How to Get Your Attention Span Back
Mark Manson’s ‘Attention Diet’ is a step-by-step program for reclaiming your focus
In the time it took me to outline this article, I checked Twitter three times and my inbox twice. I responded to four emails. I checked Slack once and sent two texts. I went down a rabbit hole of YouTube videos. Every few minutes, I refreshed Amazon to see if the ranking of my books had changed.
This should have been 20 minutes of work, tops. Yet the cost of these compulsive interruptions goes way beyond the added amount of time that it took me to finish the damn thing. These distractions interrupted my train of thought, likely reducing the quality of my writing and necessitating more edits and revisions. They created anxiety as I spent much of my distracted time anxious about the fact that I wasn’t working and my working time anxious that I was missing out on text conversations, email threads, or news updates. They made the process of writing less enjoyable and more taxing.
These types of distractions aren’t just unproductive, they’re anti-productive. They create more work than they replace.
Chances are you go through this do-si-do yourself on the regular. For me, it’s only gotten worse as time has gone on — which is strange because you’d assume that my attention span and focus would be getting stronger as I get older.
I started blogging in 2007. I remember it being easy to plop down in my chair and churn out a 1,000-word draft. I’d just wake up and do it, and then go get breakfast. But somewhere around 2013, I noticed I was interrupting myself to check Facebook or email a lot more frequently. Around 2015, I started to see it as a problem.
Suddenly, I had to pay attention to my attention. I didn’t know how to not distract myself anymore. It felt like I was living in some kind of digital hellscape, where the process of doing anything significant and important seemed impossible.
How we got to this point
I didn’t arrive there on my own. There was a point in the not-too-distant past where what we think of as “work” underwent a massive shift, as the modern economies of the 20th century moved many people out of factories and fields and into office buildings. Whereas you used to have to stand on your feet all day and carry heavy shit around to make a buck, the best-paying jobs now simply asked that you sit at a desk for as long as possible without ever getting up.
But it turned out our bodies aren’t built for such a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, sitting around all day munching on donuts and soda is downright awful for our physical health. As a result, around the same time that everyone got cushy office jobs, we began to see epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. People’s bodies were falling apart.
To counteract the health crisis, we all came together and developed a fitness culture. Jogging became a thing. Gym memberships were invented. People wore spandex and jumped around on VHS tapes, looking absolutely ridiculous. The ’80s were great.
We discovered that our bodies need to be challenged and stressed to a certain degree. Otherwise, they become soft and weak, and the smallest endeavors — walking up a flight of stairs, picking up a bag of groceries — will begin to feel difficult or impossible. Small, conscious efforts to stress our bodies are what keeps them healthy.
In the same way, I believe we’re on the cusp of discovering a similar necessity for our minds. We need to consciously limit our own comforts. We need to force our minds to strain themselves, to work hard for their information, to deprive our attention of the constant stimulation that it craves.
Just as the consumer economy of the 20th century called upon us to invent the nutritional diet, I believe that the attention economy of the 21st century calls upon us to invent the Attention Diet. I’ve codified this idea into a real step-by-step program for you here. (It’s probably worth noting that nutritional deprivation-based diets are famous for failing spectacularly. My personal experiences have shown that the Attention Diet, on the other hand, is pretty effective. But, fuck it, this is uncharted territory, so let’s see how it goes.)
Goals of the Attention Diet
Our attention is being assaulted on a few different fronts. First off, there’s just a massive surplus of stuff to pay attention to. And the more crap there is to pay attention to, the more difficult it is to choose what to focus on — not to mention actually stay focused on it. So, the first and most important goal of the Attention Diet should be to consciously limit the number of distractions we’re exposed to.
This raises the question: What stuff is worth paying attention to? What should we give a fuck about? Basically, the name of the game is quality over quantity. Because in a world with infinite information and opportunity, you don’t grow by knowing or doing more, you grow by correctly focusing on less. Therefore, the second goal of the Attention Diet is to find highly nutritious sources of information and relationships and then build our lives around them.
So, how do we define “junk” information and relationships and “nutritious” information and relationships?
Well, let’s keep it simple:
- Junk information is information that is unreliable, unhelpful, or unimportant (i.e. it affects few to no people in any significant way). Junk information is short-form, flashy, and emotionally charged, encouraging addictive consumption patterns.
