view on social contact would also possible change when dropping facebook or e-mail. The best is probably going to be to limit it to a 30 minutes a day or so.

        • Traindom says:

          Wow. He became a born-again Christian?It’d be interesting to see his journals if he did keep records.

          Let’s hope the forum doesn’t go that way. You would have a dead forum and when they do come back, spirituality’s going to go rampant on these boards. That’s gotta be your two worst nightmares tangled into one hellish dream.

          Oh and Geert, you handle technology WAY better than I do. I’m separated from my phone on a constant basis AND I have never taken to Facebook. I usually keep to myself so I have almost no need to keep in contact.

          I guess posting on forums and blogs is kinda like Facebook, but it doesn’t saturate your attention as much as Facebook does.

          • Mark Manson says:

            Like anything else, you can take giving things up to an unhealthy extreme. There are such things as good habits and healthy addictions.

            I think the most important thing with information, technology, entertainment, is to make sure you control it, not that it controls you.

          • Traindom says:

            I’ve always considered any addiction to be bad because of its connotation. So to see the phrase “healthy addictions” is an eye-opener.

            That’s a good mindset to keep in mind, thanks. I think I’m in control of technology for the most part. Although I never really tried Facebook, I do have other addictions to technology that I have to watch over.

  11. Chris says:

    ^^ Sexy logo.

  12. Dr Feelgood says:

    The thing is, most people’s lifes are boring as fuck and very empty. So of course participating in Mitt Romney’s or Lebron James’ life seems pretty exciting…

    I have found a direct correlation of how much a particular person uses facebook and how much of a life they have – the more they have going on, the less they are seen on FB (except for professional/ marketing purposes).

    • Tim says:

      That seems like a pretty blanket statement. I think there are plenty of people who spend lots of time on Facebook yet manage to also maintain a very interesting life. Especially if they use it judiciously to further that aim…

  13. Mike says:

    I did much the same since last July. I disconnected the cable tv, dropped all my daily political and business new fixes….My stress levels have dropped dramatically, and I found I don’t miss it at all. They say it takes 20 some odd days to rewire and kick any sort of addiction, a good month did it for me.

    You are quite right, we are overloaded, hearing about crap we can do nothing to change, influence or should really not give a rat’s ass about anyway. The people around me everyday with there smart phones beeping, ringing farting and singing every 30 seconds would seem like some kind of comic farce if it wasn’t so sad.

    You don’t realize how crazy this all looks until you take the ” Red Pill”, Case in point, I watched four girls at starbucks a couple of weeks ago, each had their phone out, not one full minute went by without one of them checking their phone, sending or answering a text.

  14. James says:

    “You may also like -”

    Nice.

  15. Arnold says:

    Bah! Halfway through the comments I stopped reading, as I realized I was doing the same thing the article is warning me for. People trying to spent less time on the internet & in front of the telly, all through discipline.
    Well I’ve had it. I’m gonna unplug the internet ánd the television right after finishing this message.
    I can read a free newspaper in the train to work (& scan the headlines & only read the most important/interesting articles), & at work I have internet: during breaks or before leaving I can quickly check my e-mail & the results of the NBA playoffs (& postmasculine).

  16. Dawson says:

    I’ve come to feel the same way towards music too. I adore it but increasingly listen very selectively as opposed to using it as background noise. So I end up putting a record on when I am actually really in the mood for it. So much more satisfying.

  17. Hill364 says:

    Mark, correct me if i’m wrong here, but quotes like “I catch the occasional article that’s passed around Facebook and that seems to be good enough for me.”, “We overvalue new information we receive, no matter how trivial or meaningless it is.” and “Life has more breadth but no depth. No focus.” Lead me to believe that what you should really try giving up or limiting is Facebook, and focus on real life interactions. Perhaps your subconscious has guarded you from giving up the one thing that seems to be the biggest target of your article? Personally, I think Real Time and The Daily Show have far more bang for the buck than a Facebook newsfeed. Just a thought, good article.

    • Mark Manson says:

      I actually don’t spend a whole lot of time on facebook. I find most face-to-face conversations in the western world to be fairly shallow and pedantic as well.

      The comment regarding getting info off my newsfeed is that if something is important enough for 2-3 people to post about it, then it’s likely worth knowing.

  18. EUGene says:

    Dood, your last words – that attention is a ressource – practically made me skip most of the last part. It reminded me that you dont learn more when you read more, but when you think more.

    Peace

  19. Minimalism says:

    […] their clothing, their appliances, etc. They spent months saving up for an item, spent a lot of mental energy choosing which item “represents” them best, therefore they begin identifying themselves […]

  20. Amendment x says:

    I gave up following the news generally as a New Year’s resolution in 2011 and haven’t looked back since. You hear about important events through the grapevine. Events that aren’t important you don’t hear about. Problem solved.

    Politics and sports are all distractions, especially being experienced passively (through television). Great article.

  21. […] the affliction of attention saturation disorder is not limited to useless social media interactions. Earlier this year I experimented with giving […]

  22. jlee0013 says:

    This was a brilliant piece. That’s all I have to say about that.

  23. […] is no longer to get an outlet to be heard like it used to be. The battle is to hold people’s attention. It’s a skill that will soon become indispensable. Once you can sell well, you’ll […]

  24. […] the affliction of attention saturation disorder is not limited to useless social media interactions. Earlier this year I experimented with giving […]

  25. aron says:

    “This is totally half-baked armchair psychology here, but I think we may have similar perceptual biases going on with the information we consume. We overvalue new information we receive, no matter how trivial or meaningless it is, because it’s new and stimulates excitement and interest within us”

    Mark – This is why we should value the Lindy effect, http://www.johndcook.com/blog/2012/12/17/the-lindy-effect/

  26. […] Attention Saturation Disorder […]

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