- Nutritious information is information that is reliable, helpful, and likely important (i.e., it affects you and others in significant ways). Nutritious information is analytical and encourages deep engagement and extended thought.
- Junk relationships are people/groups with whom you have little face-to-face contact with and/or little mutual trust, who bring out your insecurities and consistently make you feel worse about yourself or the world.
- Nutritious connections are people/groups who you have frequent face-to-face contact with and/or a lot of mutual trust who make you feel better and help you grow.
A note on lighter fare like sports and entertainment: It has a place in all of this. We all need something to help us unwind in our free time. I personally love video games. But I also recognize that if I check Reddit or Twitch 20 times a day, that’s a really unhealthy indulgence of that hobby. Put another way, my hobby starts to hurt me rather than help me. Our goal is to make our hobbies work for us rather than against us. And we’ll get into how to do that below.
Another note: The Attention Diet should be emotionally difficult to implement. Ultimately, junk information hooks us because it is pleasing and easy. We rely on it to numb a lot of our day-to-day stresses and insecurities. Therefore, getting rid of junk information will expose a lot of uncomfortable emotions, trigger cravings, and compulsions, and generally suck for the first few days or weeks.
Step 1: The social media cleanse
- Apply the law of “Fuck Yes or No” to your social media connections. Go through all of your friends/follows lists and ask yourself one question: “Is being connected with this person adding value to my life?” If the answer isn’t an emphatic “Fuck Yes,” then unfriend or unfollow them. Get fucking ruthless. This is your attentional health we’re talking about here.
- Unfollow all news outlets on social media. Too many articles are written for clicks, not for veracity and utility. Social media plays into these worst incentives of the media. Websites fight for your clicks by upsetting you, by poking at hot-button issues that feel as though they matter a great deal, but actually don’t. They create addictive cycles of outrage, which not only fail to inform you about what you need to know but actually make you more resistant to facts. As citizens, it’s our duty to opt out of this toxic system. And the first (and simplest) way to do that is to simply unfollow and unsubscribe from news sources on social media. (Don’t worry, I will discuss better ways to stay informed and receive news below.)
- Uninstall any apps that feel pointless after doing the above. If you did the two steps above correctly, your social media accounts should be much leaner, and in some cases, almost empty. This is good. The beauty of unfollowing/unfriending masses of connections is that not only do you get rid of all of the toxic and unhealthy information hijacking your attention, but you also have maybe 10% as much content when you log on. You scroll your newsfeed a couple of times, and voila! You’re back to looking at the same shit you saw yesterday. Time to put your phone down and go do something useful. But before you do that, take another look at your social media accounts. Chances are that some of them are so barren that there’s hardly even a reason to open them anymore. Uninstall them. The beauty of simplifying your accounts like this is that it really shows you which platforms provide pleasure and which are just there because you feel like you have to be on them. After doing this myself, I realized that I while actually enjoy Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Instagram, Facebook is just this annoying thing I have to be on for my job. So, I deleted Facebook off my phone. It felt weird at first, but I realized that I was needlessly checking it five-plus times each day. Deleting it freed me from the habit.
Step 2: Choose good sources of information and connection
Try this: Only get your news from the current events page of Wikipedia. This will give you the bare minimum of information you need.
Wikipedia is actively curated to remove bias, political leanings, and false statements — something that’s no longer as true as used to be about many news outlets. Obviously, no website is perfect, and Wikipedia certainly has its own flaws, but as a news source, I’ve found it to be: 1) a breath of fresh air and 2) often completely boring.
The boringness is good, partly because a just-the-facts delivery will necessarily be dry, but also because boredom has no bias. If you feel like you’re reading a TV repair manual, then you’re probably just getting the facts and nothing else. Best of all, making the news boring again encourages you to only read about what is truly important or impactful for you.
But, you may be thinking, there are important issues — like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change and civil rights and economic inequality — that require lots of information and critical thinking. What about those? Well, glad you asked…
Long-form content should be your bread and butter for news and the majority of your entertainment content. Long-form content can come from any medium — books, podcasts, long-form articles, documentaries. The key is that consuming it requires you to slow down and deeply engage.
There are two benefits of limiting yourself to mostly long-form content. The first is that, generally, it’s going to involve far more research, nuance, and thought than short-form content. Stupidity in a tweet can sound deep. Stupidity repeated for 12,000 words quickly makes itself apparent.
The second benefit is that it hones our attention span and gets us accustomed to sitting with topics for extended periods of time. It helps us to not fall prey to our immediate knee-jerk responses. It gives us the space to wonder, “What if my assumption is wrong? What if I’m the one with dick breath in this argument?”
The long-form content applies to entertainment, too. Don’t just watch sports clips all day, watch a documentary about your favorite player. Don’t just listen to a hit song over and over, put on the full album. Don’t just play a dinky iPhone game over and over, find a video game you can immerse yourself into and think critically about its elements and story. The idea is to regularly stretch your attention span and exercise it like a muscle.
Step 3: Schedule your diversions
The same way you might plan a “cheat day” or make an agreement with yourself that you’ll only have X number of desserts or Y number of drinks each week, the same goes for your attention. Email should be a consciously chosen activity done at a specific time to maximize its purpose. It’s not something you compulsively refresh every 30 seconds. The same goes for social media.
Below are the guidelines that I try to stick to and are working well in my life. Obviously, everyone’s mileage will vary:
- Email twice per day. I try to limit myself to two email blocks each day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. In the morning session, I only look at and respond to important/urgent emails. In the afternoon, a couple times a week, I’ll clear my whole inbox.
- Use social media for 30 minutes per day. This is a work in progress for me. I’m fine on my work computer; the problem is my phone. I still get caught on the same loops refresh Twitter, refresh Facebook, refresh Instagram, refresh Twitter, and on and on. I recently removed Facebook from my phone (per above guidelines), but Twitter and Instagram still suck me in.
- Leave my phone out of my office during the day and my bedroom at night: I’m good about leaving it out of the office when I need to write. The bedroom is still an issue for me.
Okay, this is all fine and dandy, but how the hell do we hold ourselves to this? How do we actually implement these concepts into our lives in a way that feels sustainable, and not just another willpower exercise doomed to fail?
Step 4: Implementation
In my book Everything is Fucked: A Book About Hope, I redefine freedom as self-limitation. Freedom in the 21st century isn’t about having more, it’s about having the agency to choose your commitments to less.
To achieve that, we need to set boundaries around ourselves. Our minds are too flawed and selfish to be allowed to pursue whatever they want. Instead, we must train our attention with the help of various tools to make sure we’re focusing on the right things.
I’ll talk about three types of tools in this section: website blockers, app blockers, and power outlet timers.
Key to implementing the Attention Diet is installing site blockers on your devices. There are dozens of apps, but here I’ll review a few of the best ones that I’ve used.
Cold Turkey (MacOS/Windows). My favorite app. Probably the most robust with the most features. You can block websites, specific pages, applications, and even specific Google searches.
I love it because it has a scheduler, so you can modify what gets blocked on which days. Let’s say you want Friday afternoon to be your “email” afternoon — you can program that in. Or you can open up everything on Sundays. It’s highly customizable.
Focus (MacOS): More user-friendly than Cold Turkey, but without as many features. Focus saved my ass when I was writing my latest book. When I was on deadline, I got so desperate that I downloaded it and basically blocked everything in my life six days a week for about a month.
Freedom (MacOS/Windows): Beautifully designed and easy to use. Also works on your mobile devices. This is probably the most popular app in this category. The reason I stopped using it is that it’s too easy to get around. Hate to say it, but I can’t be trusted with weak-ass apps that let you close them or turn them off in a bunch of sneaky ways. I need an app that leaves me handcuffed with my work.
Self Control (MacOS): Free and probably the most hardcore app on the list. You load up a list of sites, turn it on, and then you’re stuck. Nothing you do can turn it off until the time runs out. You can restart your computer, uninstall the app, do anything, and it won’t unblock you. It’s evil… in the best way possible.
First, before we get into blocking specific apps or the entire phone, you should go into your settings and disable most/all of your notifications. I don’t care who you are or what you do or what fucking horse you rode in on, notifications are like the secondhand smoke of attention — they give everyone a coughing fit.
Disable both the sound/vibration and the little red circles. You know those circles are red for a reason, right? We unconsciously see them as being urgent and they encourage compulsive clicking to get rid of them.
Once you’ve done that, let’s talk about limiting our app use.
iPhone users have it the easiest, as Apple has started implementing features to let you temporarily block apps from yourself. You can find a guide for how to do it here.
Google’s Digital Wellbeing app for Android accomplishes the same thing, although without as many options as Apple. One thing I do like about Digital Wellbeing is you can set a bedtime for yourself: At that time every night, your phone becomes unusable.
But if you want to customize how and when you can use certain apps, you have to download a third-party app. There are a lot of options, but the best one from what I can tell is aptly called “Help Me Focus.” It has the flexibility to block some apps and not others, and it lets you customize when you block throughout the week.
Okay, this tip is only for those who want to get hardcore (and those who have kids). This idea comes courtesy of my buddy Nir Eyal. When I heard him describe it, I was like, “Damn dude… that’s some next-level shit.”
For about $12 each, you can buy timers for your power outlets. You can then program them to cut off power to whatever is plugged into them at certain times of the day or week. Buy a few of them and put them around the house and you can customize what hours of the day or week your Wi-Fi router works, when your television is usable, when your video game systems will function, and so on.
Ideally, you’ll be so occupied with work and productive stuff during the day that in the evenings, you won’t have to resort to controlling yourself this way. But hey, desperate times call for desperate measures.
I have a tendency to get sucked into video games. I’ve been pretty good about it the past year. But the next time I find myself playing until four in the morning every night, I know this is exactly what I’m going to be using.
Common Objections to the Attention Diet
Objection 1: “But Mark! I’ll be soooo boooreeed.”
I have two responses to this: A) Shut up. And B) no, you won’t.
Remember when you were a kid and you’d lay around on the floor, flailing around, complaining to your mom, “But mooooommm, I’m booooooreeed” and your mom would just kinda shrug and be like, “Well, that’s your problem.”
Usually, the greatest part about being a kid came out of those moments. You’d imagine the sofa as a spaceship and plot how you were going to escape to the backdoor without the evil aliens (in this case, mom) seeing you. Or you’d imagine fantastic creatures and get excited to go draw them. Or you’d wander around outside until you found other bored kids to play with.
They say necessity is the mother of invention. Well, boredom is the father. Every great burst of creativity or action is inseminated with the wiles of boredom. Boredom will fuck your brain until it comes up with something awesome to do. Without realizing it, the constant stimulation of our phones and social media and video games and Netflix series have robbed us of the creative energies of our own boredom. They have stymied our relationships and desires for community — I mean, why go hang out with the neighbors when you can just binge-watch Sex in the City for the eighth time?
Boredom is good. It means you’re challenging yourself. It’s like bicep curls for your mind.
Objection 2: What if I’m missing out!?
I have written in-depth about the experience of FOMO (or, “fear of missing out”) before, but I’ll say it here again, briefly: You are always missing out. You always were and always will be. The question is: What is it that you are choosing to miss out on?
Most of your life, you didn’t care that you were missing out because you either weren’t aware that you were missing out or you were missing out on things you knew didn’t matter to you. Social media fucks up both of those — it makes you aware of everything, and it also gives you the false perception that things are way more important than they are.
The result: constant FOMO.
Eliminate the bullshit social media use and the perception that the things you’re not doing are important and boom, you no longer feel like you’re “missing out” on anything. Ninety percent of the most important experiences in life are right in front of you. And instead of distracting yourself from them, as you have been, the Attention Diet will finally free you to face them.
Objection 3: I should be able to discipline myself to stop using these things.
I’m surprised at how many people say this. It’s a noble intention but unfortunately, completely misguided.
Imagine someone whose goal is to be healthier stocking their fridge with cake, ice cream, and frozen pizzas, and then saying, “It’s okay, I should be able to use my willpower to not eat these things.”
That’s insanity. We are weak creatures. We cave easily. We are totally unaware of our own reasoning and often slaves to our whims. If you’re trying to develop a habit of waking up at 6 a.m., you set an alarm every morning (or maybe two). If you’re trying to develop a habit of calling your parents more often, you put Post-its in your office or add events on your calendar. The dirty little secret of changing your habits is that your environment has far more of an effect than your willpower does.
Before I wrap up, I want to give a shout out to Cal Newport and Nir Eyal. They are leading the 21st-century charge on treating our mental nutrition seriously. Cal published Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Nir wrote Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir is a good friend of mine, and I can attest that he may be the most disciplined and focused person I’ve ever met. The dude just gets shit done. While this article lays out a system that I’ve slowly developed for myself, both of their ideas and writing have been very influential.
Now, come on. Let’s get our shit together… together.